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  • Writer's pictureAida Zul

5 Korean words that are difficult to translate

Part of the beauty of languages lies in the words which are difficult to translate. The idea that a single word can capture concepts and feelings that are almost unexplainable is a testament to the complexity of human life.

The Korean language is no exception. As I enter my fifth year studying this language, I’ve taken some time to look back on some Korean words that I find fascinating. I thought about how I might explain some of these words and an idea hit me — stories. If you’re looking to learn more about the emotions and concepts behind some unique Korean words, or just need a relaxing, easy read, here’s five stories for five Korean words that are difficult to translate.


1. Jeong 정

“[Jeong] can be seen as a type of love, or as an emotional or psychological bond involving emotions such as affection, compassion, sympathy and attachment.” (Translated from Namuwiki)

I stopped a little way from the one of the snack carts lining the street, waiting for my chance to join the queue. That day marked the beginning of the monsoon season, and the plastic sheets draped over each cart were sturdy, but small. They created these little shelters at every cart, which only a few people could seek refuge in at any one time from the fierce downpour. As I stood there the onslaught of torrential rains came at me furiously from over my head, raindrops barraging the shade of my umbrella. In between cracks on the pavement, water gathered in streams and lapped at the splitting canvas of my shoes.

After a few minutes, my eyes met those of the lady working the stall. She raised a hand, beckoning me to come into the shelter of the cart. As I folded my umbrella and slipped my way in, the other customers, all locals, shuffled to make space while looking me up and down in mild wonder.

Imo”, I began a little shakily, “One gimmari, two sweet potatoes and one prawn, please.”

“You’ve ordered four. It’s three for 4000 won,” the lady replied.

“In that case, I’ll do away with the gimmari.”

“I’ve already got it going though.”

I looked down, and amidst the chaotic yellow of the bubbling hot oil I made out a roll of gimmari — floating there with two pieces of sweet potato. I went into a slight panic, worried that I’d caused a massive inconvenience. I felt the gazes of the locals on me, and I sensed myself at a loss of what to do. Perhaps my inner turmoil was spreading to my face, because the lady spoke again.

“It’s okay,” she said, sending me a warm, motherly smile. “I’ll give you the one gimmari on the house.”

As I handed over four blue crumpled notes, I wondered if she would ever know how much her kindness meant to me. Probably not, I decided. She would never know how she peeled my anxiety away, and my fear that I might have had to fight my way in broken Korean. Neither would she know the full extent of my gratitude for the way she saw me. My hijab was used to being at least some kind of an issue, but she saw me as no different from any local college student with a waning regard for a balanced diet.

Jeong is always in the most unsuspecting of places. On that cold day in July, I found it while tearing open an oily paper bag of snacks in the tiny, poorly-lit kitchen of my flat. It was somewhere wrapped in seaweed — somewhere between the strands of those glass noodles packed together in that extra roll of gimmari.

2. Nunchi 눈치

“[Nunchi is] the ability to quickly sense others’ emotions or adapt to a given situation. When understood as a ‘gaze’, nunchi is a means to quickly understand others’ feelings to preserve interpersonal relationships.” (Translated from Wikipedia)

“Being the youngest might have had a pretty big impact, regarding what you described last session. How many older siblings did you say you had?”


He nodded, still scanning the paper on his clipboard.

“According to the results, it’s reflecting in your personality quite a fair bit. You tend to be more reserved and avoid acting on your desires even if they’re strong,” he continued, before looking up and smiling at me. “Do you think that sounds like you?”

“I see it. I guess. A little.” I stayed unmoving, except for my fidgety hands in my lap.

As he looked down again his gaze traced the floor, and he let out an audible breath. “It can make you look selfish, but it’s just because you’re not confident in your own decisions. You might not respond quickly to events because you’re taking time to read the room. It can happen when you’re used to your older siblings taking the lead, or you’re often told to listen because they know better.”

I bit my lip. “Reading the room”, huh.

“I feel like,” I started. “I feel like I was always expected to understand what others felt. And to put my own feelings on the back burner. I think I’ve lived… a little cautiously. Constantly. Of other people and their feelings.”

He nodded again, so encouragingly I thought his head might fall off.

“Please don’t say it makes me good at sympathizing with others. I’ve heard that too many times,” I continued, the faces of my previous therapists briefly flashing through my mind. “I’m sick of it. Can we- I mean, I want to work on holding my own.”

Either the inoffensive smile on his lips stretched a little more on both ends, or I was just imagining it. If he thought I was making progress, he didn’t make it obvious.

“Okay,” he simply said. “We can work on that today.”

