Tourism Korean, part 1

Visitors to Seoul are very likely to encounter at least one of Seodaemun, Namdaemun or Dongdaemun. Even if their tour guide (human, printed or digital) doesn’t tell them, it’s probably possible to figure out that they are the original west great gate, south great gate and east great gate of Seoul. Seo, nam and dong, therefore, are west, south and east. Dae might be great or gate, and mun might be vice versa, but the head of any compound noun is more likely to be in the first or last position, and finding that Gwanghwamun is the main gate of Gyeongbokgung palace firmly points to mun as gate. 

These actually have (or had, in the case of Seodaemun) official names, which are 돈의문 (don-ui-mun), 숭례문 (sung-nye-mun) and 흥인지문 (heung-in-ji-mun) respectively (which are also rendered in hanja (Chinese characters used in Korean), but tourists don’t have to worry about any of that). Seodaemun also refers to a gu (local government area), park and prison, Namdaemun to a market and Dongdaemun to a gu, market, former baseball stadium and design plaza (and I’m sure a lot else each). Bukdaemun (north great gate) (officially 숙정문 (suk-jeong-mun)) exists but is far less known, partly because it is perched in the mountains, a moderate hike from anywhere.

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Fortunately not

A Facebook friend posted some stunning photos of herself and friends hiking in Jirisan National Park. Facebook’s auto-translation of the post included the rather worrying “Cancer is not an option to postpone”. Reading the Korean original and some research allayed my concerns, fortunately. The Korean original is 사성암은 미룰 수 없어요. I know that 암 is used in the names of usually smaller Buddhist monastic establishments, usually translated as hermitage, by far the most famous being 석굴암, Seokguram. But 암 by itself doesn’t mean hermitage any more than 사 by itself means temple

So how did the translator get to cancer? The Korean word for cancer is 암, which I previously didn’t know because it’s not included in Korean for beginners or travellers books. The translator encountered a word it didn’t recognise and instead of simply transliterating it (which it did with several other proper nouns in the post), it guessed that the 암 on the end was the relevant part of the word.

Online translators don’t do much better. Google and Bing offer Sandstone cannot/can’t be postponed and Papago (which I have found to be the more accurate overall) the meaningless I can’t delay tetragonal cancer. But sandstone is 사암; 사성암, if it means anything at all, is four star cancer, compare 삼성, three stars. Even though it was the worst translation overall, Papago at least attempted to translate the whole of 사성암. [PS the next day: I commented on my friend’s post and she replied that 사성암 is ‘four saints hermitage’.]

The bigger issues here are how translators deal with proper nouns, and how they recognise that they are proper nouns. Do they transliterate them (eg 경복궁 as Gyeongbokgung) or (attempt to) translate them (eg as Brilliant Fortune Palace or Greatly Blessed by Heaven Palace, just the first two meanings I found)? I suspect that the more famous a place is, the more it is transliterated rather than translated. (There is a map of world countries giving the literal meaning of their name. I am typing this in Southern Land.)

A related issue is the use of common nouns as names. Two Korean-Australian friends named their first daughter 사랑, so once a year I see photos of “Love’s birthday party”. A Korean friend and his wife named their son 우주, so one post included the startling “I put the universe in the car”. 

Dah dah Dah

Two weekends ago our niece treated us to lunch at a Korean restaurant, for a combination of Australian Mother’s’ Day and Korean Parents’ Day (even though we’re not actually a mother and parents). We were sitting within sight and sound of a medium-sized screen playing K-pop girl groups. I got thinking, not for the first time (for example, the previous time we went to that restaurant) how indistinguishable most of the singers, groups and songs are. At least to me, but that might be because I’m a non-Korean man my age and my general unfamiliarity with K-pop girl groups. I could probably say the same about most current-day US/UK/Australian pop music. No doubt they become more distinguishable with exposure and practice. 

A few days later I was listening a video of songs of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. One song started which I didn’t recognise but could tell that the singer was Neil Diamond. (Don’t judge me!) A moment later …

Sweet Caroline (Dah dah Dah …)

Oh, that one!

But I have no idea how the chorus goes after that, not even the melody and certainly not the words. 

Anyone’s ability to distinguish any music or performers depends on exposure and active, repeated listening. (I tend to listen to music while I’m working, though many classical music videos come with scrolling scores, which I tend to pay more attention to when I’m not working.) Not surprisingly, I’m better at classical music and 1970s US/UK/Australian pop. Two years ago my wife and I were driving in the Blue Mountains. She turned on the radio and I recognised the voice of the presenter (who I know) of Australia’s leading classical music interview/discussion show. He interviewed the author of a book about Beethoven and his milieu and finished with a piece of loud and grand orchestral music. My wife asked me if I knew what it was and I told her Beethoven’s 9th symphony. She said “Are you sure?”. I said “… Yes”.

