Updated: How to Translate Korean Cosmetic Ingredient Lists

Originally posted 27 January 2015; updated 11 October 2015.

Updated: in the nine months since I wrote this post, other members of the Asian Beauty community have brought absolutely amazing, game-changing ingredient list resources to light. That means that you may very well not have to translate lists most of the time unless you’re looking for lists from obscure brands, new products, or old products. I’ve compared the official ingredient lists to those in both of the below online repositories on multiple occasions and I found them to be perfect matches.

life-is-beautiful

My preferred resource is the Hwahae ingredient app, which is downloadable on iTunes and in the Google Play store. Lost in Pretty made a tutorial for how to use it–find that tutorial here. I find the interface and folders (explained in the Lost in Pretty tutorial) amazing. For people who just need a quick list, once you know how to use the app, you could–if you wanted to–type in the English version of a Korean brand name, use photos to find the product, and then jam your finger at the right box and see the whole ingredient list in both English and Korean. I usually then transcribe the list from my iPad, if I’m using it for a review (citing Hwahae as the source, of course).

My backup resource is All of Cosmetics  (AoC), which is accessible both on your browser and phone (iTunes, Google Play). Nonsonoquitter made a tutorial for how to use it–find the tutorial here. I find that AoC requires a bit more knowledge of Hangul and the interface isn’t as intuitive to me, but it has the advantage–since it’s available on desktop–of allowing one to copy and paste ingredient names from the translated list rather than transcribing them. Cite AoC, cry happy tears, and enjoy your saved time.

Between these two resources, I rarely have to translate anymore. Sometimes I dust off the old Trans Am and take her for a spin due to Su:m 37 releasing some new compost bin sleeping pack, but I now get to focus a lot more energy on what I love.

Keep in mind that South Korea and the U.S. have different ingredient list order regulations, which means that you can’t really read a kbeauty ingredient list that hasn’t been reformatted to comply with U.S. FDA regulations the same way you would read an Aveeno label in an NYC Duane Reade. Simply put, they’re playing by different rules that often result in kbeauty lists for the same products looking vastly better. For more on that see my post “South Korean vs. U.S. Cosmetic Ingredient List Order Differences.”

In the event you like quirky (especially hanbang), new, or old products and can’t find them listed in Hwahae or AoC, read on.

Original post:

I occasionally post translations of Korean ingredient lists here, but it occurs to me that other people may want to be able to translate ingredients and simply haven’t been given tips for how to do it. Some US-based Korean beauty shops do a magnificent job of translating every single list into English and creating a sticker for the side of the product box that includes instructions for use. Other shops and sellers don’t do this. I don’t translate ingredient lists for products that I don’t receive or care about because I think that it’s important not to act as an unpaid translator that enables companies to continue to not provide English ingredient lists. I also think that most people can actually do their own translations with some guidelines, study, practice, and feedback. So here I am with some basic guidelines and resources.

Over the course of the past nine months or so, I’ve been attempting to translate Korean ingredient lists from time to time. I’m in no way an expert or even all that great (I certainly make mistakes!) at ingredient translation, but my feeling is that by now my English translations are usually better than what companies provide in English (usually done using machine translation like Google Translate or done sloppily with mistranslations and ingredients listed out of order) and it’s certainly better than nothing at all. A few companies provide competent translations (Tosowoong’s translations for their eBay shop are excellent), but the truth is that if you want a quality translation from Korean and the product’s maker hasn’t provided it, you’re probably going to have to do it yourself unless some lovely person out there has stepped up to provide one. With some practice and a willingness to suffer, you can translate, too! Sounds fun, right? ahahah

A note about my level of fluency. I am pretty comfortable with the Korean alphabet by now, but I know just about zero vocabulary outside of ingredients and kbeauty brand names. I get excited when I can order a seafood pancake using the Korean word. That’s what I’m working with: not a whole lot. Due to my academic training, I’ve studied languages (each language gets easier to acquire the more you’ve studied) and developed an ability to persevere through dreadful work, but I have no innate gift for translating languages whatsoever. I truly believe that anyone who really wants to be able to translate ingredients can learn how to do it competently with some practice and mental sweat (unless there is a disorder like severe dyslexia present that would prevent one from reading the Korean writing. My own [diagnosed] ADHD has not stopped me from translating, so I have faith that most people will be able to do this.). Work and struggle is always part of the equation, but this is pleasant work once you gain some basic skills–and there are resources to help you.

