Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: Why "Yu-Na Kim"?

Korean figure skating sensation 김연아 is known as "Yu-Na Kim" to English-speaking countries, although the proper Romanization of her name should be "Yeon-A Kim". The Korean had previously heard that Kim deliberately chose the wrong Romanization for the ease of pronunciation for anglophones, but he wanted a confirmation. While searching the Internet for the confirmation, the Korean ran into an interesting article on Chosun Ilbo, written about a week ago. Translation is below.

[Op-Ed] Why Call "Kim Yeon-A" as "Yuna Kim"?

I turned on the TV at my hotel in Vancouver, and I heard the announcer say:

"Yu-Na Kim is well known in Canada as well. Yu-na has been training in Toronto. Right now the screen in the rink shows 'Kim Yu-Na,' but the reason why we call her 'Yu-Na Kim' is..."

It was right before the figure skating short program. CTV, Canadian broadcasting company that was exclusively showing the Winter Olympics, was introducing Kim Yeon-A as a likely candidate for the gold medal. The program was showing the stock photo of Kim Yeon-A as a child wearing colorful Korean traditional clothes. The announcer continued:

"In Korea, Yu-Na Kim is called 'Kim Yeon-A.' The family name comes first. But the reason why we call her 'Yu-Na Kim' is not because we changed it into what we are used to, but because she introduced herself as 'Yu-Na Kim' when she first came to Canada."

As the program went on, the announcer repeated this explanation three times, that calling Kim Yeon-A as Yu-Na Kim was not at all meant to ignore another country's customs and apply the Canadian standard. That day CTV only showed this introduction but did not broadcast the game in which Kim participated; instead, it showed Canada-Germany hockey game that showed at the same time. [TK Note: The reporter apparently did not know that the figure skating actually showed after the hockey game.] While it was a little disappointing, it was natural given that hockey is Canada's favorite sport.

Although I could not see Kim's performance live, the small explanation from the announcer was the most unforgettable thing in my one week stay in Vancouver. It was about how to be respectful and considerate to those who are different from us, how to live together in a mixed manner. I brought this up at a dinner with local Korean Canadians, and a Korean Canadian who worked at a school district office added:

"One time, there was a fight between two Korean students at an elementary school in Vancouver. The parent went to the student who fought with her son and told him, 'You shouldn't fight like that, because Koreans have to stick together.' The school heard of this, and called the parent. 'Why did you call him a Korean student? There are no Korean students, Chinese students, Canadian students at our schools. They are all just students.' When I read this report, I thought the ideas of 'one people' and 'patriotism' that we are used to may be seen as 'exclusionary' and 'totalitarian' to others."

Of course, there were cars in Vancouver draped in the Red Maple Leaf Flag during the Winter Olympics. There were people who were chanting "Canada, Canada" while wearing a hat and a cape made with a Canadian flag. But the majority of Vancouverites seemed to find these scenes -- in which "the people stuck together" -- unfamiliar, although they are nothing more than cute little gatherings compared to Korea where the heart of Seoul would be totally filled.

Vancouver is a multiethnic, multicultural city. Other than Canadians, there are Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Filipinos, Vietnamese live mixed into the city. There are also about 70,000 Koreans, including study abroad students. But this city has rarely seen discrimination based on skin color and language emerging as a problem. There is a separate court for human rights, and a lawsuit is filed immediately if such an insult has been felt. Regardless of the result of the suit, the fact that one was sued is enough to cause embarrassment.

For us who have lived while holding "one people" as a point of pride, such "bouquet society" would likely be impossible. Regardless, we have no choice but to live mixed in with people who are different from us. There are more than a million foreigners in Korea. Korean-Chinese build the apartments in which we will live, young Filipino men run the machines in Ansan industrial complex and Sri Lankans ride the boats on the East Sea. Above all, the Southeastern Asian women who do not even know our language are giving birth to our children in rural areas. Those children probably will not know why their face is different from their friends' at first.

How are we receiving these people who have entered our society? In treating these people as "different," do we not have a sense of superiority hiding in our minds? Past the Vancouver Koreatown, there was a cheap restaurant on the roadside that had a sign saying "$5.99 Lunch Special." The owners were a Korean-Chinese couple who previously worked in Korea. "My co-workers used to look down on me because I was a Korean-Chinese, and my wife was being shunned by other employees at the restaurant in which she worked. You could say the discrimination we experienced in Korea turned into our benefit, because it made us decide to come here."

