[KS] dropping McCune-Reischauer for 20th/21st c. personal names

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at fas.harvard.edu
Thu Dec 13 01:53:19 EST 2001

Some get easily aroused, others just look shamefully away when the 
topic comes up: The McCune-Reischauer System (hereafter McR System). 
Please relax, I am not trying to force a revival of this theme ... 
we¹ve all had it, and enough of it. No macho talk and no 
revolutionary outbursts either -- rather a specific proposal, or 
maybe more of a declaration.

The South Korean governments have more than once missed the chance to 
come up with any binding regulation (for her citizens) to follow any 
transcription system for personal names -- as is the case in Japan 
and China (both Taiwan and the PRC). Do we care? Well, it makes life 
just a bit more complicated for everyone. I believe that until 
recently most East Asian Studies scholars have applied the McR System 
to all personal names, allowing just a few exceptions (Syngman Rhee, 
Daewoo, etc.). Recently, I read a short German text about 20th 
century art ... now forgot where ... but the author did painstakingly 
follow the McR System with all the personal names. All was so right, 
so very correct, it felt really wrong. Why? Because the text 
summarized post-liberation Korean art. Nam June Paik or Lee Ufan or 
Kim Tschang-yeul were not exactly well-known by the general art 
interested public in 1970? But they are in 2001, at least much more 
so than in 1970. Things have changed. You will probably agree that it 
would be wrong to speak of ³Paek Nam-jun² as he is a U.S. citizen, 
but it becomes more complicated with Lee Ufan as he was active in 
Japan, and it becomes a real issue with someone like Kim Tschang-yeul 
[Kim Ch¹ang-nyôl] who was active in Europe as well as in Korea. Who 
knows -- even IN Korea -- what Nikki S. Lee¹s Korean name is? I saw 
that for the first time two weeks ago in a New York Times article 
about her (12/02/01, Sect. 9, p. 1); the South Korean press just 
speaks about ³Nikki Lee² (that is, the KOREAN language press). Last 
time I saw her she was here on a tourist visa, although the NYT 
introduces her as ³a New York artist born in South Korea.² In short, 
in our age of globalization so many Korean personalities are known by 
a self-chosen rendering of their names that it will not be helpful to 
refer to them using the McCune-Reischauer transcription (nor the new 
SK government system).

I suggest therefore to draw a line in August 1945 (liberation of 
Korea) and to make all transcriptions of personal names from that 
point on a judgment call -- using McCune-Reischauer if you feel the 
person you are mentioning is not very well known by his/her name in 
the West, and using that person¹s own choice of naming/transcription 
if that version seems to be known in the West. To be sure, there are 
quite a number of Korean personalities who use/d their own romanized 
version of their name but are not known by these romanizations in the 
West. In such cases it makes more sense to use McCune-Reischauer.


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