If you’re an international student in Korea, you probably have those moments when you think of something in Korean and want to say it in English, but can’t find the appropriate word. Like every other language, Korean has those words that really can’t be translated – ones that hold a nuance that only Koreans can understand and every single translation you find online is only a vague synonym. Here are five words that often get lost in translation:
1. 정 (jung)
If you’re an avid Choco Pie fan like me, you’ve probably seen the Chinese characters of 정 (Jung) in gold imprinted on the box. Though derived from Chinese characters, 정 (Jung) is a word that is now unique to Korea — in fact, all Koreans unanimously agree that it doesn’t have an English translation. Some offer ‘friendship’ and ‘hearty’ as English definitions and Google Translate shyly suggests ‘tablet’, but none of these words are suffice to capture the essence of 정 (Jung), which highlights the bond shared exclusively between Koreans. The closest expression of 정 (Jung) would be giving someone a piece of your heart, which in biological terms is quite disconcerting.
2. 홧병 (hwat-byeong)
This isn’t a word used commonly by young people, but if you’ve seen your grandmother yell at your parents for preparing bad kimchi, you may have heard her say 홧병 (hwat-byeong). The literal translation would be ‘anger illness’, which isn’t a real expression. Mainly, Koreans use it to convey how angry and frustrated they are, as they say “홧병 난다 (hwat-byeong nan-da)”, meaning “I have the anger illness.” Google Translate suggests ‘hungry’ as a definition and while hunger and anger are often intertwined (at least in my life), 홧병 (hwat-byeong) doesn’t really mean ‘hungry.’
3. 푸르르다 (pu-leu-leu-da)
If you’ve ever picked up a Korean nature book, you may have seen authors say that the sky is 푸르르다 (pu-leu-leu-da) or the lake is 푸르르다 (pu-leu-leu-da) or the feather of a peacock is 푸르르다 (pu-leu-leu-da). 푸르르다 (pu-leu-leu-da) is one of those words that even Koreans can’t really define. In the early aughts, 푸르르다 (pu-leu-leu-da) was just an emphasis for the word 푸르다 (pu-leu-da), which means blue, but now 푸르르다 (pu-leu-leu-da) is used to describe things that aren’t even blue — and not in a figurative sense. It means blue, fresh, and pure all at once, and if you can find an English word for that, then kudos to you, but I haven’t been able to find it myself.
4. 시무룩 (si-mu-leug)
시무룩 (si-mu-leug) is one of the common phrases that all Koreans will use at some point in life. Because of how common it is, it’s difficult to imagine that it doesn’t have an English translation. But after multiple trials on various translation websites, I’ve concluded that there isn’t an exact English word. Google Translate suggests ‘be sad’, which just sounds like a badly written English analysis, and Bing Translate claims ‘city murook’, which… what is that even? I think the closest word is ‘schlump’, which isn’t even a real English word. 시무룩 (si-mu-leug) is that sentiment of slightly being let down, discouraged, and a little embarrassed all at once.
5. 애교 (aegyo)
If you stan a Korean boyband, you might’ve been in a “(Insert boyband name) aegyo compilation” playlist. But have you really considered what 애교 (aegyo) really means? It’s a literal act of being cute and lovely, but it presents itself in various forms. Whether it be making cute gestures, imitating baby voices, or even making strange sound effects, aegyo is embodied in so many different ways that it’s difficult to find an English translation, let alone establish a Korean definition for 애교 (aegyo). Perhaps that’s why international K-POP fans prefer to leave 애교 (aegyo) as “aegyo” instead of trying to find an English word for it. No word is really accurate to describe it.