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”. 


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


In a comment to a recent post, I mixed up the Korean words 색 (saek, colour) and 책 (chaek, book). Two words which I often mix up are 의사 (ui-sa, doctor) and 의자 (chair). Of course I can tell the difference between colours and books, and doctors and chairs in real life (but maybe a doctor is chairing a meeting!), but the words kind of look the same. In fact, the consonant letters of the Korean alphabet were designed to illustrate the connections between the sounds they represent. They are (with their most common transliterations):

ㅁ m ㅂ b ㅍ p

ㄴ n ㄷ d ㅌ t 

ㅇ ng ㄱ g ㅋ k

ㅅ s ㅈ j ㅊ ch ㅎ h 

(Annoyingly, Korean typewriter/computer keyboards don’t advantage of these patterns. My Korean typing is very slow.) (Compare the IPA chart.)

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smucky translators

A Facebook friend wrote

얀센 백신 접종 3일 차! 
주사 맞는 순간 조금 뻐근한거 말곤 일정들도 다 소화하고 아주 무탈하다. 감사할 일~

Facebook’s autotranslator provided:

Yansen vaccine Graded work car!
The moment when the injection is a bit of a bit of a bit of a bit of a bit of a bit of a bit of Something to be thankful for ~

Bing got closer:

Janssen vaccination day 3! 
The moment you get the shot, you’re a little bit smucky, and you’re digesting all the schedules and it’s very, very hearty. What to thank…

I would question why it has smucky in its dictionary. Apparently it means sweaty and yucky (Urban Dictionary and azdictionary, which also seems to be a user-contributed dictionary), but wouldn’t that be swucky? (Pages for Mac autocorrected it to sucky, which doesn’t help.) 

Papago (associated with Naver) has: 

Jansen’s third day of vaccination!
Aside from being a little stiff at the moment of the injection, I digest all the schedules and feel very free. Something to be thankful for~

Between them, I get the idea, but they’ve obviously all got problems, which I’m not going to get to the bottom of at 10 pm on a public holiday Monday before going back to work tomorrow. I have no idea where to start with all of that. I might start using Papago more often, though.

(By the way, Jans(s)en is Johnson & Johnson. The closest transliteration to my pronunciation is 전슨.)

PS I have no idea how autotranslators work or how to improve them.

PPS Smucky may become my all-purpose insulting adjective, alongside the nouns smuck or smuckiness and the verb smuck. (Smuck you, you smucky/smucking piece of smuck!)

Resurrection Day

Last year I posted about my firm belief that yesterday and today are Easter Eve and Easter Day respectively. I drafted most of the following post, then actually re-read last year’s post and found that I said most of this in last year’s post. But I’ll post this anyway.

I have long pondered the use in English of the pagan-derived Easter instead of anything actually Christian. After researching this, I found that this is an issue in only two languages: English, which uses Easter, and German, which uses Ostern. Even the closely related Dutch and Danish use Pasen and påske respectively. These, as well as the equivalent words in most other European languages, are derived from New Testament Greek Πάσχα pascha, Aramaic, פסחא paskha and Hebrew פֶּסַח pesaḥ (most often transliterated as pesach), or passover. But using pascha, pesach or passover is going to cause more problems that it solves.

English-speaking Christians in particular can’t complain that Easter has become a secular, commercial food-and-drink-fest when we deliberately and habitually call it by the name of a pagan fertility goddess. I was flipping through a 172-page supermarket magazine and saw one full-page ad headed Celebrate Easter. It doesn’t mention Jesus’s resurrection; it was for a cheese company and featured an undoubtedly sumptuous cheese, fruit and chocolate platter. 

A few European languages unrelated words: Wikipedia lists (Indo-European Slavic) Czech Veliknoce (Great Night), Bulgarian Великден (Velikden) and Macedonian Велигден Veligden (Great Day) and (non-Indo-European Hungarian, húsvét (taking the meat, that is, the end of the Lenten fast) and Finnish language Pääsiäinen, “which implies ‘release’ or ‘liberation’”.

If I can trust Google Translate, many non-European languages use either a transliteration of Easter (Japanese  イースター Īsutā), pascha (Amharic ፋሲካ fasīka (I presume directly, given the long history of Christianity in Ethiopia) and (?) Malagasy Paka (I presume borrowed from French, given the colonial history and prevalence of Christianity there)) or their own words for resurrection  + day (Chinese  復活節 (trad) 复活节 (simp) fùhuó jié and Korean 부활절 buhwaljeol (I assume that Korean borrowed the word from Chinese in the same way that English takes most of its specialised vocabulary from Latin and Greek)). There are also a number of languages where the meaning is not immediately discernible. They are possibly related to resurrection.