3. Sseudam Sseudam 쓰담쓰담

"[Sseudam sseudam is] the mimetic word for the action of petting someone or something." (Translated from Namuwiki)

To my big brother:

Hope you’re still doing okay up there. I want to say I’m getting used to you not being around, but at the same I don’t think so. I never told you this but there were so many times I wished I had a room of my own. Now that I have our room all to myself, I guess it’s not really all that great.

I think I might be going insane, actually — when the wind so much as flits through my hair and ruins it, I think of you. I miss the times when I would lie across your lap and you would run your fingers through my hair. On a day where you were in a playful mood you would shake your thighs and I would yell at you for trying to permanently injure my neck. On other days you would tell me I did a good job, and that whatever it was that I chose to do, it was the right choice.

I even miss when you would run up to me from behind in school and scare me by suddenly resting your entire monkey-huge palm on the back of my head (I will have you know “monkey-huge” is a very real word). Sometimes you would straight-up ruffle my hair to its demise. If you caught me on a bad day and I made a grumpy face at you, you would say, “Okay, okay, I won’t ruin your chance with the girls,” while carelessly fixing my fringe.

My hair’s grown quite long now, come to think of it. Remember that one time you cut your hair really short? And then you let me help you dye your hair, but it came out much more orange than it looked on the box and you looked like a carrot for a week. That was before you lost lots of hair after treatment, before I found out I liked smoothing my hands over your patchy head. So I’m kind of glad we got to do all that wacky stuff with your hair before that. If you could come back I’d let you do all sorts of weird stuff with my hair. I wish you could come back and do that. I kind of wish you’d stayed a little longer.

Source: Immo Wegmann

4. So-hwak-haeng 소확행

“[So-hwak-haeng is] an abbreviation of ‘small but certain happiness’, referring to the joys in one’s daily life that are small but can be realized with certainty. Alternatively, it refers to a tendency for one’s life to pursue such happiness.” (Translated from Namuwiki)

I make the bed like wrapping a gift to myself. When I come home at the end of a long day, a well-made bed waits for me like a parcel I was waiting on. It doesn’t fix every problem, but it pleases me. It makes me feel like even if everything isn’t perfectly pieced together, at least something’s in order. This is my small but certain happiness.

In fact, it’s just one of many. The first burst of caffeine on my tongue in the mornings and the spritzes of perfume before I leave the house, the warmth of a soupy dish on a rainy day and the evenings I spend just sitting in the dog park — these are a few of my favourite things.

What a beautiful thing it is that they are always within my reach, and never too difficult to realize. I fill my life with all these miniscule private joys, and they fuse to become an unstoppable energy that drives my very existence. My life travels in the direction of small but certain happiness.

5. In-yeon 인연

“[In-yeon refers to] relationships formed between people, or the connection formed with an object. … The word comes from Buddhism, where ‘in’ refers to the power to directly create results, and ‘yeon’ refers to the external and indirect power which helps to do this.” (Translated from Namuwiki)

The Koreans have a saying: ot-git-man seu-chyeo-do in-yeon-i-da. If two strangers walk past each other and their clothes happen to brush, they have some kind of in-yeon, a spiritual bond.

Looking back, the whole concept reminds me of some conversations I had with my girl friends in our younger days. Between dreamy sighs we’d talk about whether we’d ever find “the one”, and in heated moments we’d debate about whether “the one” even existed. We were teenage philosophers, frequenting the bubble tea shop right across our school to have such riveting discussions. On a lucky day, you would come by too, with your friends. I thought you were way out of my league. But I guess maybe at some point, the sleeves of our uniforms briefly touched when I had to squeeze past you in that narrow little shop.

“If not this lifetime, then the next. And if not the next, then the one after. And so on and so forth, till we find each other again.”

I repeated this to myself many times over the years during the course of our relationship. These words have punctuated sobs after a particularly big fight, and spun in my mind like a record when we had difficult conversations. Even on shiny days these words were a reminder that anything could happen, and were a symbol of my desire to never take what we had for granted.

As I stand here before you, I’m thinking that however in-yeon is supposed to be, or whatever it looks like… we must have tens of thousands of layers of it. I want to say we’ve been through the worst together, but it feels like every past iteration of ourselves has already done all that work for us. It feels like we’ve gotten the easiest task of the grander design — all we have to do is be together.

I think our being together is an ode to everyone we’ve ever been, from those cheeky, giggly high school kids to the people we are now. Heck, even beyond that, it’s an ode to everyone we’ve ever been in every past life. I used to take issue with things like fate, and “the one” — but I’ve changed my mind, because I have seen it for myself. I think, in-yeon looks just like us.

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