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No more ‘bean curd dregs’ ― Korea to standardize food translations

No more ‘bean curd dregs’ ― Korea to standardize food translations

Culture Ministry looks to release English, Japanese and Chinese guidelines for translation of Korean dishes

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Published : 2013-12-26 19:42
Updated : 2013-12-26 20:33

A bowl of kongbiji jjigae, a stew made with a creamy puree of soaked soybeans, is a traditional Korean dish that restaurants have often mistranslated as “bean curd dregs” or “soybean refuse.” (Korean Bapsang)

It goes without saying that expats living in Korea or international travelers have all experienced the tribulations of going into a Korean restaurant, reading the translated descriptions of the dishes and still having no idea exactly what they ordered.

With the hopes of minimizing these struggles for non-Koreans, the government will soon establish its latest project to release a descriptive guideline on Korean cuisine.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is planning to release an official set of translations of around 200 popular local dishes in English, Chinese and Japanese. The guideline is geared toward helping non-natives have a better grasp of Korean food.

In many cases, internationals may find themselves struggling to understand the Romanization of certain dishes. It is not uncommon for local restaurants to simply print-out menus listing a meal description spelling out the Korean term, such as “mandu” as opposed to “dumplings” or “jjigae” as opposed to “stew.” 

An example of improperly translated Korean menus. (Courtesy of Joe McPherson, ZenKimchi)

And in other cases, especially in seafood restaurants, many menus use the scholastic or scientific terms for certain fish or plants ― names that the general public has probably never heard of.

“I think a guide would be helpful, but I’m not sure how the translations are going to turn out,” said Joe McPherson, founder of the online Korean food journal ZenKimchi. “These guidebooks have been done before. I fear that they will not consult native speakers.”

“There are some challenges in translating some dishes into English. Literal translations either give an inaccurate picture of a dish or make it sound unappetizing. Cultural connotations should also be considered,” he explained. “Kongbiji (a creamy puree of soaked soybeans) is a particularly tough one. I’ve seen it translated as ‘bean curd dregs’ and ‘soybean refuse.’ Both of those sound disgusting.”

Kimchi jjigae is a spicy stew made with kimchi, tofu and slices of pork. The dish has often been unhelpfully described as “kimchi and bean curd soup” or just simply as “spicy Korean stew” in a number of establishments.
(Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)

McPherson, who has been working in the Korean food scene for the past decade, has often come across English translations of certain Korean dishes that were of little to no help. McPherson recalls in his early years in Korea, the issues of ordering dishes were not because of incorrect or confusing translation, rather because there was no translation ― which is still common among many local mom-and-pop restaurants.

The Korean food coinsurer remembers once going to a seafood restaurant with his brother and ordering something that he thought was a plate of fish. He ended up ordering a dish that was “basically a bunch of fish bones.”

McPherson claims that while a standardized guideline may be “more helpful to restaurants,” there are many instances where overly detailed translations may do more harm than good.

“The challenge comes in learning restraint. Not every dish and vegetable needs to be translated,” he said. “Many times the Korean word will suffice. The Japanese didn’t feel the need to call sushi ‘vinegared rice.’”

By Julie Jackson (

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