The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] You should seek advice from a professional

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : June 6, 2017 - 17:37

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When they put up English signboards or use English expressions, Koreans seldom consult with native speakers of English. As a result, awkward English expressions are rampant throughout Korea. Do they think their English is good enough not to need any proofreading or do they not care about using awkward expressions?

“Korea passing” is a good example. Korean reporters and politicians have used this dubious expression when they wanted to point out that Korea was passed over when the United States discussed Korea-related issues only with China and Japan, or US high-ranking government officials visited only the other two countries, without stopping here. In Seoul, S. Bus Company flashes a sign on the back of their buses, “S. Traffic Service.” Recently, a Korean photographer captioned the photos of Korean descendants he took in Central Asia as “The Deportation of Korean-Russians to Central Asia.” He should have written “Relocation” or “Diaspora,” instead of “Deportation.”

Oftentimes, Koreans do not seem to realize the meaning of English idiomatic expressions they use, much to the amusement of native English speakers. As our new administration promised to reopen the Kaesong industrial park during the election campaign, Americans called it the “Moonshine Policy,” which was obviously a parody of the “Sunshine Policy” of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. The problem is that, not knowing the connotation of it, the supporters of the policy have since adopted it and are now using the term widely and officially.

“Moonshine” is American slang for “foolish talk or ideas.” Indeed, Americans might say, “Whatever he said, it was moonshine.” Moonshine is also the name of strong homemade corn liquor infamous for causing blindness. If we agree with the meanings and connotations of the term, then we can use it. If not, we should stop using that expression. Otherwise, we will be a laughing stock in the international community.

When foreigners call South Korea “fair game,” most Koreans would think that it meant that Korea is playing the game fairly. In fact, it means that South Korea is a vulnerable target of foreign aggression, as “fair game” is an antonym of “forbidden game,” and means an animal that has been released from the hunting prohibition list that anybody can shoot to kill freely.

While referring to North Korea’s recent test missiles launches, a high-ranking US government official mentioned that if the US bombed nuclear sites in North Korea, the North would immediately strike back against Seoul in retaliation and the outcome would be disastrous. Our press reported the US government made it clear that it was against war on the Korean Peninsula. But Korean reporters may have misunderstood him, because his remarks sounded like an admonition both to South Korea and North Korea. You should always read between the lines.

Korean politicians and businessmen, too, should ask for advice from professionals before they negotiate or do business with their foreign counterparts. Each country has its own unique culture, customs and mindset, and you should have prior knowledge before meeting foreign government officials or businessmen.

In Western countries, for example, you should be extremely cautious not to offend someone with prejudiced remarks about race, gender or religion. Also, you are not supposed to ask private questions such as one’s age, weight, salary or marital status. In Germany, you should refrain from mentioning the Nazis or Hitler. In addition, eye contact and personal space are imperative when you talk to someone. Last but not least, you should take “no” for an answer, which means you are not supposed to force someone to do something against his or her will.

We should be aware of cultural differences. Professor Nesbit’s famous experiment is illuminating. When asked to choose two related things among monkey, banana and tiger, Asian students immediately chose monkey and banana, whereas Western students picked monkey and tiger. In the eyes of Asian students, relationships come first, but to Western students, categories are more important than relationships. Likewise, when introducing themselves, Asian students almost always talk about their relationships and say, “Hi, I’m from Busan. I graduated from S High School.” On the contrary, Western students tend to talk about the kind of person they are: “Hi, I’m an active and outgoing person. I like outdoor sports.”

The infamous bulgogi ad in the New York Times is another good example. Korean baseball star Choo Shin-soo appears in the advertisement. Most Americans reportedly had a hard time understanding the ad because it was not logical. First, there is no connection between baseball and marinated meat. Second, athletes are usually forced to follow strict diets during training, so Choo is not likely to be allowed to eat bulgogi. However, Koreans easily assume that there is a connection between a Korean and Korean food -- bulgogi.

When you are not sure of something, you should ask for professional advice. Otherwise, you will end up being an embarrassment in the international community. 

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. He can be reached at -- Ed.