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- Waiter, there’s a fly in my soap
- Friends, Romans, countrymen…lend me your dictionaries
- Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to put your cigarette out
- We went “eye shopping” for a “Y-shirt’ and “panty” in Myundong, and then we took a “sel-ca”
- I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to offend you!
- People don’t just notice your poor copy—they judge you on it
- Help is available—and it’s easier and cheaper than you might think
- Nothing in life is free. How can I trust you?
Following on from my last post on some of the most common examples of awkward English found in Korea, let’s dive right into Part II. I’ve got even more examples based on my observations as an English copywriter and proofreader on this topic for over a year.
Waiter, there’s a fly in my soap
A great source of English errors in Korea is menus. These errors appear in menus you’d receive at your table, as well as large wall-mounted menus and other signboards. Most of them are simple spelling mistakes. These mistakes could’ve been easily fixed by checking a dictionary—or using a native English-speaking proofreader.
You should be able to find the answer online. Or again, you could hire a proofreader. Anything’s better than “inventing” gibberish words that are more confusing than helpful.
And misspelling ”crab” as “crap” or “Coke” as “Cock” makes you look pretty unprofessional.
But not all the mistakes on menus I observed were simple spelling mistakes. If you can’t read English well, it’s still easy to make errors while copying and pasting. I assume that’s what happened here (even though it does include a typo).
I assume the people who wrote these menus thought they were being clever. But I suspect their efforts come across as more offensive than humorous.
Friends, Romans, countrymen…lend me your dictionaries
I’ve written before about the difficulties of Romanizing Korean. Often, different English consonants can be represented by the same Korean consonant. Two of the biggest offenders here are:
ㄹ—can be written as l or r
ㅂ—can be written as b or v
And unfortunately (or fortunately, if you enjoy a good laugh), that’s precisely what happened in these examples.
Sometimes certain letters are quite similar to other letters. When English isn’t your first language, and depending on the font used, these can be hard to spot. But a good proofreader would catch them. I did.
Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to put your cigarette out
I was a smoker when I came to Korea more than a quarter of a century ago. Cigarettes cost 1,000 won (less than $1 US), and you could smoke pretty much everywhere. I’m happy to report I quit smoking almost two decades ago. This is, of course, good for my health. But cigarettes are much more expensive these days, and it’s getting tougher and tougher to find a place to smoke.
As such, it’s very common to see “No Smoking” signs in Korea. Well, those are the signs you ‘should’ see. Instead, you’re more likely to find signs like these.
Going through the 700+ pictures I’ve collected, I realized I’ve got several more examples of poorly written “No Smoking” signs. Keep an eye out for them in upcoming posts!
We went “eye shopping” for a “Y-shirt’ and “panty” in Myundong, and then we took a “Sel-ca”
Confused by that statement? Then you haven’t lived in Korea for very long. Konglish (KOrean+eNGLISH) is the term for loan words from other languages incorporated into Korean. These terms are easily understood by Koreans but will likely be confusing to non-Korean speakers.
Konglish often involves:
- Shortening longer words/phrases (remote control—remote con)
- Using forms of standard words in unconventional ways (Fighting—meaning “You can do it” or “Cheer up”, or punk, a non-standard form of the British term “puncture”, meaning a flat tire)
Using Konglish in your Korean advertising is fine—it makes perfect sense. But it makes much less sense in English. No one wants to eat sand. Just say sandwich.
Sometimes Konglish terms are similar to the correct English term. Though similar in meaning, they’re often in the wrong grammatical form or just aren’t used in the way they have been.
It’s in areas like this that a native proofreader can really help you out.
I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to offend you!
I started Part 1 of this blog post by explaining that English is a complex language. And to make matters worse, even once you get past the spelling, grammar, and punctuation, there are other pitfalls. English is full of slang terms and double-entendres that non-native speakers could never be expected to know. But that doesn’t mean some signs/products may be unintentionally rude or offensive.