The Korean alphabet and typing in Korean

The first step on your journey is learning the Korean alphabet and learning how to type in Korean. The alphabet is extremely logical and there are a million resources out there for learning it. I bought Basic Korean: A Grammar and Workbook, but the alphabet is only one chapter in the whole book and even the Wikipedia page about the Korean alphabet is probably enough to get you started. This “Learn to Read Korean in 15 Minutes” guide is really popular and clear.

The alphabet, called Hangul, has only 24 letters. Those blocks that people sometimes think are Chinese are just groupings of letters in syllables. Each block is a syllable.

What’s amazing to me is that if you go onto the Memebox Korea website, for example, if you know the Korean alphabet and can calmly work through the words, you’ll realize that many words spelled in Korean are actually English. Example:

memebox korea


This may look pretty overwhelming, but if you know the alphabet, you can see that many of the menu items are actually in English already, just spelled with the Korean alphabet.

memebox korea english

One of the things many of us care about is skincare. This is the word for skincare: 스킨케어. Each syllable is a block of letters that fit into a square. There are four syllables in the Koreanized version of the word “skincare.”

First syllable block ():
ㅅ = s
ㅡ = eu

Second syllable block ():
ㅋ = k
ㅣ = i
ㄴ = n

Third syllable block ():
ㅋ = k
ㅔ = e

Fourth syllable block ():
ㅇ = has no sound at the start of a syllable block
ㅓ = eo

If you sound 스킨케어 out using the Korean alphabet letters used, it sounds like “seu-kin-ke-eo.” Say it out loud–it’s “skincare” with a bit of an accent due to how it is rendered using the Korean letters. The spelling “스킨케어” is used consistently, so just look for that and you’re on the right track.

I’m not going to attempt to teach the whole Korean alphabet (which can easily be found even on the Wikipedia page for Hangul), but I want to show you how making some flash cards and acquiring knowledge of 24 letters can immediately expand your ability to shop on Korean-language websites and navigate through Korean homepages. I find this useful due to the amount of information on the Korean sites vs. their English language counterparts and due to the vastly better prices on Korean shopping sites (which I shop on thanks to Avecko’s proxy buying service–see my post about it here). By learning 24 letters you can know more about the products you use and pay better prices for them–for me, that’s worth the work.

In order to type Korean ingredient lists you’ll need to use either a mobile device with a Korean keyboard enabled or use an online Korean keyboard. Both will actually help you by forming the syllable blocks automatically. I like to use my iPhone because it seems more natural somehow, but I’m attempting to speed up my work by practicing on a real desktop keyboard while using an online Korean keyboard converter. Here’s the keyboard I use.

My translation method:

Over the course of a few months I’ve come up with a technique for speeding up the translation process and for avoiding mistakes. One of the surest ways to make mistakes and be really miserable imo is to try to look up and translate each ingredient one by one. By “batching” your work, you can put less drag on your brain’s processing ability and work through a list with minimal fuss and greater precision. Here are my recommended steps:

1. Find or type the entire Korean ingredient list.

2. Count the number of ingredients and compare it to the body label/official website list to make sure that none have been dropped. I do this by counting commas–it’s faster and more accurate.

3. Copy and paste each ingredient individually into an online Korean-English ingredient dictionary.

4. Paste the English ingredient names back into the open document, one by one.

5. Count the number of English ingredients and compare it to the number on the body label/your Korean ingredient list to make sure that none have been dropped.

Step 1: Look for a copy and pasteable list that’s already typed in Korean or type one from scratch

Copying and pasting ingrdient lists from a website

You will cut down on the length and frustration of your work enormously if you can find a list of ingredients that’s online and already typed up in a format that can be copied and pasted. I usually start by looking at the Korean website of the product company. You can usually find the company website on the product’s packaging. Many Korean websites end in .co.kr. I just try things until something works. One of my favorite companies right now is Migabee, so I’m going to use one of their products as an example. Here’s the Migabee Antipollution RE-Peeling mask page:

trans1

What I look for on the page is the word “전성분” (ingredients). You might also find “성분명” (ingredients) or “주요분명” (main ingredients). Your goal should be to look for and find a list associated with 전성분; you want a full list and 전성분 is the most commonly used word for ingredients.

