[KS] Korean Studies Discussion List Subject: Romanisation_From Kontsevich (Moscow)

lev kontsevich lr.kontsevich at gmail.com
Tue Apr 28 18:46:36 EDT 2009

To: Korean Studies Discussion List

Subject: [KS] Romanisation

Dear List members, the questions how to transmit Korean words with Latin
letters arise from time to time presently and it will surely constantly
arise in future. I have been studying the problems of transcription for more
than 40 years. My system of Russian (Cyrillic) transcription of Korean words
has been used in scholarly editions and cartography since 1970's. For about
10 years I was an expert from the USSR when the international project
of Korean Characters into Latin" was been developed in ISO (TC 46 / SC 2).
Even then the South Korean side insisted on the system of transliteration,
which was close to the "New Romanization" of 2000. Representatives of other
countries (North Korea, China, France etc.) categorically objected. I have
criticized the South Korean "New Romanization" since the time when it was
being developed by the National Academy of the Korean Language. Per se it is
*transliteration* with some elements of transcription (e.g., such as *gachi*
вм. *gati*, *joko* вм. *johgo*, *Dongnimmun*  вм. *Dongripmun*, a.o.) and
has little difference from the system, which was used in South Korea since
1958. It helps to restore the writing forms of Korean words in Hangeul, not
their pronunciation. This system was done *mainly for Koreans* and was
supposed to be used *inside* the country. Because of the globalization
policy the South Korean authorities try to spread their "New Romanization"
world-wide  that is to make it international.

First of all a *consensus* among experts of Korean studies from all over the
world is necessary in this sphere,

as it exists among Sinologists and Japanologists. Up till now many scholars
beyond Korea have continued using the traditional McCune-Reischauer *
transcription* system, which in spite of some shortages more or less
adequately transmits the sounds of Korean words. A better system of
"Romanization" of Korean language has not been created yet. As any other
practical transcription it is conditional. And it can be comparatively
easily used in computers.

As a representative of the Korean studies in Russia I can say that the "New
Romanization" in practice greatly hurts the mass-media in our country. The
damage of this system in Russia is much greater than in the countries, which
use the Latin script. As common users do not know the rules of
transliteration they convey Koreans names from the "Korean-Latin script" in
the forms, which have nothing in common with their real sounds (so called
'phonetical  monsters'). Therefore it is necessary to compile a dictionary
of geographic names of contemporary Korea with exact transmission from the
"New Romanization" into Cyrillic and traditional McCune - Reischauer system,
compile tables of transliteration of "Korean Latin" into Cyrillic to restore
more or less the sounding of Korean words, prepare the rules of
bibliographic descriptions of Korean books in catalogues etc. As a famous
Russian linguist Lev Scherba wrote some 80 years ago, "anarchy in
transcription, as in orthography, is a small yet state-wide disaster".

To what extent we can yield to the pressure and agree with what is been
imposed on us?  I think that it is a fundamental issue and a question of
principle. For example, in the USSR State Standard (GOST) existed and all
the institutions and mass-media were obliged to use it. Now the world is
free and we can't oblige anybody. The only thing that we can do is to
promote scholarly approach ourselves. It would be useful to publish both
systems ("New Romanization" and McCune - Reischauer system) in the Internet
as equal with the note that the first is mainly transliteral, and the second
is transcriptional. McCune - Reischauer system can be given in the
simplified form if diacritical marks are so complicated (although in modern
computers it's not a problem). It must become the *broad* transcriptional
system for all users, and let "New Romanization" remain as transliteral
system for Koreans and people who know Korean. It's important don't mix
them. Personally I use any opportunity to advertise the principles of
correct transcription of Korean words, and by now have published it in
Russian Wikipedia, in the site of the Russian Association of University
Korean Studies, in five volumes of "The Korean Studies in Russia" almanac
and some other editions. Several times I spoke at different conferences and
directly called upon my Russian colleagues to pay special attention to the
question of correct transcription. I can't say that I receive wide
understanding. Transcription is gradually becoming one of the most
controversial topics here. "One man can't win a war", they say. Still I want
to believe that persistent efforts give results. Sometimes I receive calls
from publishers, encyclopedia compilers, TV program organizers etc., who ask
me for consultation on transcription of Korean words. I gladly help them.
There are still people who try to do their work well. The other thing we can
do is to teach writing culture to our students, so that in future they could
propagate correct transcription to future generation. Young Koreanologists
should know that writing Korean names and words with correct transcription
is as important as orthographical writing in English or Russian.

Lev Kontsevich

Leading Researcher,

Institute of Oriental Studies,

Russian Academy of Sciences


e-mail: lr.kontsevich at gmail.com
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