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A translation I saw for 성공한 사람은 몇 사람 안 된다 is

few people become successful people

This surprised me, as I thought that 몇 사람 meant 'some people'; 'a few people'.

If so, 성공한 사람은 몇 사람 안 된다 would mean something like "Some people don't become successful" - but that implies that many people do become successful, not few people.

Is 'few people become successful people' a reasonable translation? If so, how should I understand ' 몇 사람 안 된다' ? Does it mean that fewer than '몇 사람' actually become successful?

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  • I think the confusion was in "few" vs "a few" semantic. '몇 안된다' means that there exist a non-zero number of people, but not many. Hence, 'a few' is correct.
    – Memming
    Apr 2 '17 at 11:36
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As others said, "X(이/가) 안된다" means "falls short of X". Usually X is a small number or expression, but it could be a large number. (I think the expression is more commonly used if the number is "less than expected".)

그 전쟁에서 살아 돌아온 사람이 만 명이 안 되었다.

대한민국의 인구는 오천만은 넘지만 육천만은 안 된다.

가방 무게가 30kg이 좀/살짝 안 된다. = The bag weighs a little less than 30kg.

People usually don't say "몇 (사람)이 아니다", because it's ambiguous (less than a few or more than a few?), unless you're directly contradicting what some other person just said. For example:

A: 몇 사람 다쳤겠는데.

B: 몇 사람이 아니라 수십 명 다쳤어요. = Not "a few", but a few dozen were injured.

On the other hand, there's an idiomatic expression "하나/한둘이 아니다", which means "not just one (or two)", i.e., "quite a lot":

뒷산에서 귀신을 본 사람이 한두 명이 아니다. = More than a few people saw a ghost in the hill behind the town.

이 계획의 문제점이 하나가 아닙니다. = This plan has multiple issues.

이 계획의 문제점이 한둘이 아닙니다. = This plan has more than a few issues (probably a lot).

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It's the nuance difference between 안 되다 vs 아니다. 안 되다 implies that the number has not (yet) reached a certain point, while 아니다 is pure negation.

So your speculation is correct. It means that the number of successful people is less than few.

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몇 사람 안 된다 is an idiom as whole. Its literal meaning would be "even less than a few people". Or very rare.

So your understanding of the sentence "some people don't become successful" is not quite correct. I see how you concluded, but because of 몇 사람 안 된다 is an idiom the sentence translates as "only a few become successful".

If I wanted to say "some people don't become successful", I would say 모든 사람이 성공하지는 못한다 or 어떤 사람들은 성공하지 못한다.

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I think this is an idiomatic problem. When something is portioned in small, we say 몇 ~ 안된다. You can omit ~.

성공한 사람은 몇 사람 안된다. There are many people, but only few people succeed.

가르칠 것은 몇 개 안된다. There are many things to learn, but there are only few things to teach.

유년기는 몇 년 안된다. Childhood is short in your life.

블로그를 꾸준히 운영하는 사람은 몇 안된다. There are many bloggers but only few bloggers run their blog with perseverance.

세상에 이런 곳은 몇 안된다 There are many places in the world but only few places are like this.

Type 몇 안된다 at Naver. You might want to practice it.

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