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Lost in Untranslatability

Many thanks to my friend Michael P. for posting an interesting article from The Independent on one of my favourite subjects, entitled “10 untranslatable words from around the world.” My favourites from the list include the Hindi word viraha (the realization of love through separation), the Indonesian word jayus (a joke so unfunny, you can’t help but laugh…please take note, Mitt Fudgesicle), and the Tamil word oodal (the fake anger lovers display after a fight).

Polyglots – the real cunning linguists of the world – really do have all the fun. As someone who has had the torture-like bliss (is there a word for that in any language? Otherwise please refer to Sexy Mild Genius Girl’s dictionary) of learning Korean for many years, I’d like to add a few more words to the unofficial list of words you should stay away from without flame-retardant attire.

1. (han): Chinese is to Korean much like what Latin and Greek are to modern English. This particular han (there are numerous meanings to the exact same Korean word) is derived from the Chinese character , and is commonly translated as “(deep) suffering.” To understand Korea – and Koreans – you have to live and breathe this word past the literal semantics of it all. Korea is the self-described “shrimp between the whales” (Japan, Russia, China) and the NKOTB who always seems to be attracting trouble (i.e. getting the crap kicked out of it). Whether you’re wondering why so many Korean ballads want to make you slash your wrists, why Korean actors in TV and movie dramas always seem to be on the verge of portending the end of the world, or why one must drink copious amounts of soju and other assorted alcoholic drinks on a regular basis, it all comes down to han. And because you’re not an ethnic Korean who has lived your whole life in Korea, you will never truly understand the concept. Or so I’m told.

2) 왕따 (wang-dda): Interestingly enough, we have the word “bully” in English, but no specific word for “one who is bullied.” Korean is the exact opposite. Usually translated as “outcast,” it’s so much more than that. It’s the loner, the loser, the one not accepted and tormented for being short or fat or unable to eat truckloads of kimchi at one sitting or the loooooooooooooooser from Honam (the southwest provinces of South Korea). Wait, I’m from the southwest of Korea!

3) 촌뜨기 (chon-dde-gi): This is a personal favourite of mine from my Mokpo days, when my buddy Albert L. would often act like a toolbox after imbibing one too many poktanju “bombs.” The dictionary defines it as “hillbilly/yokel/hayseed,” but it’s way cooler/crueller than that. Just ask Albert L.

4) (bap): “Rice” (literally) has to be the most versatile, most wickedest word in the Korean language. Bap is the word you use for cooked rice (as opposed to the numerous other nouns which exist in Korean for rice depending on its stage of growth/function), but it’s also used in myriad phrases that help give life to some awesome phrases, including, but not limited to:

  1. 먹었어?      Did you eat rice?                                 (How are you?/How’s it going?)
  2. 이지!        It’s horse rice!                                     (Of course!/For sure!)
  3. 먹을래?   Ya wanna eat rice with beans?        (You lookin’ to go to jail?)

The lesson here is clear: Languages are cool; not all words can be translated; and there should be a hall of fame for people who can speak Korean.


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