Korean Translation Tip: Watch Out for Verb Ending Inconsistencies

If you're expecting identical English text to be always translated the same way into Korean, you're in for a big surprise.

There can be meaning-related factors involved too, but this tip explains how structural context influences the verb endings used in written Korean. This means that occasionally, the same English source sentence may even need to be translated different ways at different places within the same document!

I'd like to share a (very) short grammar lesson to introduce this and then I'll get on to the practical applications quickly.

In modern, formal, written Korean, there are three standard ways of ending sentences. The following examples show sentence endings with the "do" verb in declarative, interrogative and imperative cases, respectively.

  • Personal (합니다./합니까?/하십시오.) – This form is often used in marketing pieces, business letters and other written communication where the writer is trying to create a personal connection with the reader in some way. 
  • Impersonal (한다./한가?/해라.) – The impersonal approach is common for technical manuals, contracts, legislation, patents, academic papers and newspaper articles where the connection between the writer and reader is not relevant to the content. In this form, when instructions are given, such as in manuals, the declarative form is typically used rather than the imperative form. There would also be few question marks in this type of writing.
  • Abbreviated (하기/한가/해라) – Bullet points and subjects lines frequently use this form. Ending punctuation is often not required, even for questions.

Of course, the above run-down skips over many nuances, complications and exceptions. It doesn't include verb endings that imply a more oral tone, nor does it cover honorifics and other tags and techniques to show respect, not to mention old forms of Korean that are still commonly found in religious texts and historical dialogue.

The decision between personal and impersonal writing styles is often made at the document level and the choice is somewhat subjective. The most important point here is that it should be applied consistently throughout.

However, occasionally a document is composed of an alternating mix of impersonal information and sets of personalized instructions for the reader (such as a collection of medical marketing brochures we translated recently). In this case, it may be necessary to confirm the context of each sentence before choosing which ending to use, in order to maximize the impact on the reader. Also, sentences that appear both as subject headings or bullet points and within the main text may need to be written differently within the document, depending on the structural context.

Korean Translation Tip #1 - Don't expect absolute consistency of verb endings in documents, especially those with a mix of prose, titles/subtitles, bullet points, tables and/or diagrams. But do expect consistency within and between sections of each written form. 

Korean Translation Tip #2 - When working in Korean, it is often a good idea to allow multiple target translations for a single source segment when setting up a translation memory in a CAT tool (e.g. Trados Studio, memoQ).

Korean Translation Tip #3 – This lesson also provides a basis for dealing with some types of client feedback. If a client reviewer complains that a Korean translation is too "stiff," changing to the personal style can often solve the problem. Likewise, a translation rated as too "friendly" can be made more impersonal by switching back the other way.

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