The Nuances of Language and Culture in Korean Dramas

When I was trying to learn a new language, one of the things I did to enhance my vocabulary and improve my grammar was to watch films and dramas in that language. But if original copies were scarce and I can only rely on video channels that provide rough translation, I get the gist of what the character is saying but remain doubtful about the actual meaning of what they say.

Longtime K-drama lovers like me may toss around familiar K-drama terms easily without any explanation, but others, most specifically first-time watchers, are left out in confusion.

Here are the meanings of some of these common untranslatable words and phrases in Korean dramas.

오빠 (oppa)
Oppa is so common in K-dramas that most of the time it’s left out in translation. Some translators use the character’s name to replace the term. Oppa is not just how younger girls call their blood relative older brother; it can also be used to an older guy that you feel close with. Nowadays, oppa is also how a girl calls her older boyfriend. Which is which, right? Whenever you hear a girl calling a guy oppa, you’ll have to watch them closely to know if they’re relatives or lovers.

아이구 (aigoo)
This is an expression translators usually leave out. They either use the term as is or don’t write it at all. You’ll often hear aigoo in K-dramas especially when the characters are frustrated or surprised. The closest equivalent to this word would be, “Aw, man!” or “Geez!”

수고하세요 (sugohaseyo)
It literally means, “Good job!” But you only say this when someone has done, well, a good job. Koreans use sugohaseyo regardless of the result.

친구 (chin∙gu)
Chingu is translated as “friend” in English. This is the easiest term to translate, and the word that loses a lot of culture when translated. Koreans will refer to you as chingu only if you’re the same age as them. You’ll often hear characters in a drama ask other characters, “몇 살이에요,” or “myeot sarieyo (how old are you),” and that is for them to know how to properly address the other person.

The truth is, nothing is untranslatable. Every idea one language holds can be explained, but the cultural significance can be lost. Even when we find the closest equivalent to that word, the emotions the native speaker feels when they say or think about it can often be completely misunderstood.

Being with the translation company Lexcode, I further realized that the untranslatability of culture itself is a problem most translators encounter. This is why we make sure our pool of translators has the integral knowledge of their language and the culture behind it.