REQUEST FROM THE GEEK IN CHIEF: June 1, 2020
Since this post was published, three years ago, so many more lives have been lost to racism in this country, most recently that of George Floyd. I’m asking you, if you’ve found anything of value in this post, to please consider making a donation to Black Lives Matter. If you’re not able to donate, please do what you can. March. Speak up. Speak out. Be a witness. Be the change.
Black Lives Matter
OK…I have to say that, most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.
This pic came across my desk about nine months ago, and it may just be the worst example of a self-translation disaster I’ve ever seen.
In fact, it’s so bad, and so out of context, that most of my Irish-speaking friends had no idea what this person was trying to say with those three Irish words: “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.” It’s beyond gibberish. It even took me a few minutes.
The sad thing is, in order to “get it,” you need to be familiar not only with the ways in which people make translation mistakes (which are legion), but also with a particularly unpleasant segment of U.S. politics.
What this person was trying to say, with this mess of a translation on his t-shirt, is “Blue Lives Matter.”
A Little Background
For the sake of those who don’t live in the U.S. (and without delving too deeply into the dark underbelly of American politics), suffice it to say that the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” arose in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement arose in response to the disproportionate degree of police brutality directed at people of color in the U.S., particularly toward African Americans. I’ll leave it to you to decide what would motivate someone to oppose such a movement. The term I prefer can be found in your Irish dictionary under “C.”
So no…I’m not very sorry for this person (I am, however, very sorry at the assault upon the Irish language!).
Beyond philosophy, then, what exactly is wrong with this translation? Well, let’s start with how the “translator” went about it:
Sometimes the Dictionary is NOT Your Friend
I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends. Repeat after me: “Languages are not codes for one another.”
That’s exactly what happened here, though. Someone either found a dictionary or searched the internet for the three words “blue,” “lives,” and “matter,” and stuck them together as if they were English. Oy. Dia sábháil (that’s Ulster Irish for “oy”).
Irish syntax is very, very (very!) different from English. For one thing, the verb comes first in the sentence. For another, adjectives follow the nouns they modify. So even if you COULD render this phrase with these three simple words, you’d need “Matter Lives Blue.”
Unfortunately, however, you can’t fix this phrase simply by reordering the words, because, among other things…
Idiom Also Matters
An idiom is an expression particular to a particular language or region. For example, in English, when we say that something “matters,” we mean that it has worth and/or that it makes a difference.
It doesn’t necessarily work that way in other languages. In Irish, we’d have to get more specific. We might say something like Tá fiúntas i _____ (“There is worth/value in _____”) or Tá ________ tábhachtach (“______ is/are important”).
To make matters worse, though (there’s another idiom for you!), whoever made this “translation” apparently forgot that the word “matter” in English can have several meanings. In this case, the word he or she chose — ábhar — means “matter” as in “subject matter.” It’s a noun. Oops!
So Does Pronunciation
Another thing this poor “translator” apparently forgot is that the word “lives” in English can be pronounced to rhyme with “gives” or with “hives,” and that the meaning changes accordingly.
What was wanted here, of course, is “lives” as rhymes with “hives.” Three guesses as to which one the “translator” chose. Yep. Wrong one.
The word cónaí in Irish (which in certain grammatical circumstances inflects to chónaí) means “dwelling.” When we want to say that we live somewhere, we literally say “Am I in my dwelling in _________.”
Tá mé i mo chónaí i nDún na nGall: “I live in Donegal.”
Tá Seán ina chónaí i nGaillimh: “Seán lives in Galway.”
To toss another problem onto the pile, in Irish, we probably wouldn’t use the equivalent of the English “life/lives (rhymes with ‘hives’)” to mean “people”. We’d most likely just use daoine: “people.” There’s that “idiom” problem again.
And Then There’s Gorm
The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. Just not in this manner, and definitely not in this context.
When color is used to describe a person in Irish, it typically refers to hair color. For example An bhean rua: The red-haired woman.
There are exceptions, of course: For example, Na fir bhuí (“The orange/yellow men”) is used to refer to members of the Orange Order because of the color of their sashes. But “blue/gorm” would not be used to refer to police officers as a group. That’s an American thing.
All that having been said, though, here’s the lovely, delicious irony: When the word gorm is used in reference to people, guess what it means?
It means “Black.”
People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).
That’s right. At the end of the day, allowing for grammatical travesties (of which there are many) and horrendous word choices, what this person’s shirt says is “Black Lives Matter.”
Somehow that makes me strangely happy.
Update 9/24/2020: I just came across this excellent article by Clare Healy on Black Lives Matter and the Irish language. Highly recommended!
In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada. For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/