Ko-en subtitlers, please put formality level in team notes

For us “other language” subtitlers, knowing who is talking formally and who is talking informally is the worst nightmare. As you may know, many languages such as French, Spanish, German, Italian, Greek, Russian etc have “formal” and “informal” speech. Not seven or fourteen levels as in Korean, just two or three, but still we do have this distinction.
However, translating from the English, this is lost, and we have to really stretch our ears to get some clue with our imperfect or non-existent Korean knowledge. Hunting an -a/ya or a -yo, a -nim or a -mnida to guide us.

We all know the general rule: formal to strangers and to superiors, informal only to very close friends, family and children. Within the family, you have to speak formally to grandparents and in-laws. Even a child of six is expected to know the use of formal speech to speak to elders.

But there are so many variables!

And, in the case of couples, at what exact point do they drop the formality and start talking informally? It’s not always obvious.
I just made up a “rule of thumb” as to not become crazy: that I drop the formal speech after kiss or after sex, or at least when they are holding hands and officially dating.
But I know fully well it’s an artificla rule, just for convenience, and that it isn’t always like that.
I saw it in Five Children. After the couple kissed and they started dating officially, she was referring to him as “Team Leader - nim”; even after they were married, he had to reprimand her for her to decide to use yabeo. (Force of habit?)
And it was in this drama I discovered they were talking about themselves in the third person to the children. I kept hearing “appaga” and “ommaga” etc…

But there are so many cases when there are too many variables and you really cannot guess.

In W there are two working environments.
One is the team of three assistant comics designers.
Of course they all speak formally to the teacher and he speaks informally to them. But among them?

  • It is a workplace, but an informal workplace, the designer’s home which doubles up as his studio.
  • They’re all young assistant cartoonists, so young people in a modern, artistic, non corporate environment.
  • On the other hand, one of them (the guy with fake glasses) seems more senior than the two girls. It’s such situations when you are not sure.

The hospital, the young interns. There is a professor (OK, things very clear there) and a team of three interns: the leading girl and two others.

  • There is one guy who is older or has been there longer (we hear about that soon enough), so he is supposedly free to speak informally to the younger ones (but does he?)
  • On the other hand, the leading girl (who is one year behind him as far as seniority is concerned) seems to be very friendly and comfortable around him, and more or less the same age. So maybe she also speaks informally to him?
  • But the leading girl and the other girl? We don’t know whether they are the same age or one of them is senior. There is no clue about that. So if you don’t know Korean, it’s a guess. But oh, at some point the other girl calls the leading girl “Doctor Oh” (Oh is her name, for all of you who are not watching). So if you call somebody Doctor+Surname it means you speak formally to them. It makes sense. But this calling Doctor Oh is not said on the 1st ep, so until then you know nothing.
  • And what about Doctor Oh speaking to the girl? Is she talking informally to her or not?

In another series, there are two people who used to be sunbae and hoobae. They meet many years later, they are in their thirties. How do they speak to each other?

And, for that matter, when two people are attending university. Are all students speaking informally to each other if they are classmates, and formally to other students they don’t know that well?

@sophie2you , you are very right when you speak about balance. A fine and difficult balance between transmitting the flavour of Korean culture and habits, and what would be viewed as reasonable by the viewers. But, in order to make informed decisions, we have to know what is being said.

**And with this I come to my suggestion: **
English team, I respectfully request, as a matter of courtesy or rather compassion for other language subtitlers, make a memo in the Team Notes about who is talking informally/formally to whom. We would be eternally grateful!
It will be a bother to compile this and keep it updated (telling us when the level of intimacy changes). But on the other hand, think! You won’t have me pestering you with questions. Maybe the gain is worth the effort!


I do agree with what you wrote but there is still a problem that won’t be solved even if they tell us who is speaking formally and who not. Even though it will definitely help for work relationships, it won’t help with relationships. If they are still speaking formal and are already meeting up and being comfortable around each other there is no way I would use formal German because that would makie the subs really awkward. The problem is that we are not only translating languages but also cultural aspects and if I write German subs with a couple using formal speach it would be so weird to read and just feel unnatural. So just as you said, I guess there is no other way than to just decide when it would feel right in e.g. German to switch formalities because often in Korean couples are still speaking formally (no way people would do that here) and sometimes when people are speaking informally it feels more right to use formal language with an unfriendly/unformal choice of words.

