If you’ve been working at Korean for more than a few weeks, I’m sure you’ve experienced the frustration of not being able to find an appropriate translation for a particular word or phrase. Sometimes it’s a Korean phrase that no one seems to be able to translate into English for you, and sometimes it’s an English phrase that you can’t seem to express in Korean. There are many phrases that people seem keen to pronounce “untranslatable” for whatever reason.
Maybe it’s because I’m a translator by trade, but my take is that everything can be translated. People tend to think the same thoughts the world over, and given enough time, you can always find the perfect translation for any verbal expression. It’s just that sometimes it takes a really, really long time to come up with the right word. In a few instances, I’ve spent more than a year trying to find the perfect analogue to some idiom or proverb. But in the end, there always is an answer.
Anyhow, I thought I’d start a series on phrases that often get the “Untranslatable!” treatment. Today’s phrase is “It depends on ____ .” I asked my Korean friends how to express this for years and never got a satisfactory answer until I finally just figured it out myself.
Today we’ll be taking a look at a few ways of saying “It depends” in Korean.
This phrase is literally translated as, “It hangs on ___ ,” but the usage is almost identical to “It depends on ___ .”
A: 한국말을 잘 하려면 얼마나 공부해야 돼요?
B: 그건 정확히 말하기 어려워요. 얼마나 노력하느냐에 달려 있으니까요.
A: 내일 면접 시험에서 합격하면 거기서 일할 거야?
B: 글쎄. 아직 잘 모르겠어. 월급을 얼마나 주느냐에 달려 있어.
This is probably what you’ll find when you look up “depend” in the English-Korean dictionary, but this phrase is rarely used. It was my solution to the “depends on” dilemma for a few years, and people always seemed to understand, but I never saw a Korean use that phrase in all that time.
A: 한국 사람은 다 노래방에 가는 걸 좋아하는 줄 알았는데 지원 씨는 별로 안 좋아하나 봐요.
B: 성격 나름이죠. 저는 노래방보다는 조용한 데서 대화하는 게 더 좋아요.
A: 아니, 저게 누구야? 홍민경 씨 저렇게 입으니까 정말 못 알아볼 정도네.
B: 그러게 말이에요. 역시 여자는 꾸미기 나름인가 봐요.
This phrase literally means “It differs commensurately to ___ ,” but is used very similarly to “It depends on ___ .” Just put the factor that things depends in in the first blank and you’ll be all set.
A: 지난번에 왔을 때는 김치볶음밥이 있었는데 오늘은 없어요?
B: 네, 점심 메뉴는 요일에 따라 달라요. 오늘 점심 메뉴는 생선찌개예요.
A: 이 휴대폰을 쓰면 한 달에 요금이 얼마나 나와요?
B: 어떤 요금제를 사용하느냐에 따라 달라요.
When it comes to the stand-alone phrase, “It depends,” your best bet is probably “그때 그때 달라요.” The phrase’s meaning is slightly different, but it plays almost exactly the same role as “It depends” in English.
For a bonus phrase, let’s take a look at “(누구)의 마음이다.” This phrase is probably closest to “It’s up to (someone)” or “It’s (someone’s) decision.”