Ah, spring! Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and ridiculously bad Irish T-shirts, memes, and posters are cropping up everywhere.
I’m not talking about the offensive, racist stuff one sees at this time of year, though there’s certainly plenty of that (Repeating for those in the back of the class: Things that portray Irish people as drunks, as always spoiling for a fight, as country bumpkins, or as leprechauns are OFFENSIVE. Just don’t do it. Please.)
This is also the season when even people who don’t speak, or plan to learn, Irish seem to like to trot out the cúpla focal, even if it’s the painfully anglicized “Erin go Bragh”*
The shirt pictured came across my desk recently, shared by my friend and fellow Gaeilge geek Michael von Siegel, and it’s just so egregiously awful, I have to dissect it.
* This phrase is a corruption of “Éire go brách” or, as they say it in Munster, “Éirinn go brách.”
But what does it mean?
Short answer: It means absolutely nothing. It’s an ungrammatical mess. But what we really want to know is what the designer intended for it to say, right?
As nearly as I can tell, what was intended was “Kiss me I’m Irish and you are beautiful.” News flash: That’s not what it says.
If we want to get literal (and why not?), what it LITERALLY says is “Kiss ME I the Irish language and are you beautiful [?]” (I added the question mark because somehow it seemed even dumber without it).
So, what’s wrong with it?
Let’s start with the first phrase: Póg mise:
Póg does mean “kiss,” and can be used either as a noun or as a verb, so initially it doesn’t look like there’s too much wrong here. Technically you CAN say “póg mé” (we’ll deal with mise in a moment). It’s grammatically sound enough. There’s only one problem:
That’s not how an Irish speaker would normally say “kiss me.”
A very important facet of learning a language is understanding that, even if something is in the dictionary and/or is grammatically correct, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s actually something a speaker of that language would say.
Irish as a language leans more toward noun phrases for this kind of expression. To an Irish speaker, “póg mé,” while understandable, sounds rather rude and abrupt. It’s a command, not a friendly invitation, and it just doesn’t feel natural in this context.
So how would an Irish speaker say “kiss me”? The usual approach would be something along the lines of “tabhair póg dom” — give me a kiss.
Another strange aspect of this phrase is the use of the emphatic form of mé (“me/I”): mise.
When Irish speakers want to emphasize a word, instead saying it more loudly or forcefully, they use what’s called an “emphatic form,” which usually involves adding the suffix -se or -sa. Some words change more significantly, though, and mé is one of them. So, essentially what we have here is “ME” rather than “me” (Or, to sum the whole phrase up, “Kiss ME (dammit!) not that person over there!”)
Tarzan meets the Irish language
Moving on to the next phrase: Mé Gaeilge.
This phrase has so much wrong with it, it’s hard to know where to start. It even took me a couple of moments to realize that the “designer” meant mé to go with the second line of text, it’s just that weird.
As I mentioned above, mé means “me/I,” so it’s clear, upon reflection, that the designer was going for “I’m Irish.” Aside from the Tarzan-esque nature of this phrase (note the lack of a verb: “Me/I Irish”), this is absolutely NOT the way you would say “I am [something].”
If you’re an Irish learner, or if you happened to read my most recent grammar post, I Am, or Copulating in Irish (yes, it’s a bit cheeky), you already know that the way you say “I am [something]” in Irish is with that little semi-verb known as “the copula”:
Is _________ mé: I am ___________
That’s bad enough, but the thing that has Irish speakers rolling in the aisles (or perhaps just rolling their eyes) is that Gaeilge doesn’t mean “Irish” as in “an Irish person.” It’s the name of the Irish language. And no…you can’t just swap them out for each other.
If you’re speaking of an Irish person, you would either use Éireannach or Gael (Éireannach would be understood more as someone actually FROM Ireland — an Irish citizen — whereas Gael can be used to denote Irish heritage).
So, if you want to say “I’m Irish” you have two choices:
Is Éireannach mé
Is Gael mé
Are you beautiful? (asking for a friend)
The third and final phrase on this shirt — agus an bhfuil tú go hálainn — actually gets two things right. Agus does mean “and,” and go hálainn does mean “beautiful.” Even a broken clock is right two times a day.