In a perfect world, a company will have the entire list already typed up and in copy and pasteable form for you. Migabee does that (and they provide an English translation just below.

miga2

I’m going to translate this Korean list as if the English ingredient translations doesn’t exist for the sake of giving an example.

miga demo trans

Searching for ingredient lists using Google

If Migabee were one of the many (many, many, many) companies that don’t provide either an English ingredient body label or a copy and pasteable ingredient list on their site, I’d search for a copy and pasteable Korean ingredient list using Google. My method is usually the Korean brand and product name plus 전성분. The name of the product is 미가비 비베놈 필링 (필오프팩) 100ml, so I used 미가비 비베놈 필링 (Migabee Bee Venom Peeling) and 전성분.

miga google

I use lists found from all sorts of sources, but I always compare them to the Korean on the body label–the whole point of this searching is to just cut down on my typing, which I find really time-consuming and dull–but ultimately you want the list you’re working with to match the list on the body label.

Copying and pasting from websites with right-click (copying and pasting) disabled

If you happen to find a list that should be copy and paste-able (as in, it’s not an image), but the website has disabled the ability to copy and paste the test (Gmarket has done this for some reason and it’s incredibly annoying) just use Ctrl + U to view the page source if you’re using Chrome. Then use Ctrl + F and search for 전성분. That should zoom you to the part in the html code that shows the ingredients–which will then be copy and pasteable. If the Migabee site had right clicking and copy-pasting disabled, this is how it would work.

miga copy

You’d just copy the highlighted ingredient list there (which matches the list you saw on the regular page) and close the window with an angry bang, cursing the people who thought it would be cute to ingredient-block you.

Typing a list from scratch

In some cases, you’ll be unable to find a copy and pasteable list and you’ll need to type it all up yourself. The good news is that phones and computers automatically form the syllable blocks for you if you spell correctly. That said, you need to know which letters to type in first!

Each syllable block needs to be entered in full before moving on to the next one. There are two basic shaped of syllable blocks: triangular (I think of this as “clockwise”) and vertical.

In “skincare”, 스킨케어, both types are represented.

스 is vertical. You start at the top and type ㅅ and then ㅡ. The computer knows to make it 스.

킨 is triangular or clockwise. You start with ㅋ, then follow the clock to ㅣ, and finish with ㄴ.

You don’t need to press the spacebar between syllables–just type out each word.

I find that typing on my iPhone with the Korean keyboard enabled is the easiest way to type lists. This may also be because I’m tired after work and want to get away from a desk ahahaha.

I’m currently trying to get used to typing using a regular keyboard since it’s potentially a whole lot faster. I use an online Korean keyboard simulator to use an English keyboard that types in Korean on that browser page only. Here’s the one I use.

The good news is that once you have a correct Korean ingredient list in a Word document, most of the work is done.

2. Count the number of ingredients and compare it to the body label/official website list to make sure that none have been dropped. I do this by counting commas–it’s faster and more accurate.

Commas are easier to count than words in an unfamiliar language. Additionally, ingredient lists don’t necessarily have spaces after commas if they’re in Korean (or English, for that matter), so commas are just plain easier to see. This counting step functions as an audit.

Remember that line breaks do not indicate that a new ingredient is starting. The only thing that signals that an ingredient name is complete and a new ingredient name is starting is a comma.

3. Copy and paste each ingredient individually into an online Korean-English ingredient dictionary. 

The way you can speed things up and avoid errors is by using the copy and paste function like crazy. Copy the first Korean ingredient from the list in your Word doc and paste it into the KCIA ingredient dictionary (my current fav–it has pretty much everything). What I mean by “ingredient” is everything that’s between two commas–even if it’s multiple words or there’s a line break or there’s a hyphen or slash. Every. Thing. Between. Two. Commas. Is. One. Ingredient. This was a critical lesson that I had to learn, so I’m emphasizing this to hopefully spare you some pain!