The world is relative. We, while behaving like this, become upset at small discrimination experienced by our family who immigrated, and surprised when Korean study-abroad students are attacked in Russia.

[최보식 칼럼] '김연아'를 '유나킴'으로 부르는 것은 (Chosun Ilbo)

 Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Uh oh, you've opened the can of Romanization worms!

    While "Yeon-a" may be "proper" Romanization in Korea, it would be mispronounced by English-speakers who have no idea that 'eo' represents the sound of ㅓ. Anglophones might have rendered it as Yay-ohn-a instead.

    I think she should have gone with a double n - Yunna. It would have been a bit closer and by mimicking the 'unn' sound of words like 'cunning'.

    Incidentally, while looking for a video to introduce mis-Romanized names for a freshman academic English class, a co-worker stumbled across a video where the ice skater ice referring to herself as "Yuna" when she spoke in English. She's stuck with that name now:

  2. Is Yuna Kim the greatest athlete korea has produced so far? I say YES.

  3. Huh. I always thought it was because of 외교부 being idiots... they're the reason why my legal Korean name gets butchered by everyone, even though it's relatively easy to pronounce... I think...

  4. I won't go into the which-is-better Romanization issue right now (except to say that I described the "Revised Romanization" problems here and the superiority of McCune-Reischauer here).

    Instead, I want to point out that most hyphenations and other divisions (capitalization, spaces) within a given name makes Korean names less accessible and harder to process.

    I like the idea of spelling her name Yunna, but let's also assume Yŏna/Yona or Yeona are also possibilities. What purpose is served by writing those as Yon-a, Yon-A, Yeon-a, or Yeon-A (or even worse, Yon A or Yeon A)?

    People unfamiliar with Korean will tend to pause where the hyphen or space is. Other people will assume "a/A" is a middle name and instead call her Yon/Yeon (like they do with Jin and Sun on "Lost").

    Sure, the hyphen is important to differentiate between 연아 and 여나, but if you don't speak Korean, that spelling is not important (they are pronounced the same way). And if you do speak Korean, you can look it up or ask.

    We don't do this with English names. We don't write JohnSon or John-son or John Son. We don't do it with Japanese names, like KoNiShi. It would be ridiculous to see CathLeen ToGuChi. So why do we do this in English with Korean names?

    Even Revised Romanization recommends against doing this, except in cases where pronunciation is not clear, like differentiating Yang-yang from Yan-gyang.

    So let's disPense with these ex-traNeOus hyPhens and spa ces in KoRe-an names.

  5. Yeah, 'eo' is totally problematic. In spite of the fact that we have the ㅓ='a' in Hungarian, we don't say 서울, because we replaced the 'eo' in Seoul with an other letter. Kinda stupid.

  6. Re: The name situation:

    Today some of my students were in the office signing up for an English camp. The Korean English teacher was taking their information one by one, and had instructed them all to think of an English name while they waited, which they would need for the camp.

    Even when I was back in New York, working with Korean university students, I got a creepy-crawly feeling when they would come in for our sessions and announce that they had taken an English name. Of course, it's up to every individual what they are called in any given situation. But I get uncomfortable with teachers forcing students to go by an English name.

    I'm not going to lie -- back in NY, before I had learned hanguel, the names were a trial for me and I probably presented my students with all manners of abominations in place of their names. Coming to Korea, it's been an adjustment to get students' names right and to be able to read off a role sheet without all kinds of giggling. Sometimes, because of the font on their name badges, I still get one wrong. But really, that's my responsibility. Whenever I meet a Korean out and about and they give me an English name, I always (politely) ask that they give me their Korean name instead. How can you have the same connection with someone and expect not to be treated differently in your relationship with them, if you call them by a completely different name than everyone else?

    In short, I asked one of my more firey (and fluent in English) students what he thought of having to choose an English name for the camp -- "It sucks." Basically, I agree.

  7. I think we should just be consistent.

    I remember when Pinyin Romanization first became widespread and no-one had any idea how to pronounce it. I think it is still a mystery to the vast majority but people are now used to it in print and those you have to pronounce it at least approximately (newscasters) can find out based on the consistent Romanization.

    Really, you will probably butcher the pronunciation of a foreign name anyway, no matter how you spell it. Those who care will find out and those you don't, to bad for them. If the Romanization is consistent, those who care will at least have a reliable guide.

