Romanisation of Korean names

Romanisation of Korean names can be very confusing since there are several romanisation systems and Koreans can choose freely how they write their name in English.

I personally use the Revised Romanisation of Korean. However, if a person is already known under a certain transcription, I will use this “official” transcription.

For example, 김언수, author of The Plotters, is known under the transcription Un-su Kim. I personally don’t like this transcription, because I don’t know if the author’s name is 김운수 or 김언수 🤯. Same goes for figure skater Yuna Kim. Her Korean name is 김연아, but the English transcription could make people think that her name is 김윤아 or 김유나. Another very confusing thing is when different systems are used together. Tennis player Hyeon Chong’s Korean name is 정현. If we use the McCune-Reischauer romanisation, it should be Hyŏn Chŏng, but if we use the Revised Romanisation of Korean, it should be Hyeon JEONG. It could even be written Hyun Chung. In any case, both vowels should be written the same way. 🤨

Another confusing point is the place of the family name. If we follow the Korean order, the family name should come first, but if we adopt the Western order, the given name comes first. On the English cover of Korean literature, I think that I almost always see the given name first (Un-su KIM, Kyung-soon SHIN, Young-ha KIM…). However, politicians are known with their family name first (PARK Geun-hye, MOON Jae-in…). It is especially confusing for people whose given name is only one syllable. For example, tennis player Hyeon Chong (given name first: 정현), or actor Gong Yoo, or should it be Yoo Gong? (공유) 🤔.

If a Korean person chooses one transcription or if people massively use one transcription when a person is known outside Korea, it becomes the established transcription, and I will, of course, use it. The problem is for Korean authors who haven’t been translated into English and don’t necessarily have an established transcription that I know. Same goes for characters that I see in novels.

My personal preference is to systematically use the revised romanisation of Korean, adopt the Western order, and don’t use the dash in the given name. But I am aware that if everyone comes out with their own system, it will only make things more confusing! 😅

As a consequence I have decided to adopt what seems to be the Wikipedia standard: Revised romanisation of Korean, Korean order (family name first) and dash in the given name. To be sure, I will always write the family name in upper-case.

For example, while I would like to write the author 윤자영 as Jayeong YUN, I will write it YUN Ja-yeong because I think that this is how it would appear on Wikipedia (there is still no page in English for this author as I write this text). If one day this author is translated into English and the publisher writes something like Cha-young YOON on the cover, I will use this transcription. However, I cannot promise that I will go back on all my previous posts to correct the transcription…

To sum-up, it looks like there is two different things:

  • A romanisation that allows us to write the name without using hangeul. In this case, it is best to use the revised romanisation of Korean and keep everything in the same order as in Korean. The dash is also very useful.
  • An “English name” that Korean choose for themselves (or that somehow, becomes the standard transcription). In this case, people tend to choose a transcription that will match the English pronunciation, and they will switch to the Western order, at least when it comes to authors.

As long as someone is not known under a certain “English name”, I will use the “romanisation” described above. I always check and double-check on Internet to see if there is an established transcription for an author, but it is not always easy to find. In any case, I will always write the name in hangeul in my posts, at least for the first occurrence.