Romanization of Korean: Why, When, and Which?

For those who already know the Korean language, a Korean word does not pose a problem if it appears in a non-Korean publication.  They can read and understand it.  For those who do not know Korean, however, even a single Korean word can become a serious obstacle, as they cannot figure out its pronunciation and meaning.

If one is writing for readers who are proficient in Korean, there is no compelling reason to romanize Korean words.  One can use Korean characters as long as the press can handle them and the publisher does not object to it.   For authors writing for readers outside of Korea, however, this is a very unlikely scenario.  Chances are that most readers do not know Korean very well.

For readers with little or no background in the Korean language, a Korean word needs to be rewritten in the Latin alphabet, which is a process called romanization, and made intelligible to them, based on its sound (transcription), spelling (transliteration), or meaning (translation).  Take a Korean word, 독립, for instance.  If readers with no Korean background find 독립 in a paper, both its sound and meaning are unknown to them.  Transcription (tongnip) tells readers how it is pronounced; translation (independence) shows readers its meaning. (1) 

The choice among these options--the use of Korean characters, transcription, and translation--should be based on the Korean proficiency level of target readers.  If target readers are proficient in Korean, Korean characters may be used. If their readers have no knowledge of Korean, translation is most desirable. When neither is the case, transcription should be considered.  Equally importantly, more than one method should be employed whenever possible.

After the decision to transcribe--as opposed to use or translate-- Korean words has been made, the next step is to choose a romanization scheme.  Different romanization schemes often transcribe same Korean words differently, and more relevant to our consideration, convention dictates that a particular romanization scheme be used for a particular purpose.   Take the word, 독립, again.  The McCune-Reischauer system transcribes it as tongnip.  The newest official scheme, introduced in 2000, represents it as dongnip.  One might be tempted to say that it is the same difference and largely a matter of personal preference.  The choice between tongnip and dongnip is not a trivial matter, however, if one is writing a scholarly piece for readers outside Korea.  In Western academia, the McCune-Reischauer system is the standard romanization scheme and any transcription of  독립 other than tongnip is simply incorrect.


(1) A third, spelling-based method is transliteration.  Transliteration is not commonly used and will not be discussed here. 

Posted by antipode

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