So in conclusion I really think it would help to those who can’t understand Korean (I am on a level of Korean that I can at least understand what kind of speach is used by hearing the verbendings) but it doesn’t take away all of the problem because the cultural difference also needs to be translated to a certain point.

Also I do agree with you, it makes me crazy having to decide when to use which level of formality and when to drop it and so on. We normally have a list for all subbers to look at but some don’t look or get confused and editing is hell afterwards with changing all the sentences to the proper formalities and then even getting confused yourself with all the mess :smiley:


One of the real senior editors I’ve worked with says that the mods have a pretty good idea what to use?
She said she only notes it when the speech pattern is important. English team has gotten real good at placing the Mr. Misses, Pleases + selecting polite language to recreate the feeling.
But sometimes when something gets lost in translation (because English fail) I write it in TD. For example there are 5 types of you in Korean: objectification < non-Human < you (like the one in English) < formal (you) < superformal (you) (for grandparents, spouse, people you respect)
I note them and the timing when I sub because some languages like Spanish have vosotros, you superformal.

I just remembered the problem with these genderswap dramas, I am never quite sure if certain characters already know that the guy is a girl because I can’t yet understand if the Korean sentence is neutral or if they really said he/she :smiley: Might just be me overthinking the English subs though :wink:

OMG I hate Korean for this and because we work as a team we often make this mistake…
Korean doesn’t have an explicit subject or object at times so we’d have to hunt like 20-30 subtitles back to find them. Uh… we get lazy or sometimes we think it is a different subject because not everyone goes back 20-30 subtitles! It’s hella annoying!

Me and this other subtitler at least we like to stick to ambiguous pronouns because we lazy at times.
I think?? for the most part the subject once mentioned doesn’t switch until it is explicitly pointed out again. In Korean there is no neutered gender nor do objects have gender like in German.
There are also context clues that show you what the subject is. To the Korean speaker of all levels, these subjects and objects are clear again… if we are subbing and you didn’t sub or check several subs before you might get the subject wrong. I changed an i to a we before for example. This sort of thing is common.

I fully agree that even when knowing what’s going on in Korean we sometimes will have to ignore it. But it will be an informed decision, not one out of ignorance, but out of careful consideration of how faithful to be to the Korean culture or to what sounds natural to the viewers.


I think the info about the formal/informal terms in Team Notes is a good approach, perhaps not 100%
but at least some support, for as me not understanding Korean, and I won’t probably be able to
hear the difference, this would be helpful.

As for the German close relationship informal usage this is true but I think in many dramas I worked with we try to preserve the cultural terms, meaning if a couple still uses informal then I would use that in German as well, because these are Korean/asian dramas not German and it just shows the cultural
aspect so I would stay true to it. Some Mods who understand a good portion of Korean actually put the formal/informal terms and at what time in googledocs which is really helpful!
I noticed that in Switzerland and Germany the adaptation of English/American “you” informal “du” has found its place in daily life like at workplace and among younger generation where it used to be the formal “Sie”.

As for the gender, now I understand when I see “he said” when it refers to a female, must be a mishap…for that reason.


There is a post about how to listen to formality levels and recognize them. I thought I would link it here, maybe it is useful for someone


Good topics like these always get buried. I had been searching for a formality guide of OLs.

Hindi has 4 + 1 (many treat super super formal and super formal equally) levels of politeness (can be 6 if we also include “gangster-language” which is the rudest).
The Super-Super Formal - आप हैं/आप कीजिएगा/आप जाइएगा
The Super Formal - आप हैं/आप कीजिए/आप जाइए
The Formal - आप हो/आप करो/आप जाओ
The Casual - तुम हो/तुम करो/तुम जाओ
The Informal - तू है/तू कर/तू जा
The rudest gangsta in town - (For this one, instead of “you”, “I” changes. Just like difference between “俺” and “私” in Japanese. However, unlike “ore”, normally people won’t use this form.) - अपुन

  • The Super super formal/super formal is used between politicians, celebrities (on-screen), on debate shows and news channels. In real life, I use this one with complete strangers and when I want to be sarcastic.
  • Formal is used by juniors for seniors, children for parents, wives to their husbands (older couples), acquaintances. I use this with my parents, neighbors, teachers, really young kids (2-6 yrs old) and alike
  • Casual is used between new friends (more than acquaintances, less than good friends), by teachers to students, by seniors to juniors, by husbands to wives (older couples), lovers (when they just fall in love), older siblings to their younger siblings. Casual can be used in the same manner as informal but by people in 30s or 40s. I use this with my classmates I am not close with, not so close friends, teenagers, and my siblings
  • Informal is used between best friends, young couples, older to younger sibling, when talking to yourself. It is used mostly by teens and people in their 20s. However, it isn’t uncommon to see elderly people using this form. This form is even used in patriotic songs and prayers. I use this with classmates, my siblings and with me.
  • Rudest form would be great for loan sharks, criminals and gangsters.