  8. I met a Korean guy that had moved here to the U.S. and when I asked him what his name was he said, "Just call me Joe." Bless his heart - he learned quickly that it would be easier for him that way. Many of us try hard to pronounce things correctly but fail. :-(

  9. As a Korean studying in Canada, I get a feeling that Canadians try to act in a way that portrays their multicultural (mosaic) values every now and then. That may be the reason why reporter was so eager to repeat the background info about "Yuna".

    Personally,I think Yuna is much better name than Yeon-A. The pronounciation is somewhat simillar and it's easier to read.

  10. Pronunciation aside, that's a pretty good article coming from the Chosun Ilbo

  11. why don't they write it as Kim Yohna. I think this is clearer than Yuna. It sucks though that "oh" by itself is pronounced with a long o. English is fucked up definitely.

  12. I think it's fascinating that none of the commentators so far have even touched upon the second half of your article, which is a sophisticated jump-off from your discussion on 김연아's name. Your closing rhetorical statement, especially, is a poignant reminder that while the world is relative, it is complicated by the tension between reality and expectations of social interactions undergirded by race.

    Personally, I'd love to see the correct pronunciation of 김연아's name attempted by English speakers. We (I'm speaking for both Korean and American English speakers here) have no qualms about pronouncing names like "Givenchy" and "Louis Vuitton," with no excuse because English is a Germanic language with distinctive, proprietary sounds from Anglo-Norman cultures that shares more with French than it does with Latinate languages like Italian.

    It's true that Vancouver might epitomize the "cosmopolitan multi-pluralism" surpasses even America's ostensible ideals of equality. But even in Vancouver, one might say that this idea of cosmopolitan identity (re: They are all just students) subsumes identities uniquely informed by race and culture under the guise of a harmonized society. I wonder if this is just as bad as us Koreans being surprised by racialized attacks on us elsewhere when the reality is that we live in micro- and macro-worlds in which cultures do clash. We call ourselves one people but we discriminate against racially non-Koreans in Korea. This domestic farce can only be mirrored on the international playing field, where we experience discrimination based on the simple fact that our genetic phenotypes have been mapped onto our face in a certain way.

    Perhaps we need to think about this in terms of Karma. To discriminate against racially non-Koreans will only result in a mindset that does not allow us to simultaneously appreciate difference and celebrate racial/culture identities, which will lead to discrimination. We have to do both. Taken to the extreme, Canadian cosmopolitanism is in danger of shedding the unique contributions of various races/cultures (ironically) by extolling the tolerance of all difference. But Koreans are in danger of being shamed by increasing media coverage of intolerance. I guess we start by pronouncing names correctly, instead of covering identities in ways that we find convenient.

  13. I think wanting to correctly pronounce her name is great. However, if you just watch the news and Yuna Yuna Yuna is all you see that is what it's going to be. If Ms. Yuna really wanted to focus on the way her name is pronounced I'm sure she (and or her management) would've done something about it. It dosen't matter how it's spelled as long as she is enjoying herself and enhancing the sport. those interested in Korean and/or Yuna will learn her name properly, everyone else is stuck with the image she has given out.

    And no she is not stuck with this romanization Prince and P-Diddy changed their names plenty of times and if Yuna wants to all she has to do is change it. Who knows maybe in 4 years we'll see Kim Yeonah formerly Yuna posted all over the Olympics.

  14. I think Literati makes (make?) a good point about her being able to change her name. If she does that, though, I think that Alex's suggestion of Yunna is by far the best one.

    As much as I am a stickler to McCune-Reischauer, I think that Yunna would be ideal because it's fairly close to how people already spell it and it would probably yield the closest approximation of 연아 for those who don't know much about Han•gǔl.

    WORD VERIFICATION: joided, when someone from New Jersey is jaded.

  15. Dan,
    I believe that what the school was doing was attempting to treat all of the students equally for administrative purposes. I think it was a practical take on the matter: “Hey, Korean, or not, students will fight together sometimes”. I don’t see how this subsumes the students’ identities – rather I see it as an effort to maintain harmony at the school and police the students consistently.
    I think it was a stretch to use this example to make some of the other points that you did. I also really don’t understand this: “Taken to the extreme, Canadian cosmopolitanism is in danger of shedding the unique contributions of various races/cultures (ironically) by extolling the tolerance of all difference.” In the school example, they didn’t seem to be tolerating all differences among students, rather treating them equally. Maybe I’m a bit slow, but can you elaborate on what you mean here?
    Also I think your last point missed the mark. 김연아 evidently assumed the Kim Yuna identity herself, so nothing is being covered up.