I asked my wife if 부활 is used only in the religious sense and she said yes. I then said that in English resurrection is sometimes used about an actor or singer who was very popular, then not popular, then is beginning to be popular again, and she said that it’s used like that, too.

[PS A niece who is an English-speaking member of an Orthodox church and second-language speaker of Scottish Gaelic linked to a Twitter thread of speakers of various Great British languages or varieties discussing various words and phrases they use based on Pasch, Pascha or Pace, so it does happen. Wikipedia mentions the Pace egg play, and see also the Egg dance. The Pace eggs found in Sydney supermarkets are named after the (?Maltese) family-run company which produces them.]

Biblical gramma

I occasionally attempt to learn some biblical Greek. During my last burst, I spotted three slightly related words. 

The first is μαθητής mathetes (singular), μᾰθηταί mathetai (plural). In any other context, this would be translated as learner, student, follower or adherent, usually of a philosopher or rhetorician, but in biblical translations, it is usually translated as disciple (from Latin discipulus).  

The second is απόστολος apostolos (singular), απόστολοι apostoloi (plural); not surprisingly, apostle. This means one who is sent (ἀπό-, apó-, from + στέλλω, stéllō, I send). The closest Latin word is delegate (dē-, from + lēgātus chosen, selected, appointed), and I can’t think of any Germanic word except sendee, which Pages for Mac and WordPress both red-underline. (There is an old joke that an epistle is the wife of an apostle. One of my first linguistic musings was why epistle had an ‘i’ while apostle had an ‘o’. I later found out that the words are not e + pistle and a + postle but epi + stle and apo + stle.)   

The third is γραμματέας grammateas (singular), γραμματείς grammateis (plural), which is not related to grammar in the modern sense but to writing (γράμμα grámma) (compare Latin scrībō). Originally, it was anyone who wrote for a living, but in biblical terms is a scribe of the religious law (Hebrew סוֹפֵר sofér).

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A travel video blogger’s video contained a brief shot of a can of Sprite, labelled in hangeul as 스프라이트 (seu-peu-ra-i-teu). So one syllable of English becomes five syllable blocks (jamo) of hangeul. There are three reasons for this. 

The first is that the phonotactics of Korean do not allow for initial consonant clusters. The s and p must be extracted to their own syllable, completed with the most neutral vowel ㅡ (eu). This is not quite as reduced as the English schwa, but performs many of the same tasks. 

The second is that there is no single letter corresponding to the English vowel in Sprite, but it can be approximated by using ㅏ and ㅣ. Compare the IPA symbol /aɪ/, which clearly shows that the English vowel is a diphthong. I know of two Korean words which use this combination of vowels: 아이 (a-i, child) and 아이고 (a-i-go, approximately ‘gosh!’, most often used by middle-aged women).

The third is that only a few consonants can occur at the end of a syllable. While ㅌ occurs at the end of 밑 (mit, bottom), this is rare, and as far as I know is never used in transliterations of English words. So the t must also be extracted to its own syllable. Whenever you see a long string of Korean syllables, with the first and last containing ㅡ, it is almost certainly a transliteration of an English word. Some common English loanwords are 스트레스 (seu-teu-re-seu, stress) and 스포츠 (seu-po-cheu, sport(s)). 

I can’t remember seeing Sprite in Korea; the ubiquitous soft drink is Chilsung cider.

There is considerable variation in the names for carbonated soft drinks in English. To me, in standard Australian English, the neutral/slightly lemony drink is lemonade, the distinctly lemony drink is lemon squash or squash (sometimes with real lemon (which might be called traditional lemonade, sometimes only with flavouring), and cider is apple unless otherwise specified (eg pear cider). Other terms include soda, soda pop, pop, coke and cola. There is also soda water, which I would categorise separately. Koreans also use ade and chino either by themselves or attached to part of other drinks.

Hangang River

Some time ago I posted about whether it is better to write Gyeongbokgung, Gyeongbokgung Palace or Gyeongbok Palace. Ultimately, there’s no best solution. The literal transliteration of 경복궁 is Gyeongbokgung, but that does not provide foreigners with the important information that it’s a palace. Probably the best solution is to write Gyeongbok Palace, but in my experience, very few people do, along with Nam Mountain, but compare the very common Han River. Gyeongbokgung Palace is, strictly speaking, tautologous (also known as ‘repeating the same thing twice), but it has the advantage of including the full Korean name plus the fact that it’s a palace.

The Korea Herald has an article about the guide book published by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the National Institute of Korean Language for the use of those who are producing foreign-language signs and promoting Korea abroad. It recommends the use of, for example, Hangang River. 