(A few minutes later) I’ve just listened to Sweet Caroline and realised that I knew the introduction/interlude and vaguely the rest of the chorus, but the verse is still a complete non-memory. I also remembered four chords and originally wrote (da Dah dah Dah).

Related to this is that list videos of No 1/greatest/favourite songs tend to play just the most recognisable part, which is usually the chorus. 

No hugging, no kissing

My opportunities to watch movies online are limited by time, interest and what I can find for free. I have recently watched and blogged about 신부수업 Love so divine (Wikipedia, my blog), 아이엔지 …ing (review, my blog) and 순정만화 Hello schoolgirl (Wikipedia, my blog), and I have just finished watching 엽기적인 그녀 My sassy girl (which I have mentioned but had not watched). The video wasn’t subtitled, so I missed a lot, instead relying on synopses, reviews and commentaries online. Linguistically, the point of interest is that her name is never given; he, her parents and his aunt don’t ever address her by name, despite opportunities to do so.

The other thing I noticed in all four movies was the lack of romantic physical contact – no (or very little) hugging, no (or very little) kissing. I don’t know if this is a general thing in Korean movies. Four is hardly a representative sample. There are reasons in-story – the man in Love so divine is a trainee priest and the women in …ing and Hello schoolgirl and are (final year) high school students (and the men are older) (the two in the former get as far as holding hands but the two in latter don’t even do that, and older beta couple get half a kiss), but the two in My sassy girl are by any definition adults. The question isn’t will they or won’t they, it’s how much and when will they?

But it’s not just those four movies. Others I have seen are 사랑 A love (physically close but kept apart by circumstances), 괴물 The host (a family fighting a mutated monster) and 기생충 Parasite (some, but age and questionable consent).

I don’t know if this is a general trend in Korean movies. I obviously need need more examples one way or the other.

(See TV Tropes’ page on No hugging, no kissing which doesn’t mention Korean movies, and, conversely, The big damn kiss.)

PS I also recently watched 소녀X소녀 Girl x girl, in which their was no romantic contact, just people riding motorscooters together and a lot of low- to medium-level violence. I imagined a very different ending, because further down the search results was ‘Top 10 Korean lesbian movies’ (I’m surprised that there’s that many). I also many years ago watched 웰컴 투 동막골 Welcome to Dongmakgol (note that the Korean title is simply a transliteration of the English), which features two opposing groups of soldiers in a small village, with the only main female character a somewhat simple-minded mid-teen) and 왕의 남자 The king and the clown, in which there’s some contact (but I can’t remember quite how much) between the Joseon-period men.

PPS I have thought of two more movies. The one I’ll mention is 버닝 Burning in which two of the lead characters have rather perfunctory sex together.

“Why aren’t there more fat Koreans?”

When I went to Korea for the first time, I spent several days surviving on convenience store food between going for some meals in restaurants with colleagues, sometimes with their adult students. I knew that I’d have to find a restaurant I could go to by myself and/or cook for myself (which required some planning because I had to buy cookware, crockery and cutlery – my manager provided a very nice studio apartment with bed and pillow, but nothing else). 

Most of the restaurants I could see into had low tables and floor seating, but I found one that had Western-style tables and chairs. The manager placed the menu in front of me, pointed to the first page and said “Rice” (which I could actually see myself), then to the second and said “Dock”. Was that duck or dog? I was afraid to ask, so I said “Rice, please”. She and/or (a) waitress(es) brought out a bowl of plain rice, several bowls of soup and a major array of meat and/or vegetable dishes (I seem to remember 13 – I didn’t record this story in my diary of the time). I got through the rice and halfway through the meat and/or vegetables. At the end of the meal the manager offered me a big cup of shikhye (a sweet rice dessert drink). I first declined, but she wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I forced it down somehow. 

Along the way I discovered that she spoke passable English, having lived in Brisbane, Australia for some time. As I paid and left, I asked “Why aren’t there more fat Koreans?” She said “Oh, is all vegetables, is all healthy”.

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Hello camera

At some time during my first stay in Korea, I watched the movie 순정만화 (sun-jeong man-hwa, pure/romantic comic) rendered in English as Hello schoolgirl (Wikipedia, trailer with English subtitles, full movie with English subtitles). 