The problem is with the form of the verb used. An bhfuil is an interrogative, or “question,” form of the verb bí/tá (“to be”). Unlike English, which simply switches word order and uses a rising inflection to ask a question, Irish uses a specialized verb form.
English: Are you beautiful? You are beautiful!
Irish: An bhfuil tú go hálainn? Tá tú go hálainn!
Putting it all together
So, putting this all together, how would you say “Kiss me, I’m Irish, and You’re Beautiful” in Irish?
Tabhair póg dom, is Éireannach/Gael mé, agus tá tú go hálainn
As with any language, there can be many different ways to say a particular thing, but this is pretty straightforward, and will be widely understood.
So how did it get this way?
There are many, many roads to a bad translation, and it can often be difficult figuring out exactly which one led to any particular catastrophe.
Some methods would-be translators try include pulling words out of an Irish dictionary and plugging them into English syntax; asking a “friend” or relative who claims to know Irish (but really doesn’t); using something from a book, song, or piece of jewelry without verifying it first; or trying machine translation. All of these are recipes for disaster.
Often when we see something like this, the first impulse is to blame it on Google Translate (or, as we sometimes call it, “Google Trashlate”) or some other form of machine translation, and with some justification. Machine translation has an abysmal record with the Irish language, and it hasn’t improved much, if at all, since I wrote this post for Bitesize Irish back in 2012.
Given that, one of the first things I do when I’m trying to work out where a bad translation came from is try to replicate it in Google Translate.
This is actually easier said than done, as Google is both case- and punctuation-sensitive, and can deliver vastly different results based on how you capitalize or punctuate your request.
Google also is inconsistent in back-translating. You can enter, for example, a phrase in English and get one Irish “translation” (for better or for worse), but often, if you try to check your result by entering the Irish translation and seeking a translation back to English, you’ll get something very different.
Here are some of the attempts I made with this phrase:
Kiss me I’m Irish and you’re beautiful: Póg mise Tá mé Éireannach agus tá tú go hálainn
Kiss me, I’m Irish and you’re beautiful: Póg dom, is Gaelainn mé agus tá tú go hálainn
Kiss me, I’m Irish, and you’re beautiful! Póg dom, is Éireannach me, agus tá tú go hálainn!
All of these have serious errors in them, but none of them replicates the errors on the T-shirt. When I enter the phrase exactly as it appears on the shirt, however — Póg Mise mé Gaeilge agus an bhfuil tú go hálainn, and ask Google to translate it to English, it does return “Kiss me I am Irish and you are beautiful.”
Given that, and given that the sites that manufacture such shirts and similar items often do use machine translation, I’m willing to bet that this is the culprit, even though I can’t reproduce the error going from English to Irish. Maybe you’ll have better luck!
If the bad translation weren’t enough, the symbol in the middle of the shirt is not a shamrock. Shamrocks have three leaves. Yes, always. Four-leafed clovers are thought of as lucky in many countries because of their rarity, but they have no particular association with Ireland, and are not an Irish symbol.
Summing it all up
I don’t want to discourage anyone from using Irish, on St. Patrick’s Day or any other day. It’s a great way to show your connection to the culture, IF you do it properly, and with respect for the language.
Some options for getting a good translation (or verifying one you’ve found) include:
- Find a professional translator. A Google search can help with this (be sure to use the parameters “Irish language” or “Gaeilge,” not just “Irish”), but do your due diligence. Get references.
- Visit an Irish Language forum. The one I usually recommend is the Irish Language Forum (ILF). Old school forums work better for this kind of thing, because it’s easier to keep track of the process, and to tell who the more expert people are. Remember the very important “Rule of Threes”: Wait to proceed with a translation until at least three people from that site agree.
- Don’t use anything you’ve found in a book, in a song/poem, or on-line without verifying it first. A forum is a good place to do that as well. You don’t want to end up like this poor guy.
- Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use Google Translate or any other machine translation app. Trust me, it will not go well.
Most important of all, approach the language with curiosity and respect. It’s a fascinating language, and learning even a little bit of it is a wonderful way to celebrate your Irish heritage.
P.S.: Yes, the heading above the pictured shirt is wrong too, and by now you can probably figure out why!