These examples have double entendres (a phrase with two possible meanings, one of which is often rude or risque). Non-native English speakers would never consider these other meanings. But native English speakers pick up on these secondary meanings without even trying.
Click on the images to learn about the double entendres that likely weren’t considered when these product and business names were chosen.
Then there are the brands or signs that either try to be edgy or aren’t aware of what the English version of their copy means. If you’re unsure why these are not good business names, click on the images to learn more.
It’s impossible to separate culture from language. Korean is full of honorific forms that don’t exist in English but are deeply embedded in Korean culture. The following examples contain strong cultural connotations that non-native speakers would likely not be aware of. Click on the pictures to learn what’s wrong with these business names.
People don’t just notice your poor copy—they judge you on it
To summarise, besides spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes, the most common errors I’ve observed are:
- Awkwardness—the copy doesn’t feel natural and doesn’t flow
- Inappropriateness—the copy is not suitable for the context
- Double-entendres—the copy has a possible second interpretation, often related to slang
- Poor Translations—the copy is either generated with an auto-translation app or an unqualified translator
When writing in another language, there is no substitute for a native-speaking proofreader. As I’ve outlined on my main page, errors in your copy
- Confuse customers.
- Erode trust in your brand.
- Make you seem unprofessional.
Help is available—and it’s easier and cheaper than you might think
Tools like spellcheckers and grammar checkers help minimize those errors. I use them—as tools. I don’t rely on them or blindly accept every suggestion. They’re not foolproof. Think of how tricky Korean grammar is, even when it comes to something as basic as spacing.
The vast majority of the mistakes and examples I’ve highlighted could’ve been avoided by using a native English-speaking proofreader. Many will argue they don’t know one or can’t afford one. That argument no longer holds water. DC CopyPro offers this service to Koreans—for free.
Obviously, I need to charge for bigger, more involved jobs. But most of the mistakes I’ve posted about, I could’ve fixed in just a few minutes. And I would have—if anyone had bothered to ask. But despite offering a 100% free consultation service, I haven’t received a single request for help in the year I’ve been posting on Instagram. I want to help—but I can only do that if you ask.
If you need more convincing about how easy it is to spot unnatural language or something that’s been auto-translated, check out this Korean page on my site. Would you trust me if you’d only read the first half of the page? I wouldn’t.
I’ve tried contacting people on Instagram when I notice errors in signs, menus, or other copy. But most of those messages have been ignored. If I (politely) post a public comment on an error, often that comment gets deleted. Occasionally, people will thank me. But more often than not, I never hear anything and see the same mistake repeated again and again. I cringe every time I see another “Grand Open” sign.
Nothing in life is free. How can I trust you?
I really do want to help. And for those small, simple jobs, I will help for free. Don’t believe me? What have you got to lose? Send me a message asking for help. What’s the worst that can happen? I don’t reply (but I will). And what if I do respond? What if I tell you the proper way to write your sign? What if?
So, how do you ask for help? Take your pick!
- Use the Contact form on this site
- Send me an email
- Send me a message on Instagram, Facebook, or LinkedIn
Whichever way you choose to contact me—just do it! I’d love to hear from you. What did you think of this two-part post? Did you find anything surprising or helpful? Let me know! (I love comments on my social media posts too!)
Again, I must thank all the people who’ve shared (and continue sharing) their pics with me, which I feature in my daily posts. Neither my daily posts nor this blog post could happen without you. Photo credits for pictures that aren’t mine are in each linked post. Thanks to Instagram users inmykorea, msbfu, sandyvalle, zane_0929, Sullivan.damien, minetdao, ourkoreantrail, th3happyteacher, stv.art, RichardATravels, and jonghyundunbar, as well as to John Lee (the pic that started it all), Dan D., Andrew L., and all those who wish to remain ‘anonymous’.
I must also offer a special “thank you” to my wife for taking time out of her busy schedule to translate these blogs into Korean. I wish I could do this for every post, but she doesn’t have the time, and I can’t afford to pay her—at least not yet! 😉