  16. JW,

    Again, as a by-product of the softening that we undergo as we age, I try to avoid contradicting others so unconditionally, for fear of offending them and unnecessarily provoke ill-will. But in this case, I'd have to unqualifiedly, most emphatically disagree with your claim that Kim is "the greatest athlete Korea has produced so far."

    To begin with, in my mind, being a great athlete lexically means, above all, you have overwhelming physical attributes--esp. in the common measures such as strength, agility, leaping ability, endurance, etc. Think Wilt Chamberlain or Bo Jackson. This is why I have trouble believing that golfers or bowlers or figure skaters can be among the greatest of athletes. What are Yuna's bench press reps or her 40-yard times?

    Nonetheless, this is not my chief disagreement. Instead, the fundamental problem is that Yuna competes in a sport that is not at all widely popular--esp. outside North America and Northern Europe. As an analogy, I always had trouble digesting a once common argument that Sergei Bubka (pole vault) or Alexander Karelin (Greco-Roman wrestling and super heavyweight at that!) was the greatest athlete ever--even though they were far more dominant than Yuna could ever dream of being. And unlike Yuna, both Bubka and Karelin were super-human physical freaks the same way Chamberlan and Bo were.

    So if you want to find "the greatest Korean athlete ever," look elsewhere other than figure skating or women's archery. For instance, I think a far stronger case can be made for someone like Cha Bum-geun, who was likely one of the top 10-15 best European footballer at his best. Surely, the 10th best philosopher in Periclean Athens was more erudite than the wisest man of Gaul no?

    Further, if your criterion must be simple dominance, divorced from actual physical athletic ability or the level of competition, Yuna still wouldn't make the cut. As adumbrated female archers like Kim Jin-ho were more dominant than Yuna. So goes for a judoka like Jeon Ki-young (possibly the greatest judo competitor of the last two decades and undefeated in both world championships and the Olympics) or a pro boxer like Jang Jeong-goo (whose only loss in prime was a controversial loss to the all-time great Hilario Zapata when he basically couldn't even walk because of an injury).

    Indeed, you may think Korea is going bonkers over Yuna, but when Jang fought, the streets completely cleared and half the people watched TV, just like a showing of "Hour Glass" or the like.

    In short, I suspect your impulse to so quickly apotheosize Yuna has to do with simple ignorance of Korean sports history.

  17. Kim Yuna was born on the same year as me. My name is Do-Yun (should have been romanized as Yeon) but I guess back then people did not know better ways to spell Yeon out in English.

    Now living in the US, I get called = Doe Yoon, Doo Yoon, Doe Yeon, Doo Yeon. quite a variety isn't it? (I hate being called all these different names because more than half of those words sound like they belong to men/boys. I stick to my English names when I'm around, but I still have to hear those awful pronunciations at hospital clinics and etc

  18. 도연 wrote:Kim Yuna was born on the same year as me. My name is Do-Yun (should have been romanized as Yeon) but I guess back then people did not know better ways to spell Yeon out in English.You're probably lucky you didn't go with Do-Yeon. Then you'd be 또/뚜+예온,이온, 예안, etc.

    In McCune-Reischauer your name would have been spelled Toyŏn, but you'd probably have dropped the ˘ breve and spelled it Toyon. Of course, then you'd have the 투 problem, I guess, as well as 얀 or 욘 sometimes instead of 연, but it's closer than 예안.

    Now living in the US, I get called = Doe Yoon, Doo Yoon, Doe Yeon, Doo Yeon. quite a variety isn't it? (I hate being called all these different names because more than half of those words sound like they belong to men/boys. I stick to my English names when I'm around, but I still have to hear those awful pronunciations at hospital clinics and etc

    Have you ever considered dropping the hyphen and making Doyun one word in English, just like it is in Korean? I'm guessing that might cut down on the "doo" pronunciations.

    I don't understand why so many people insist on separating the syllables of their name with a hyphen or, worse, a space, which only further confuses non-Korean speakers. Well, no, I DO understand, but I just think it stems from a silly misunderstanding of how English works.

    Have you ever seen someone spell their name John Son or John-son or John-Son? Of course not, because it's one name. Standard Korean names don't have a "middle name," so why make it look that way out of a misguided attempt to make Korean names sorta kinda fit into the Western framework.


To prevent spam comments, comments left on posts older than 60 days are subject to moderation and will not appear immediately.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...