When I was new, I faced severe backlash from my team for having used informal and received this statement as the reason, “We’ve never used this, and never saw anyone else using “tu”. So we won’t use it in this drama too.”
It was so uncomfortable to see teens talk like people in their 30s.

I second that.

Might sound weird, but there could be a virtual formality level to differentiate between several formality levels. A1 could mean politest form, A2 less polite than A1, B1 for casual, B2 for less casual than B1, similarly C1 and C2… However, implementation of this thought seems difficult.

For me, the general rule is seniors to juniors, parents to kids - informal
juniors to seniors, kids to parents, if the formality isn’t known - formal.

I have this extensive sheet for Imitation which contains the formality levels. Inspired by a Spanish sheet found in Team Discussions


Couldn’t agree more. Despite the fact, I can clearly see use of informal speech between characters, I sometimes have to use formal and vice versa. Or sometimes have to switch between formal and informal between same characters and switch it back after some time.


Is this form grammatically correct?


Thanks for bumping this topic! This is really important! :smile: Taking notes for when I get into leadership roles in the future :writing_hand::writing_hand::sweat_smile:


This is still a debatable topic. Many people in North India, still use आप हो/आप करो/आप जाओ (really common in movies, shows, songs). In Khadi Boli, both forms are correct, and is in popular use. However, Manak Hindi rejects this idea, marking आप as बहुचन। For Manak Hindi, आप हो would be grammatically incorrect, but Khadi Boli accepts this idea.

Search results for the same by Google:

However, despite knowing Manak Hindi marks this formality incorrect, I still use it in singular cases. If someone is talking with one person, I’d use आप हो/आप करो/आप जाओ. If someone is talking with more than one, I’d use आप हैं/आप कीजिए/आप जाइए.

After all, this is how languages evolve. If something is in popular use, it will, over time, become a rule.

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There are a lot of useful topics buried here. There’s one even on use of curse words.

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धन्यवाद, आप एक अच्छी शिक्षिका हैं|


I use formal and informal based on who is talking. Mostly "aap- आप " and "tum- तुम " …"tu- तू " is used only when someone is rude. Whenever I see “bitch or wench”, I use "bad person - खराब " instead. For words like “jerk, bastard, punk, sob” etc, I use “बदमाश, गुंडे, कमीने, कुत्ते” . I am not sure if person is actually calling the other bastard or just something like jerk , because in Hindi bastard means not knowing who your father is.

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If you are referring to what sounds like “gae sekki-ya” (개새끼야! ), it means son of a dog. So nothing to do with your mother’s morals. It’s more of a generic insult, not always to be translated as bastard. Sometimes a more appropriate way would be the generic “jerk!”
And what sounds like “kicchibeh” means just “home girl”. At what point this became a derogatory term, I don’t know. Probably because in the olden days, you being a girl in itself put you in a lowly status. But it is not used only as an insult, you can hear girl friends saying that in an affectionate way, even mothers to daughters.

This was discussed in the thread quoted above by shraddhasing.

I have made a whole document on Korean insults and slang, it might help you to have a look. I have put in red the ones we encounter more often, so that you don’t have to go through everything.


This doc is really informative! I always thought “개불” was the equivalent of “Bullsh*t” though… that’s what I’ve seen it being translated to :thinking:

The word you’re looking for is 개뿔with double B
combined word of 개 (dog) + 뿔 (horn). A dog doesn’t have horns, so…

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ohhh thanks for clarifying!^^

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I also thought “gaeshikiya” was SOB but for some reason, it has been usually translated into bastard so I just use equivalent word in Hindi like I said before. For girls, I use "chokri -छोकरी , ladki- लड़की , bcchi - बच्ची " – these are all equivalent to "Girl, Wench, Hey You…"etc. For boys, similarly "chokre -छोकरे , ladke -लड़के , bacche -बच्चे " etc .
I am sure in any old culture, being called Bastard is one of worst things.
Before in Hindi and Punjabi Cinema the worst anyone would call each other was “bastard, Sob / Prostitute” but now lot of movies have fbombs and worse. You cannot watch them with your parents!