It refers to the “translation” of Korean words. But the translation of 한강 is Great River. The transliteration is Hangang. I don’t know if there’s an official word for 한강 > Hangang River, but I will use the word rendering.  

The article links to the institute’s website, but it’s all in Korean, so I can’t give you any more information from it. 

At some time, my wife expressed great surprise when I told her that Namsan means “South Mountain”. She claimed that it is just the name of the mountain and doesn’t mean anything. But in any other context, Nam means south: Hamhae (the South Sea) is south of the peninsula, and Chungcheongnam-do, Gyeongsangnam-do and Jeollanam-do are south of Chungcheongbuk-do, Gyeongsangbuk-do and Jeollabuk-do respectively (and are sometimes rendered as South Chungcheong/Chungcheong South etc). Further, Namsan Seoul (I guess I should be writing Namsan Mountain Seoul) just happens to be south of Seoul, Namsan Gyeongju just happens to be south of Gyeongju and Bukansan Seoul just happens to be north of Seoul. Coincidence? I think not.


I’ve had travel on my mind recently, because my wife and I were planning to go to Korea for Chusok (1 October) then on to Europe for several weeks. All of that’s been put on hold for the foreseeable future, but to satisfy my travel bug, I was watching various amateur videos of people hiking in Seoraksan national park in South Korea’s Gangwon province. These videos vary in quality. One vlogger pronounces Seoraksan as ‘See-or-aksan’, but immediately qualifies that with “I think that’s how you say it”. It’s not. ㅓ eo is one vowel, approximately the same as the first syllable of sorry.

But this is not immediately obvious. Indeed, the transliteration of ㅓ is one of the major criticisms of Revised Romanisation. Can I blame a random vlogger for mispronouncing one place name? I shouldn’t. This was their first vlog from South Korea, but they are obviously experienced travellers and had presumably already passed through Incheon airport and Seoul, which use the same letter. It’s not quite as bad as pronouncing Thailand as Thigh-land or a major tourist destination there as Fuck-it

(Pages for Mac doesn’t like vlogger or vlog, changing them to blogger and blog each time, and red-underlining them when I change them back. (WordPress also red-underlines them.) I don’t like those words either, but the videographic travellers in question use them themselves. (Pages and WordPress also don’t like videographic.))

Korean names

Today is the birthday of my wife’s youngest niece, which gives me the chance to talk about Korean given names. That niece and her two older sisters share the first syllable of their given name (현, hyeon or hyun). Traditionally, all (or most) Koreans shared the first syllable of their given name with their siblings and male-line cousins. In modern times, this is less systematically followed. Of my wife’s siblings, her two oldest sisters share the same first syllable (보, bo) (but in Korean style, she only ever refers to them as ‘first sister’ and ‘second sister’), but then she and her third (older) sister don’t. (She and the second and third sister share their second syllable, so their names can be summarised as AB, AC, DC and EC.) Then her two younger brothers share the same first syllable (도, do), which is different from any of their sisters’.

The first sister’s two daughters have the first syllable (은, eun – very common in modern-day Korea), which is different than any of their parents, aunts, uncles or cousins. I can’t actually tell them apart. They look different enough but I haven’t spent enough time with them individually, only ever seeing them at Soellal and Chusoek,* when everyone was milling around. Likewise with their husbands. Three of the second sister’s four children (all boys, I think – we had the least to do with them) have the same but different first syllable (which I have recorded in English as sung, which might be 성, seong or 승, seung (the son of one of them definitely has 승)). The third sister’s daughter and son have first syllables different from each other and any of their cousins. But all of those probably get their names from their fathers’ sides of their families. 

Most relevant are the children of my wife’s two brothers, who traditionally would have the same first syllable. But they don’t. The three daughters of the older younger brother have the same first syllable (현, hyeon or hyun), while the daughter and son of the youngest brother have the same but different first syllable (하, ha). In fact, the daughter has a name which is more typically a boy’s name, and the son has a name which is more typically a girl’s name (but not exclusively so in each case). On the last Soellal I was in Korea, I had a Korean tutorial book with many sample sentences which used his name, but the person in the book was a girl. When they were younger, the first and second daughters were very similar, but by the time I went back to Korea they had developed in different ways and I can easily tell them apart now.

On the other hand, two of my sisters have names which are similar but distinct to English speakers, but my wife initially had trouble remembering who was who until she came to Australia and met them. It helps that they live in different states.

* One of my colleagues, also married to a Korean woman, was astounded that I would willingly spend time with my wife’s family in the absence of my wife, but I quite like them, even allowing for the fact that we can barely communicate (or possibly because of it).