Foreigners often point out that there are many awkward English expressions on Korean street signs, temple guideposts and restaurant menus. Surprised by the numerous mistakes, foreign residents and tourists may wonder if Koreans have invented their own version of English. The truth is that when composing something in English, Koreans tend to rely extensively on the Korean-English dictionary, which can be unreliable at times. Or oftentimes, Korean is translated directly into English, without consideration for cultural differences, nuances or colloquial expressions. Even worse, Koreans seldom ask native speakers to proofread or edit their English.
Even at prime universities in Seoul, one can find misspelled “Konglish” signboards that foreigners find difficult to understand. For example, a caf at a university in Seoul displays a hilarious signboard that says “coffee burn” instead of “coffee bun.” Another embarrassing typo says that the caf sells “crap burgers,” meaning “crab burgers.” At the central library of a first-rate university in Korea, one can find an awkward stipulation at the entrance: “You can possess writing tackles, books, laptop and the bag which one side size maximum 22cm.” The sign probably means: “You can bring into the library writing utensils, books, laptops and bags which do not exceed 22 centimeters in size.”
English translations on the menu of Korean restaurants are much worse. The “I lobe Konglish” page on Facebook lists a host of humorous translations found on restaurant menus with photos as proof. For example, “omma son mat cheong guk jang,” which should be translated as, “mother’s homemade soybean stew,” is written incoherently as, “mother hand tasty director of a bureau.” A foreigner may wonder, “How can I eat ‘director of a bureau?’” Most people must be puzzled by the carnivorous title. This silly mistake can be traced to the fact that in Korean, “stew (guk jang)” is pronounced the same as “bureau director.”
Another inscrutable food title is “green pea jelly vegetable nothing needle (cheongpo mook yachae moochim),” which should be instead, “green pea jelly salad.” One may wonder again, “What is this ‘nothing needle?’ How can I eat needles anyway?” In the Korean language, the word “moochim” means “to season food with ingredients and spices.” Separately, however, “moo” means “nothing” and “chim” means “needles.” According to the menu, you will be served a dangerous dish. Compared to such a translation, “cool cold noodle (siwon han naeng myon)” sounds rather cute.
Preposterous English food translations include “lacquer poison chicken broth with ginseng (hanbang samgye tang).” Customers will surely be intimidated by this poisoned chicken dish that may threaten their lives. In fact, this dish, which should be translated to “boiled chicken with ginseng” or “chicken stew with ginseng,” is not dangerous at all, but very good for your stamina. The popular Korean dish, “seafood and green onion pancake (haemool pajeon)” is not safe from Konglish either: one menu calls the pancake a “marine products green onion pancake.” Another dish called “cocktail of pan-fried food (modeum pajeon)” should simply be translated to, “assorted seafood and green onion pancake.”
Examples of embarrassing translations could seemingly go on forever. For example, instead of “cabbage and beef stew (ugoji tang),” a menu says rather complicatedly, “broth of outer leaves of cabbage and beef.” And “assorted grilled fish (modeum saengsun gooi)” is confusingly rendered as “macro fish-baking proper form.” Perhaps one of the funniest translations is “mountain not yet the pebble pot boiled rice with assorted mixtures (sanchae dolsot bibimbab),” which should be “assorted mountain vegetables and rice mixed in a hot pot.” In the Korean language, “sanche” means “mountain vegetables.” When you separate it into two words, however, “san” means “mountain” and “chae” means “not yet.” So the funny name must have resulted from a word-for-word translation of Korean into English.
The list of funny food names is endless. For example, one cannot help but burst into laughter when seeing the following on a menu: “roast meat common octopus beef with vegetables cooked in casserole (bulgogi nakji jeon gol).” What could that possibly be? It is hard to understand at first, but it simply means, “beef and octopus stew.” Another inscrutable name is: “recuperation charcoal pebble thin sliced barbecued beef (boyang sik sootdol bulgogi).” The word “boyang sik” means “food good for one’s stamina” in Korean, rather than “recuperation.” So the dish could be called, “charcoaled beef for boosting stamina.” Sometimes, Korean restaurants use scientific names on the menu, such as “grilled codonopsis lanceolata (deodeok gooi).” But how can ordinary people recognize the botanical names of vegetables?
There are funny Konglish translations of items other than food, too. For example, Koreans call a blender a “mixer.” When someone vomits, Koreans say, “He is overeating,” confusing vomiting with overeating. During sports games, Koreans cheer their team on by shouting, “Fighting!” when native speakers of English would holler, “Go team, go!”
Translating one’s language into a foreign language requires cultural understanding and appreciation for context and nuance. Instead of relying on translation software or the dictionary, we should ask a native speaker to proofread our English. Otherwise, Konglish will continue to prevail in our society.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon, a professor of English at Seoul National University, is president of the Association of Korean University Presses. ― Ed.