To get started click on "Search".
To get started click on “Search”.

I have a mega wide computer screen, so I keep both the document and dictionary windows open side by side to facilitate switching.

double wide

The whole point of using this dictionary is to avoid spelling and other errors, so you should really copy and paste even the English ingredient names. You can do that by clicking on the Korean ingredient name that correctly corresponds to the English ingredient you want to copy.

I want to copy the word "Water", so I need to click on 정제수.
I want to copy the word “Water”, so I need to click on 정제수. It’s possible to copy “Water” successfully from this page, but once you encounter longer ingredient names they’ll be cut, so it’s best to just get into the habit of clicking through.

Copying and pasting the name of the ingredient from its individual product page prevents spelling and other errors.

Copy the full English ingredient name from the ingredient page.
Copy the full English ingredient name from the ingredient page.

More complex snarls: ingredients not in the dictionary

Most Korean ingredient names will be in the KCIA dictionary. If they’re not, google the Korean ingredient. You will often find 1) that you or the company made a spelling error or 2) the ingredient is new enough that it’s not in the dictionary–but it is being touted by an ingredient supplier that helpfully supplies an English name.

Type 1: complex and/or newer ingredients

In some cases, especially when dealing with companies that make truly cutting edge products, you’ll need to apply logic to translate the ingredient. For example, in Su:m37’s Skin Saver Melting Cleansing Balm, the ingredient 클루이베로미세스/락토바실러스/아프리코트커넬발효오일여과물 appears. When you see ingredients with a slash (/) in them it often makes sense to first try to enter the whole string of words into the dictionary because it’s one ingredient–as in, enter everything between two commas even if it’s string of words. In this case, the KCIA product dictionary was stumped.

No results.
No results.

I then tried entering each word between the slashes individually.

클루이베로미세스 wasn’t in the original dictionary I used (the now-removed Lioele product dictionary). For 클루이베로미세스 the answer came from a patent that showed that this is a Korean rendering of a non-Korean word that I simply hadn’t encountered before. “Kluyveromyces” is what you’d say if speaking “클루이베로미세스” aloud.

sum2

락토바실러스 was in the dictionary all over the place–it’s just “lactobacilus,” which is what it sounds like if you sound the Korean word out.

lacto

아프리코트커넬발효오일여과물 was certainly not in the dictionary and a google search did not turn up a complete result that matched the whole of the word–only parts.

In this case you need to break words down. 아프리코트 is apricot. 커넬 is kernel. 발효 is ferment. 오일 is oil. 여과물 is filtrate. 아프리코트, 커넬, and 오일, when said aloud, are English words. 발효 and 여과물 are not. So…how to figure things like that out?

I recommend using linlinhime’s (/u/kahime on Reddit) awesome Korean-English lexicon combined with Ctrl + F to spot patterns. For example, I searched for “발효” and found that out of the 14 results, every single one had the word “ferment” in it.

sum4

I did the same with “여과물” and discovered that every result had the word “filtrate” in it.

In the end, 클루이베로미세스/락토바실러스/아프리코트커넬발효오일여과물 was Kluyveromyces/Lactobacillus/Apricot Kernel Oil Ferment Filtrate.

Type 2: misspellings and typos (yours and the company’s)

I’m getting better, but when I started typing in Korean I made a lot of mistakes no matter how careful I was. If you’re unable to find something in the dictionary I recommend searching for the Korean word in Google–most of the time it will catch your error and make a corrected suggestion.

For example, if I typed “락토바실러스” as “락투바실러스” I’d quickly get told off by Google.

sum5

The vast majority of the time the error is in my typing.

In some cases the error seems to be on the part of the company. When translating the ingredients for the Su:m37 cleansing balm I seemed to find a typo in the ingredient list published by the company (you can see more about it here). Keep in mind that ingredient spellings even in one’s native language are tricky (hence my copying and pasting English ingredients into a document rather than typing them). I recommend trying everything possible to translate the Korean word(s) given, but if every attempt suggests a slightly different spelling, it’s possible that the company made an error. When sharing my ingredient list translations where this sort of thing happens, I try to make a note of the original word given, what I think the word should be, and a proofshot of the official company list showing the possible error on the product packaging or the official website.

