Translating Common Korean Idioms for Daily Use

Idioms are believed to be wisdom passed from one generation to another. It is also one way to describe a situation creatively. It adds a lot of dynamic and creative elements to keep the writing style from being stale or boring. Korean idioms (속담) are used in creative writing, such as literature, webtoon, manhwa, and children’s storybooks. Therefore, it is essential to translate Korean idioms without losing their meaning. 

Scholars have debated the origin of the Korean language for decades. Some argued that it came from a singular source, while others claimed it originated from different sources. Despite the arguments, one thing is for sure, Korea’s writing system, hangul (한글), was established in 1443 by King Sejong of the Yi Dynasty. Before this, Korea used Chinese characters for writing; however, these characters are not sufficient to denote Korean speech. Thus, hangul was established.

Language is a finicky thing. Not all languages work the same way. Some words in some languages are untranslatable to certain languages. Idioms are one a different level of translation as well. 

Here are some of the common but difficult to translate Korean idioms!

  1. 배보다 배꼽이 더 크다 (Your belly button is bigger than your belly)

This is usually used in a situation where the costs outweigh the benefits. For example, if you’re ordering food delivery and the delivery fee is much higher than the food’s price, it doesn’t seem worth it to purchase food when more than half of what you are paying is the delivery fee. Another example is when you bring your gadget for repair, and the repair costs are much more expensive than buying a brand new one. It will be better to buy a new one instead of paying for the repair costs. The English translation does not convey the same message as the original. However, this is an idiom that we can almost always use every day.

  1. 우물 안 개구리 (A frog in a well)

This idiom pertains to a person who limits their knowledge to their surroundings. This idiom is used negatively to describe a narrow-minded person who only thinks about their surroundings but disregards the bigger picture. Some use the English expression “A big fish in a small pond” to describe the Korean idiom, but they are not the same. The English phrase usually refers to a famous person in a small town but nobody in the big city. They think highly of themselves even when, in reality, they are not, while the Korean idiom refers mainly to a person’s perspective of things. 

  1.  원숭이도 나무에서 떨어진다 (Even monkeys can fall from the trees)

This one is a reminder that nobody is perfect. Even experts make mistakes. This one is an idiom that everyone agrees with regardless of the language. It’s okay to make mistakes; what’s important is what you do after that. There’s only one way when you’re at the bottom; up.

  1. 공자 앞에서 문자 쓴다 (Write a letter in front of Confucius)

The literal English translation of the Korean idiom does not give that much information about meaning of it. This translated Korean idiom refers to a person who acts as if they know everything in front of an expert despite knowing only a little bit. It doesn’t have a connection with Confucius. Instead, it is used as sarcasm toward a person who pretends to be wise about the topic despite knowing less than the audience. 

  1. 고래 싸움에 새우 등 터진다 (When whales fight, the shrimp’s back is broken)

For this one, the literal translation will make you think about the correlation between the whale and the shrimp. However, this translated Korean idiom says that the smaller ones get hurt when two strong figures fight. According to Andersen (2021),  Koreans usually use this idiom to describe their social climate amidst bigger and more powerful countries surrounding them. There is a huge chance that when two superpowers clash, innocent people will be on the receiving end instead of the ones in power.

CCC offers creative translation and localization

Translating Korean idioms to the English language can be meticulous and complex. However, it is essential to use proper translation because we want to maintain the beauty and the culture rooted in the language. Korean translation, no matter how hard it is, will always be a way to get your message across without losing the original’s creative touch and nuisance. It’s just picking the right translation company for your needs.

CREATIVE CONNECTIONS & COMMONS INC. values creativity and accuracy in translation. CCC covers a wide range of multilingual translation services: books, webtoon, textbooks, articles, manuals, and more. In addition, our translation process involves translation, checking, and proofreading/finalization. With ten years of experience under our belt, we assure you that your project will be in good hands.

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