Should Korean Translators Learn Hanja?

By Sara Maria Hasbun

If you are a Korean translator who was not educated in Korea (or perhaps completed only part of your education in Korea), you may have wondered how important it is to learn “hanja.”

You might not even be completely sure what hanja are: Chinese characters, right?

I’ll take you through what you need to know about hanja.

“Hanja” are the Chinese characters that are occasionally used in modern Korean texts. While the majority of Korean is written using Korean’s own alphabet (Hangul), a smattering of these Chinese characters are still used today.

It is important to note that these characters may not be written exactly how they are currently used in China or across the Sinosphere, and they might not retain the same meanings as their equivalent characters as used in China today: hanja are really a separate writing system, a class of their own.

These characters are a remnant of the past: before Hangul existed, Korean was written entirely using Chinese characters.

Today, hanja are used sparingly, and their use continues to decline. So do translators really need to know hanja? First, let’s discuss who uses hanja today, and in which texts it can be found.

Do Koreans still learn hanja?

While Koreans use hanja sparingly, they do still study the basic characters in school. Hanja is taught to elementary school students in Korea, and the characters appear on Korean College Scholastic Ability Test (수능) as well.

Most high school students can recognize at least 30 hanja characters. For this reason, you are likely to need to recognize basic hanja in order to fully understand texts at or above the high school level.

Where are hanja used?

Hanja are commonly used in certain types of documents: academic papers, technical documentation, literature, medical, and historical texts tend to sprinkle hanja throughout.

Hanja are less common in marketing, literary, or creative texts.

Where to learn hanja

Don’t worry, you don’t need to learn Chinese in order to learn sufficient hanja! The online Naver dictionary offers extensive support for hanja, including a drawing app.

You can also use apps like Pleco, which allow you to draw a character on the screen in order to search a term.

Just be aware that when you use Chinese resources, characters may have slightly different meanings from how they are used in Korean today. It is always best to cross-check how hanja are used in context, by searching for the term and seeing how it is used in other sentences.

For more information about hanja, and how to research hanja terms, you can check out this blog post at Meridian Linguistics.

Knowledge of hanja will make you a more well-rounded translator. Since not every translator knows hanja, it will also give you a competitive edge. Best of luck in your hanja journey!


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