I recently posted about the 2003 movie 아이엔지 (a-i-en-ji, …ing, as in the English present participle), in which the high school girl’s mother gives her a mobile phone and she exclaims that she can take pictures, too. In this 2008 movie, the high school girl has a phone already, one of the first things we see her do is take a selfie, and she and the young man are texting and sending photos very soon after. Even without knowing it was from 2008, the slide phones would date it to a year or two. 

In fact, her aim is to own a film camera (필름 카메라), which can’t have been very common by then (I took a small and medium film camera with me in 2006, lost the small one very soon after, bought a digital one and never used the medium one again). While researching for this post, though, I found that film cameras are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, if only toy/disposable cameras available in vending machines. 

I’m posting this soon after lunar new year. Part of the plot is driven by the fact that the young man is 12 years older than the high school girl. He comments that they share the same sign, but nothing is said about whether that’s a good or bad thing.


At some time during my first stay in Korea, I made a Korean name for myself, 음대호 (eum dae-ho), but I rarely use it. At some time during my second stay in Korea, I became aware of the Korean movie Tiger (trailer, wikipedia), but I didn’t watch it then and haven’t since. One of my textbooks had the word for tiger, 호랑이 (ho-rang-i/ho-lang-i), so I assumed that’s what the title was in Korean, but I have recently been reading a lot about Korean movies and discovered that it’s actually 대호 (dae-ho), from 대, great and the first syllable of 호랑이.

Today is the Lunar New Year, which begins the year of the tiger in the zodiacs of China and nearby countries including Korea. But I’m not a tiger. It would have neat if I was, given that I made the name for other reasons. 여라 분 새해 복 많이 받으세요!

Mount Nam

I have posted twice before (and see also) about whether it is better to say or write, for example, Gyeongbokgung, Gyeongbokgung Palace or Gyeongbok Palace. We have more choices with mountains because we can put mount(ain) before or after the name: Namsan, Namsan Mountain, Nam Mountain, Mount Namsan. One possibility I didn’t suggest was Mount Nam, because I’d never encountered it, but recently I did, in a blog I can’t name because I’ve forgotten which of several I’ve been browsing recently it was. For some reason, Mount Nam looks and sounds wrong, but Mount Halla and Mount Seorak look and sound reasonable. It might be that Nam is monosyllabic, but nearby where I went to high school was Mount Brown. 

A movie review mentioned a tv series named Jirisan. Wikipedia’s page on the tv series is named Jirisan (TV series) but refers to Mount Jiri throughout, while its page on the mountain is named Jirisan and refers to Jirisan, except for two fleeting references to ‘Mt. Jiri’. But I shouldn’t (indeed can’t) expect consistency from Wikipedia. 

Ultimately, there’s no ideal solution. The simplest is to use Gyeongbokgung and Jirisan, but using Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jirisan Mountain is more helpful. In fact, the most helpful is “Gyeongbokgung, a palace near the centre of Seoul”, and “Jirisan, a mountain in the south of Korea”, but you wouldn’t want to do that every time. A lot depends on your intended listeners/readers.

A blog post about a Korean movie with a very long title

I have posted before about the ways in which the titles of Korean movies are rendered in English: either the Korean name is retained (Silmido), or the English title is an exact or approximate translation of the Korean (Parasite), or the English title is more or less completely different (The host), or the Korean title is itself a transliteration of English (Oldboy). 

I recently discovered the website, which I first assumed was an official site, but which turned out to be the private site of Darcy Paquet, now best known for his collaboration with director Bong Joon-Ho on the English subtitles for Parasite, assisted by a team of volunteer reviewers. The site gives the title of each movie in Korean and English, but otherwise refers to each by its English title. With some knowledge of Korean, the strategies I listed in the first paragraph can be seen. Sometimes the reviewer discusses the Korean title when it sheds some light on the meaning of the movie. 

The champion in the ‘more different’ category is surely the 2004 movie 어디선가 누군가에 무슨일이 생기면 틀림없이 나타난다 홍반장 (eo-di-seon-ga nu-gun-ga-e mu-seun-il-i saeng-ki-myeon teul-rim-eob-shi na-ta-nan-da hong ban-jang), which is rendered in English as Mr Handy, or Mr Hong, or Mr Handy, Mr Hong, but which translates literally as If something happens to somebody somewhere, he always shows up, Chief Hong. This was the basis for the 2021 tv series Hometown Cha-cha-cha, which I mentioned here (in the PS at the end). ban-jang by itself usually translates as class monitor or class president at a school. Calling him Chief Hong makes it sound like he is the chief of police. Three major translation tools don’t even bother with the last word(s), Google giving If something happens to someone somewhere, it will definitely show up, Bing If something happens to someone anywhere, it will surely appear and Papago If something happens to someone, he will definitely appear