Especially in cases like this, where you’re working with unique, potentially proprietary ingredients or official ingredient list errors, it makes sense to publish both your Korean list and English translation somewhere so that other people who potentially have more experience can check your work and provide feedback.

Other typing issues

1. Spaces in the middle of ingredients preventing dictionary recognition.

Example: 접시꽃 추출물. If you put this into the dictionary, there will be no results, but if you close the gap between 접시꽃 and 추출물, creating 접시꽃추출물, this word will be recognized as Althaea Rosea Flower Extract.

2. Missing hyphens.

Example: 피이지40 하이드로제네이티드캐스터오일. This should be edited to read 피이지-40하이드로제네이티드캐스터오일 so it can be recognized by the dictionary (again, not putting a space between 피이지-40 and 하이드로제네이티드캐스터오일) and adding the standard hyphen after PEG.

4. Paste the English ingredient names back into the ingredient document, one by one

On the ingredient page you’ll find a plain text, copy and pasteable English ingredient name.

Copy the full English ingredient name from the ingredient page.
Copy the full English ingredient name from the ingredient page.

Copy and paste that back into your document below the Korean list (always keep your Korean list intact because it serves as a “check” on your translation work for yourself and others.

water3

Here’s my finished work:

sum6

Entering the 46 ingredients into the dictionary and compiling the copy-and-pasted English list took a total of 15 minutes. Not bad. Compare that to the official Migabee list:

miga2

They’re pretty much exactly the same to the point that I think Migabee must be using the same product dictionary to do their English translations. ahahaha I say this because not every dictionary lists things with Latin names exactly the same way. The difference is that “Cinnamomum Cassia Bark Extract / Cinnamomum Zeylanicum Bark Extract” was simplified to “Cinnamomum Cassia Bark Extract” and “조합향료” was simplified to fragrance when it seems to actually be a modifier + fragrance since fragrance alone is 향료; Google results suggested that 조합향료 is actually fragrance oil.

5. Count the number of English ingredients and compare it to the number on the body label to make sure that none have been dropped.

Always audit your work. Checking the number of ingredients at each stage is a quick way to keep things on the rails.

Conclusion and pep talk

Using this method I think you can produce competent ingredient translations without being a native speaker or expert in Korean-to-English ingredient translation.

Putting your translations out into the world is scary–when you’re cracking out on your own and creating new knowledge (and I consider ingredient translation from Korean to be in the “new knowledge” category) there’s a risk. Someone could question your translation or your right to share what you’ve translated on account of lack of expertise and possible errors.

In order to get over that fear and push forward with sharing this vital information with other people who need it I suggest the following:

1. Publish both the Korean and English (or other language, for that matter) ingredient lists.

2. Be forthright about your translation experience. If you’re new to this, say so! If you’re a paid translator, share that info. Full disclosure means that the people reading your lists are able to weigh the amount of trust they’re able to put in your work in light of your expertise.

3. Welcome constructive critique of your work and use what you learn from it to improve.

4. Know that as long as companies don’t offer official translations of ingredient lists (and here I’m talking about companies selling outside of Korea–I’m not such an imperialist as to suggest that Korean companies selling within Korea need English-language labeling) taking the time to translate a list for yourself and the kbeauty community is a valuable service. Ultimately, when you offer knowledge when there was once none, you’re making a contribution.

5. King Sejong and his scholars invented the Korean alphabet so that busy poor people and women could read and write. When you hit a rough patch and get frustrated, remind yourself that Korean was invented for overworked peasants who could not attend school and who knew no languages outside of the spoken vernacular. You, no doubt, have had far more advantages in life and can learn 24 letters, now used in strange combinations to form English words relating to beauty products. Get your fine booty into your chair and learn this stuff. Your king [and thirst for kbeauty] commands you.

king-sejong
King Sejong really is my favorite king. What other 15th-century monarch thought it would be cool to create an alphabet from scratch so that illiterate people could read and write? ZILCH-O.

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