Literal translation is never a good idea. You risk coming across as either/a combination of rude, confused, angry, offended… basically an infinite list of many things that could go wrong in the process of meaning one thing and sounding like you mean something else.
Here are the top 10 Korean words you should never translate literally to English.
1. “My eyes are flipped/overturned”
Eek, this phrase sounds like something out of a gory horror movie.
That’s what “눈이 뒤집히다” means when literally translated. In Korean, it’s used to refer to a state in which one is very, very angry. i.e. “I was so angry my eyes were flipped/overturned”.
2. “Our husband”
You’ll often hear a married Korean woman use a phrase like “oori nampyeon”, where “oori”refers to “our” and “nampyeon” to “husband”. By the way, the phrase “우리 남편” is not used by married women who share their husbands with another woman/other women.
There’s no reason behind why this puzzling plural form “our” is used to refer to one’s husband (context of monogamy). It’s just the status quo.
3. “Look at the liver”
“간을 보다”, or “gan eul boda” is used in two contexts:
First, to literally taste food and see how it is. i.e. does it need more seasoning? Second, to do something to guess the thoughts/feelings/intentions/situation of another person.
3. “How would you like your head cut?”
No, this is not some morbid question an executioner/torturer is asking. In Korean, “muh-ri” (머리) is used to refer to “head” and “muh-ri-ka-rak” (머리카락) is used to refer to “hair”, but for some reason, we use “muh-ri” to refer to our hair when we, for example, go to the salon.
So the next time you visit a salon in Korea and you hear a “How would you like your muh-ri cut?”, don’t be terrified.
4. “The hot soup’s cooling.”
What is this confusing arrangement of two contradicting words?
Koreans- especially older ones- often use the expression “Si-won-ha-da!” (시원하다!) (“It’s cooling/cold!” when literally translated) after they take spoonfuls of a hot soup or stew. Typically, the phrase is used by older Koreans who want to express the pleasant feeling of having their bodies warmed by hot soup.
So don’t down a bowl of soup thinking it actually is cooling!
5. “You have wide feet.”
“밟이 넓다”, or “bal-ee-nulb-da” literally means “wide feet”. It’s not a remark by a shoe shop assistant on the breadth of your feet, but a compliment that you are a social butterfly.
In other words, if you have “wide feet”, you have a wide social network.
6. “To flip one’s tail”
“Kkori-chi-da” (꼬리 치다) literally means “to flip one’s tail”, but surprisingly, it’s used to describe humans, not tailed animals. It’s a negatively connoted word used to refer to the act of seducing someone/trying to seduce someone in a romantic manner.
The phrase is usually used to refer to women trying to seduce men, not the other way around. The reference to a tail suggests how the woman is a fox (someone who is sly/cunning/a “snake”).
7. “You’re 4 dimensional”
“Sah-cha-won” (사차원) literally means “4 dimensional”, and is used to refer to someone who’s a little quirky, wacky and different from others.
The idea of dimensions is introduced here to refer to someone who seems so different from everyone else in reality that he/she seems to belong to another dimension.
8. “Gather three three five five”
What number is that supposed to be?
“Sam sam oh oh” (삼삼오오) literally means “three three five five”, with “sam” meaning 3 and “oh” meaning 5. The phrase is used to refer to a group of 3-5 people in a group/crowd doing something/sitting around. The number doesn’t matter that much- the phrase is simply used to refer to a group approximately the size of 3-5.
9. “Can I have some of your skin?”
Again, a grotesque sounding phrase.
“Skin” (스킨) is usually used to refer to toner (in cosmetics), not literally to the skin, the largest human body organ. So next time if a Korean friend asks something like, “I like applying skin on my face before going to bed”, don’t run out of the house.
10. “I ate my mind.”
“Ma-eum muk ut suh” (마음 먹었어) literally means “I ate my mind”. “ma-eum” means “mind”, and “muk ut suh” to “ate”. No Walking-dead style of zombie feeding or philosophical phrasing involved.
In Korean, the phrase simply means, “I’ve made up my mind.”
That’s it for the top 10 Korean words you should never literally translate to English!
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Cheers, Han Seol