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404 Error: Understanding not found (Miscommunication in Korean)


Okay, so a little linguistics never hurt anyone. A transference error is when something gets lost in the translation (think old Jackie Chan movies). This superbly hilarious phenomenon is not exclusive to Korean-English, English-Korean but it still is pretty funny nonetheless.

One of my favorites is the whole “our mom” situation. 우리 어머니 is a way of saying “that mother in this context”, “our mother” or “the mother that we both know”. But when you look at it, even a newbie can be thrown off by the context. “What? Our mother? Dude, that’s MY mother!” Good stuff. Why do you know my mom, man? 🙂 How exactly is she your mom, too? Why don’t we have “our” everything?

This is one of those things that just doesn’t translate over well. It’s priceless when a speaker relatively new to the Korean language (like myself) starts to analyze the etymology of words. Sure it doesn’t mean what I think it means (think “brother from another mother” ) but still kind of fun when I think about it. I mean, why not “my mom”?

I also like the /p/ and /f/ relationship. Sejong thought it would be a good idea to put them together like PB&J. “Yeah, so let’s kill two birds with one stone – put them both into /ㅍ/ to entertain and confuse millions of foreigners in the process.” Thanks a lot revered King Sejong… So when I grab a “pork” what am I really grabbing? A “fork”? What about the “pool house”? Oh, the “full house”!

Song HyeGyo
While we’re at it, how about that whole /l/ and /r/ ambiguity? I know the joke has been beaten into the ground but I still have a friend that says something along the lines of “light now we eat lice”. You should hear her read the book “Rain Rain Go Away” to the kids she teaches. Great stuff.

Not all mistranslations are character based. Many are misuses of certain vocabulary terms. The other day, I pulled out a small notepad out of my pocket to write down a phone number of a new friend. She giggled and said in English “Wow, that’s so analog!” I knew what she meant – a digital PDA is a bit more appropriate for the college crowd here in 2008. But I like my little notepad, it serves its purpose. But she wasn’t exactly wrong, but still it seemed a bit strange.

I also like how the word “약속” is translated into “appointment” instead of “plans”. I know that there is a word for plans but “약속” is much more commonly used. But it still kind of cracks me up inside to hear in English “I cannot meet you tomorrow; I have an appointment” Really? Doctor or dentist :)? Native speakers don’t really use the word “appointment” for anything other than business and medical visits. Why not just say “I can’t meet you tomorrow; I have plans”?

Here’s another word I love: “okay”. Seoulites like this word and we like it too. However, not everyone I know uses it the way it should be used. A common translation of “괜찮아요” is “is it okay?” or “are you okay?”. However, when it is used like “you can do this, okay?” it seems too direct. The other day I heard “He is a friend and you can call him, okay?” 🙂 I couldn’t help but think “I don’t know, you tell me, is it okay to call him? Will I be okay?” I’m never sure what to say back to that.

I really like this phrase that my friend says a lot “Oh~ I am so stress” It makes me smile every time.


I must be fair, we have some strange things about English. We say “I am going to take a test” but really, we don’t steal the test and take it with us – we just write on the paper and turn it in. Koreans say “I look at a test” which actually makes a bit more sense. Also, in English we say “I want to spend time with you” but really, we don’t literally own time in the same way we own money. I can’t really “spend” time on anything.
Also, something in English that is literally untranslatable  deals with the bathroom. We say “I need to take a <fill in the action of choice>” but really, we don’t take it. We leave it there – Oh man…This blog just went from bad to worse.

I kid around because I like how we can strive for one thing and end up messing up terribly. I’m pretty sure one of my friends in Korea is writing in her blog on just how much I make her laugh – and not the kind that you want to take home and marry – the kind you want to put on stage with a tutu on while balancing on a ball – that type of laugh.

Matthew speaking Korean badly

All I can say is that I could really go for some wapples light now, okay?