• K. Lemay

Choice of Romanization in Sun-Kissed

When you set out to learn Korean, you have to quickly memorize hangeul as romanization becomes really clunky with verb endings or long words. It's also impossible to tell the original spelling of a word if all you ever see is the approximation in our alphabet. Worse, there are some guidelines to converting hangeul to the alphabet, but not everyone adheres to one of them, or any at all. Add to that the fact that some words are more often converted using one version, you may end up with an unreadable mess. I wanted to avoid going by ear and providing a haphazard romanization. Turns out, a lot of issues arose while I was trying out my various options. There just didn't seem to be a perfect option, in the end.

My question regarding this entire issue of romanization began when I discovered Super Junior. One of the members's name is romanized Kyuhyun. What always troubled me was that both u's are not pronounced the same. And for a beginner Korean learner, I only had the romanization to go by. The first u is ㅠ, the romanization I prefer, while the second u in his name isㅕ a choice based on the English based romanization. So I realized early on that you simply cannot trust romanization in general, whether it's done by the artist themselves, by a marketing company, or by a fan posting a lyrics video on YouTube. It's always sort of arbitrary. I didn't want that issue in my novel. I wanted people to trust that one sound was necessarily one specific Korean sound. Turns out there was no way to do that, as there was still an issue of exact spelling versus actual pronunciation.

Here are some of the equivalencies that can be used and issues that arise from those choices. Whether you choose perfect equivalencies or going by ear, there are issues which make romanization appear arbitrary and make reading it very difficult.

ㄱ k-g ㅏ a (a like in alert, closer to French than English)

ㄲ kk-gg ㅐ ae (ay like in mayday)

ㄴ n ㅑ ya

ㄷ d-t ㅒ yae

ㄸ dd-tt ㅓ eo (o like in lobby)

ㄹ r-l ㅔ e (e like is vest)

ㅁ m ㅕ yeo

ㅂ b-p ㅖ ye

ㅃ bb-pp ㅗ o (o like in over)

ㅅ s-t ㅘ oa-wa

ㅆ ss-tt ㅙ oae-wae

ㅇ -ng ㅚ oe-we

ㅈ j-ch-t ㅛ yo

ㅉ jj-tt ㅜ u-oo (oo like shoot)

ㅊ ch-t ㅝ ueo-weo

ㅋ k ㅞ ue-we

ㅌ t-ch ㅟ ui-wi

ㅍ p ㅠ yu

ㅎ h ㅡ eu (u in supporter, closer to French than English)

ㅢ eui

ㅣ i-ee

Some standard Korean words are written with English speakers in mind where the sound ㅓ is romanized with u instead of eo, which makes the reading of ㅜ require a romanization of oo to differentiate it. I personally dislike this English based romanization as it makes some names like Yu-jun in my story look really long and full of o's, Yoo-joon. That's a personal preference. I chose to stay away from the English based romanization, but that clashed with a lot of near-standardized romanizations like hyung, which I had to write hyeong, to mean "big brother". Other common words always romanized the same are sunbae, which I now had to write seonbae, and hoobae, which I had to write hubae.

My original hope was to base the entire romanization on spelling in Korean. Make it as 1 to 1 as I could. A word like "the youngest of the group", maknae, would be written thus. But the issue of pronunciation arose when I started writing poems in which a Korean word had to rhyme with an English word, like bich and feet. (Obviously only the t sound at the end is rhyming, not the i and ee, as both are quite different.) This would have led me to write by ear, so bich would need to be written bit (in Korean when certain sounds end a word, they are not fully pronounced and sound closer to a t to my ear.)

Writing words the way they are pronounced would sure have helped with some longer words, or for verb ending which tend to be romanized with a lot of consonants. For example, words like "to be revealed", 밝혀지다, would be romanized balkhyeojida. Even I have a hard time rereading the romanization to make sense of it. The cluster of consonants near the beginning makes it very difficult for an English reader. Worse, the actual pronunciation of that word ignores a lot of the early consonants anyway. So I wondered if it was necessary to write them all out.

The choice to write as pronounced would have affected the spelling of maknae which is never pronounced mak-nae, but man-nae instead. Writing by ear would have led me to write so many words differently from the standardized spelling many Korean learners know that it would have been a hindrance to all. So I went back to the 1 to 1 equivalency, and hoped that most readers wouldn't be too put off by the number of consonants.

At some point, to avoid the entire issue, I was thinking of providing two versions of the novel, one with hangeul and one with the romanization so readers could choose whichever they were most comfortable with, but Amazon's self-publishing tools do not support hangeul at all. So I had to go with romanization.

I will eventually publish on this blog all the lyrics which contain Korean words as reference to those who want to read the hangeul version.