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5 Untranslatable Korean Idioms and Proverbs

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If there was a computer translation application that had the ability to enter in and adjust language for its cultural differences, it would be much easier to properly translate the Korean idiom of, “A dog with feces scolds a dog with husks of grain“ (똥묻은개가겨묻은개나무란다). If this were the case, the well-known Korean idiom would translate into, “One should not talk down to one of higher social standing, when one has nothing to back it up with.” – Otherwise known in the English-speaking world as: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Translating Korean idioms and proverbs into English is one of those situations where the human mind has an advantage over technology, by using its unique ability to view the world in an abstract way that computers cannot grasp, due to their own technical limitations.

Five Difficult to translate Korean Idioms and Proverbs

#1. The Idiom: 무지 가 의학 지식 은 병 이다

Literal Translation: Ignorance is medicine, knowledge is sickness.

What it means: Ignorance is Bliss.

#2. The Idiom: 또 다른 사람의 떡 이 더 큰 보인다

Literal Translation: Another person’s rice cake looks bigger.

What it means: The grass is always greener on the other side.

#3. The Idiom: 가재는 게 편이라

Literal Translation: The crayfish sides with the crab.

What it means: Birds of a feather flock together.

#4. The Idiom: 개천에서 용 난다.

Literal Translation: A dragon rises from a small stream.

What it means: From rags to riches.

#5. The Idiom: 거지도 부지런하면 더운 밥 얻어 먹는다.

Literal Translation: If diligent, even a beggar can get warm rice.

What it means: The early bird catches the worm.

The Pitfalls of Translating Korean Idioms and Proverbs

According to the notable Korean translator An Sonjae, there is an immense disparity in the English and Korean language systems because of cultural and historical differences. Korean uses its own unique phonetic system (hangeul), with some Chinese characters, which have deep abstract and Asian intellectual properties, that also do not transfer well into a westernized culture.

The Korean language is based on a formal and informal double format. A person’s social status in society has a lot to do with how they are addressed in both writings, and speech, in a Korean’s everyday public or private life. A Korean to English translation is constantly hindered by complex expressions of feelings in the Korean language that often use sound values which are sometimes doubled. There are also no capitalizations in the Korean language.

Understanding  Korean Proverbs

Some things in this life are simply not easily transferable from one culture to another. This does not mean that they cannot be understood; if they are put in a common way that both sides involved can relate to, comprehension is simple. Remember that although we might have plenty of social differences, as human beings, we also have much more things in common, especially if we look at them with an open mind. Want to learn more Korean proverbs? Contact one of our native Korean teachers today!