Korean software localization: unique challenges of a unique language

Korean software localization: unique challenges of a unique language

With over 40 million Internet users, South Korea is one of the most wired countries in the world. Reaching the fourth-largest Asian economy requires translation and localization for technical content, mobile apps, and software. However, translation into Korean from English presents certain challenges.

Isolated Particles

One quality of the Korean language that frustrates localization is the unique grammatical structure of the “postpositions” or particles. These twenty or so suffixes or short words immediately follow a noun or pronoun to indicate its role in a sentence. For instance, a particle marks a word as a subject or an object. One must use different particles for words that end in consonants than for words that end in vowels. This impacts the programming of placeholders, i.e., blanks to be completed by the user or a database.

A personalized string such as “XXX likes this photo” is hard to implement because one cannot know the vowel/consonant structure of every name that could take the place of XXX. In its first forays into Korean localization, Google solved this particular problem by adding an automatic honorific “-nim” after every name. This allowed the consonant-particle to be used uniformly, and made Google look extra polite as well.

Best practice:  If you intend to localize a user interface, don’t use placeholders within sentences for collecting user information. The rules of English syntax are not universal. If you assume they are, you face localization difficulties in Korean and many other languages.

Levels of formality

Most every language uses different registers of speech. For example, in English we might use a formal register to talk to a judge, and an intimate register to talk to our spouse. However, the difference will be in the vocabulary we use rather than the syntax. The Korean language has seven different levels of formality, depending on who is speaking and who is listening. Each level of formality requires a different verb ending. This brings an additional level of complexity to localization.

Best practice: advise linguists to use an appropriate middle range when translating a user command. When providing strings for localization, make it very clear what tone and level of formality the user should expect.

Non-linear writing

The Korean hangeul writing system uses “syllable blocks.” What looks like a single character to an English speaker is actually an amalgamation of several letters grouped together to make a block. For example the word hangeul 한 글 looks like two characters, but it’s actually six letters grouped in two syllable blocks. Text wrap becomes problematic under these conditions. A line break in the wrong place will chop up a multisyllabic word. Manually adding line breaks won’t always work because different devices have different size screens.

Best practice: hire professionals for both the localization and pre-live testing phases of a project to be sure of proper line break placements.

Localization is not simply a matter of translating content and reimporting it. Localization takes advance preparation and specialized expertise. Work with language pros to create accurate, compelling, user-friendly software for multilingual audiences.