As English is a de facto lingua franca of the world, many countries opt to incorporate English words into their languages. In doing so, translation of English has become an important part of their language systems, and has significantly affected daily communication. In this article, I would like to explore how East Asian countries – China, South Korea, North Korea and Japan – have adopted English terms into their own languages and explain what their ways of translation tell us about their national identity and language systems.

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China: Literal meanings

Chinese characters are hieroglyphs, with each character representing a meaning, not a sound. While hieroglyphic languages do have advantages, (for example, being able to convey meanings in shorter length because each character has a meaning assigned to it), the Chinese language system has created a problem in the era of globalization.

For example, GI Joe – a military science-fiction action film series, based on Hasbro’s GI Joe toy, comic and media franchises – is translated as 特种部队, literally meaning “special forces.” Since the Chinese characters are unable to represent the sounds, and thus do not have exact words to translate “GI Joe,” the series was simply translated as “special force.” In other words, this is because most of English words in China are translated not based on the sound, but on their meaning. While it is true that GI Joe is a movie about actions of a special-forces team, the title fails to capture specific details. I did not know what 特种部队 meant GI Joe until I watched the movie.

In other instances, Chinese characters with similar sounds are chosen for translating proper nouns that do not have meanings. For instance, Coca-Cola is translated as “可口可乐”, pronounced as Kěkǒukělè. Coca-Cola is often used as a good example of translation because the Chinese combination “可口可乐” means “entertainment to the mouth,” which is very fitting for Coca-Cola products. Others include hacker, “黑客” pronounced as Hēikè, which literally means “black guest.” Hackers are unwelcome guests, so this translation also makes sense.

Such being the case, this is precisely why Chinese translation of English is more about art than science. While these examples are good ones, there are numerous bad ones, where foreign companies entering the Chinese market have failed to translate their brand names delicately into Chinese. For instance, when Mercedes-Benz entered the Chinese market, its name was rendered as Bensi (奔死), meaning “rush to die.” Fortunately, the company soon made changes and rebranded the poorly translated company name to Benchi (奔驰), meaning “run quickly as if flying.”

Other proper nouns such as Trump 特朗普 and Obama 奥巴马 do not have any meanings at all. They simply sound similar: tè lǎng pǔ and àobāmǎ. So if you look at the atlas in Chinese, there will be hundreds of translations based on sounds.

In conclusion, China has to spend time and effort to come up with ways to translate English words, both in sounds and meanings. Most of the translated English words in Chinese are not communicable to other people, unlike Japanese and Koreans, who can simply use their own English to communicate. Although China takes pride in its writing system and its language’s influence in East Asia, it is also undeniably true that the Chinese language is quite onerous when it comes to translation of English words and interchanges of ideas in this globalized world.

Japan: Three systems

Japan has three distinctive yet closely interconnected writing systems: Katakana (かたかな), Hiragana (ひらがな) and Kanji (漢字). Hiragana is the basic syllabic writing system of the Japanese language while Kanji is Chinese characters that complement Hiragana. The Katakana system specializes in phonetic representation of foreign words, mainly English.

Thus the Japanese language is de facto a combination of the three writing systems (Chinese, Japanese and English), an indication that Japan has been heavily influenced by ancient China in the past and by Western countries during the modernization process.

Japan uses many Katakana words that are based on the sounds of English words, but that are very distinctively Japanese in pronunciations. For example, McDonald’s is pronounced as “マクドナル,” which is read as Makudonarudo. Beer is “ビール,” read as bīru, while building is “ビル,” also read as biru, the difference being the bi in beer being pronounced long while building’s bi is is of shorter duration. All in all, these pronunciations are very different from their original English pronunciations, so English speakers traveling to Japan would have a hard time understanding what they mean in Japanese even if they are direct translation of English words.

There are numerous reasons Japan is quite bad at dealing with English. One reason is that Japanese companies have largely focused on the huge domestic market, thus relatively neglecting overseas markets. They also put a lot more emphasis on job candidates’ ability to communicate in Japanese and conform to Japanese corporate culture rather than on foreign languages and experiences overseas. Companies and recruitment processes are changing, but only slowly. All of these potentially have contributed to Japan having one of the worst English proficiencies in the world.

In addition, as I have written in the article Meiji Restoration and Role of Chinese Writing, Japan’s Kanji greatly helped the Meiji Restoration by bridging the gap in translation. As a part of its legacy, Japan has established an excellent translation system, where any scholarly dissertation can be translated perfectly in a few days. While this is a blessing in the sense that Japanese scholars and engineers can spend time on their expertise rather than learning English, it is also a bane in the sense that Japan has some of the lowest fluency and English test scores in the world.

Such a language system shows that while Japan was the pioneer in modernization and thus the first Asian country to become economically prosperous and wealthy, it also failed to keep up with globalization, a phenomenon called Jalapagos – Japan becoming Galapagos, an isolated island that developed its unique ecosystem that formed the basis for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In the end, it is quite ironic that the first Asian country to modernize successfully and become a member of the Group of Seven is quite far behind globalization. It is also ironic that the country that has so many English words in its language system is also the country that is low in English proficiency tests and fluency.

South Korea: Phonetics made easy

Written Korean is based on Hangul, which was created under the auspices of King Sejong in 1446. Before then, the Korean written language was entirely based on the Chinese writing system, which was completely different from the spoken Korean language. In order to bridge this discrepancy, King Sejong during the Chosun Dynasty created Hunminjeongeum, which is the bible for the Korean writing system.

Hangul is phonetic, it can be used to translate foreign words based on sounds. In modern Korean, most English translations are based on sounds, and thus despite small differences in pronunciation, Koreans can simply say these words to communicate with foreigners. In today’s globalized world, the Korean language can seamlessly adopt newly created English words, and use them as if they were Korean words quickly.

North Korea: Rebellion

North Korea rarely, if any, uses English words. Instead, it uses pure Korean words. For example, South Korea normally uses “모자이크” to refer to “mosaic,” which simply reads mosaic in Korean. But North Korea uses “쪽무늬그림,” which means “picture of piece patterns” in pure Korean. While North Korea uses pure Korean words to replace English words – as they are thought of as representation of evil US influences – South Koreans would have a hard time understanding what they mean at first. North Korea’s love for pure Korean extends even to Chinese words, such as “突風” written as “돌풍” in Korean and meaning “squall” in English, which is translated into “갑작바람,” meaning “sudden wind” in pure Korean.

North Korea’s exclusiveness and hostility toward Western countries are largely reflected in its language system. Many words have diverged since the Korean War began in 1950, primarily because of differences in foreign words. This is precisely why North and South Korea sometimes have problems in communications.

In sum, Japan and South Korea freely use English as if it were a part of their language system, while China and North Korea have carefully adopted English in their own ways. The Chinese language seems isolated as China translates foreign words based on their meanings, not sounds, while North Korea does not use English worlds at all outright. South Korea uses foreign words in their daily conversations directly, making it easier for Koreans to learn foreign languages and remain closer to globalized society while Japan remains an enigma.

Whatever choices they made, their choices are reflected in their national identity and languages.

This article is originally from Joon’s Blog.