Thursday, February 26, 2009

The New York Times brings a WTF moment on Romanization

The Gray Lady (OMG, I'm channeling Shelton Bumgartner!) has an interesting article on how second-generation kyopo (교포, ethnic Koreans outside Korea; also spelled gyopo) are mixing Korean food with other cuisines to get a taco-kimchi sorta fusion going.

Fine, I'm all for the expansion of Korean food, especially if Korean food can be adapted to the tastes of the locals and vice-versa. The article cites things like the Kogi barbecue truck (kogi [고기] means "meat" in Korean; sometimes spelled gogi), which people track using their Twitter page

The article also mentions Gyenari, whose kalbi (갈비, ribs; also spelled galbi) is shown below, along with a variety of panchan (반찬, the ubiquitous side dishes that come with a regular Korean meal; also spelled banchan).

Now, I make no secret of my preference for the old-style official Romanization system that was in place prior to the World Cup in 2002, which was a variant of McCune-Reischauer. I think it was simple yet much more accurately reflected how words are really pronounced in Korean, especially those consonants that tend to change sounds depending on where they are within a word. Thus kogi is a better representation of 고기 than gogi, because those two ㄱ's are not pronounced the same. Similarly, I prefer Pusan over Busan, Taegu over Daegu, and Taejŏn/Taejon over Daejeon. 

But I understand why some people would prefer the new system (it's officially Revised Romanization of Korean, but let's call it the NAKL system, after the National Academy of the Korean Language, which proposed this rehashing of an older, inadequate Romanization system). After all, there is no messing with diacritic marks (i.e., the breve over the o and u [ŏ and ŭ] and the consonants were usually written in an easy-to-use (but not easy to accurately pronounce) one-to-one correspondence. 

So at least there is some consistency. But what gets me is when people take Romanization matters into their own hands and come up with some really confusing — and often downright weird — concoctions. 

Gyenari is one such example. By the looks of it, it can only be 계나리, which is rendered kyenari in McCune-Reischauer. Not sure what that's supposed to be, since there is no word 계나리 in the Yahoo! Korean dictionary

Of course, I don't know every word in Korean and not every word is listed at Yahoo!, but I can't help but imagine they mean 개나리, which would be kaenari in McCune-Reischuaer and gaenari in NAKL (and which would sound like kyenari/gyenari if there were such a word). 

Kaenari is forsythia in English, referring to a beautiful yellow flower that explodes across the hillsides and throughout the cities every spring, along with 진달래 (chindaellae/jindallae; azaleas) and cherry blossoms. 

So I go to Gyenari's website, and sure enough they have an explanation of their name in the ABOUT US link:
Named for the flower that blooms once a year, Gyenari Korean BBQ & Lounge (pronounced jin-AR-ee) brings a distinctive brand of flavorful Korean barbecue cuisine beyond Koreatown and into the thriving culinary scene in Culver City.
Huh? Gyenari is pronounced "jinaree"? There's no word 지나리, 진아리, 지날이, or 진알이, the only possible things that would spell "jin-AR-ee" in Korean. 

Really, if they can't even figure out their name enough to get it authentic, what hope is there for their food? I hope I'm wrong and restauranteur Robert Benson (of the Kimhae Bensons, I'm sure) does know what he's doing. In the meantime, I shall enjoy one of Honolulu's ubiquitous sundubu (순두부; tofu stew) eateries. [UPDATE: Benson-shi, watch your fingers.]

Sundubu tchigae (literally: soft tofu stew), Korea's perfect food. Not as spicy as it looks, and chock full of wholesome ingredients, unless they put MSG in it.

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