You Only Have 5 Resource Options for Translating Korean

Do you need to translate Korean? Do you want a free resource? Or do you require good work and are you willing to pay for it? There are five basic types of Korean translation provider.  This guide presents a framework for choosing the right one. By making a good decision up-front, you will enjoy a productive translation experience in the Korean language.

1. Multi-language translation agency

Multi-language agencies translate documents, web sites, and other materials into and out of many different languages. They provide their services by contracting the translation of each language out to freelance translators and translation teams specializing in individual languages. Of course, if you need someone to translate Korean for you, these agencies will be glad to accept your job. Then, they will contract with an outside Korean translation professional to do the work, and deliver it back to you when finished.

Large agencies specialize in coordinating the translation process on complex multi-lingual projects between subcontracted freelance translators and specialist agencies. As a result, they deliver value primarily through the project management process and are not a good option for simple jobs.

When working with a multi-language translation agency, it is likely that no one in the agency speaks the project language (especially for languages like Korean). Therefore, the agency will act as a middleman in the process between you and the actual translator. As a result, you will pay a higher price, and you probably won’t be able to communicate with the translation team directly.

On large, complex multi-lingual jobs, you should work with a multi-language agency. Doing so will let you take advantage of the coordination services they provide on these projects. Your project to translate Korean will also benefit from the broad resources they have developed for doing good work in individual languages. On the other hand, if you only need to translate Korean, a multi-language translation agency may not be your best option.

ADVANTAGES: Able to handle complex multi-language projects.
DISADVANTAGES: Highest pricing. Client and translator cannot communicate directly.

2. Single-language boutique agency

Many translation agencies specialize in one or two languages and language pairs (e.g., English to Korean or Korean to English). These boutique firms offer a competitive quality-and-service-to-price ratio but are limited in their language reach. On the other hand, project managers at small agencies are often fluent in some or all of the languages their agency handles. They can answer client questions, perform deeper quality control, and competently select skilled translators (usually individual, professional translators, described below). If you hire a boutique agency to translate Korean for you, you still may not be able to communicate directly with your translator. However, the project manager can answer your questions, providing a higher level of service.

If you only need to translate Korean (either English to Korean or Korean to English), you should consider a specialist agency. But remember that the agency will charge a margin on the work they sub-contract out to individual translators. As with multi-language agencies, this higher rate includes a project management cost over and above the price charged by the translator, editor, and other resources working on your project.

Boutique agencies enjoy another major advantage over multi-language agencies on jobs within a single language pair (e.g., English and Korean). They can build a much richer resource database with just a couple languages than a large agency can do in 100s of language! Thus, a specialist agency draws from a large pool of experts in diverse fields, such as law, medicine, computers and technology, business management, literature, advertising and more. Single-language agencies cull and trim their databases through direct quality control. This way, clients can expect high-quality output for translation projects in difficult technical fields.

ADVANTAGES: Able to provide high-quality translation across a wide range of disciplines. Direct client communications with a knowledgeable project manager. Less expensive than multi-language agencies.
DISADVANTAGES: Only handle projects between English and one or a few other languages.

3. Individual professional translator

Working with an individual professional Korean translator to translate Korean is an excellent option for many Korean translation projects. This approach gives you control over who translates your documents. You can also interact directly with that person throughout the process. You even cut out the agencies and their margins. Working with an individual professional translator offers the potential for lower prices and better service at the same time!

However, this option makes you responsible for the project management aspects of the job. You have to select from the many professional translators and make sure you choose someone who is skilled at their craft, competent in the subject of your materials, and available and committed to doing a good job. Just because a translator says he or she will do a good job, how can you know? If you don’t speak Korean, how will you judge whether your English-to-Korean translation has been translated well? Working with an agency, you would trust them to make the right decisions, but on your own, it all comes down to you.

Many companies, law firms, and individuals have good experiences working with individual translators. In fact, due to pricing pressures in the agency market, some of the best translators only work with direct clients. Thus, you would not get the work of some of the best translators if you were dealing with an agency. Establishing a long-term relationship with a linguist you know and trust offers the best of all outcomes: great work, excellent service, and competitive rates. If you have a lot of work within a single language pair and subject matter, you should usually look for an individual professional, rather than an agency.

However, don’t forget that working with individuals means there are fewer backup mechanisms in place to ensure quality, service, and availability. What do you do if your translator is on vacation when you need work done urgently? During candidate screening, make sure you determine up-front the fields in which the translator is strong. A translator should also be transparent about his or her qualifications, experiences, and availability. In addition, your translator needs to be willing to turn down work that he or she is not qualified to translate.

ADVANTAGES: Able to provide high-quality translation between English and one other language. Direct client communications.
DISADVANTAGES: Can only translate between English and one other language in a limited number of areas of expertise.

4. Bilingual friend, acquaintance, or co-worker who can translate Korean

For translation of personal letters, to get the main points of a magazine article in Korean, or for other similar jobs to translate Korean, you may consider people in your network who speak both English and Korean. Working informally like this, you can get work done cheaply on friendly terms. You’ll also help someone earn extra pocket money, too. It’s a win-win situation for both of you.

However, merely speaking Korean and English does not make someone a competent translator. Indeed, becoming a skilled Korean translation professional takes years of effort. (I’ve been at it for over twenty years!) Thus, if your documents are important or difficult, you should be careful about turning them over to someone in whom you do not have confidence. I encourage you to consider carefully whether you should set aside a budget to hire a professional. Still, in a pinch, the right friend can be a valuable resource.

ADVANTAGES: Friendly and familiar, and potentially lowest prices.
DISADVANTAGES: Unproven ability to translate well and quickly in technical fields.

5. Machine translation

Internet-based free translation services take plain text, documents, and web pages in one language and “translate” them into another. Over the years, the technology has improved, and today machine translation (also called MT) tools often provide translations that seem quite good. Google Translate is the most popular, but it is not the only machine translation program that can translate Korean.

However, MT should be used only to get the gist of a document and not for understanding essential details. Even the latest machine translation versions often produce written output that is difficult to understand; sometimes it is completely wrong. Less-than-ideal machine translations are the result of the inherent complexity of human language. While some in the industry say we are getting ever closer to perfect machine translation, others caution that without understanding text at a basic level, machine translation is unlikely to achieve perfection any time soon.

If you use machine translation, you should edit your original document down to simpler sentences and words in advance. Doing so will increase the chances that your output will be usable and contribute to effective communications. Still, you must never take an important English business letter, shoot it through MT, and then send it off. The potential for errors and misunderstandings (or even complete nonsense) is high.

DISADVANTAGES: “Get-what-you-pay-for” quality


Each of the options above describes a class of translation approaches that you have access to. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages and you must be wise in your selection so that you get the best balance of value based on your budget, schedule, and quality requirements.

Steven Bammel

Steven S. Bammel is president and chief translator/consultant at Korean Consulting & Translation Service, Inc. A graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington (B.B.A. Economics) and Hanyang University (M.S. Management Strategy), Steven has worked for over twenty years in Korean business and translation. | more about Steven

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