Big Sister’s Big Mistake: Four Mistakes in Two Words

If you’re getting a tattoo in a language you don’t speak, don’t you think it’s worth a bit of time and effort to be sure you’re getting it right?

Ever since I began learning Irish, in 2004, I’ve been amazed at just how many people want tattoos in the language. Between 60% and 80% of translation requests on Irish-themed internet forums are for tattoos!

What amazes me even more, though, is the number of people who don’t consult experts (preferably multiple experts) before getting inked.

Granted, some do ask (or say they ask) friends or relatives in Ireland for help, but judging by the sheer number of really bad tattoos there (many of which have mistakes that would be caught by relative beginners), it would seem that many of these “experts” are overestimating or even downright misrepresenting their grasp of the language. 

Tattoos are permanent, folks (or, at the very least, expensive to remove). If you’re getting a tattoo in a language you don’t speak, don’t you think it’s worth a bit of time and effort to be sure you’re getting it right?

A New Record

I have no idea where the person sporting the tattoo above went for help (if, indeed, she did seek help), but this has to be some kind of a record. Four mistakes in a simple two-word phrase!

This person was clearly going for “Big Sister.” Unfortunately what she ended up with is a grammatical mess, with a couple of spelling mistakes thrown in for good measure.

Let’s Start With the Accents

The first thing that any Irish speaker or learner would notice here is the accent marks. In Irish, the accent mark ALWAYS slants to the right, like the one over the “u” above. This is called an “acute” or “long” accent…in Irish síneadh fada. Left-slanting (grave) accents simply don’t happen in contemporary Irish.

Scottish Gaelic is a little different in that respect. In the form of Scottish Gaelic currently spoken in Scotland, the accents all slant to the left…just the opposite of Irish. There’s also a form of Scottish Gaelic spoken in Nova Scotia, Canada, that has both left- and right-slanting accents. This raises the question: Was our hero going for Scottish Gaelic, Canadian-style?

Possibly, but it doesn’t seem likely.  The Scottish Gaelic word for “sister” — piuthar — is very different from the Irish word — deirfiúr. There’s really no mistaking them.  So she either got the accents wrong or she got the word for “sister” wrong (or perhaps thought that Irish and Scottish Gaelic words are interchangeable). I’m banking on the first option.

Accents matter, folks. They’re not just there to look pretty. If you have the wrong type of accent, or an accent where one shouldn’t be (or none where one is needed), the word is misspelled, and may even take on a different meaning.

There’s even a book written about the fada in Irish and why it matters: “Our Fada: A Fada Homograph Dictionary,” by Rossa Ó Snodaigh (of “Kila” fame) and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill. If you’re interested in doing anything at all with the Irish language, it’s worth checking out.

And I can’t emphasize this enough: While Scottish Gaelic and Irish are very closely related, and similar in many respects, they are different languages, and you can’t just swap words or features between them.

A Problem with Placement

An incorrect accent mark might be easily corrected, but unfortunately that’s not the only problem with this tattoo. In Irish, the adjective follows the noun it modifies. “Mór” (”big”) is the adjective here, and must come AFTER “deirfiúr.

People with little or no language-learning experience tend to assume that word order in one language is the same as word order in another. It might be nice if it worked that way (Just think! All you’d have to do to learn a new language would be to memorize the dictionary!).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Languages aren’t codes for one another. You can’t simply plug Irish words into English syntax and hope to have something that makes sense. In English it may be “big sister,” but Irish needs a “sister big.”

And Then There’s Gender

As with many European languages, all Irish nouns have grammatical “gender,” which affects what happens to them, and to the words around them, in various grammatical constructions.

Deirfiúr” is grammatically feminine and, in most cases, when feminine nouns are followed by an adjective beginning with a consonant, that consonant must be “softened” or “lenited,” which changes its pronunciation.

In contemporary Irish, lenition is indicated by putting an “h” after the consonant (in the older form of Irish writing known as “Seanchló” or “Cló Gaelach” it was represented by placing a dot over the consonant).

So what this person needed was “Deirfiúr Mhór.” Oops! Good thing it’s not perman…er…oh.

But Wait! There’s More!

There’s one more error in this tattoo, even after all the other errors are addressed. Did you spot it? Look closely.

To add spelling insult to grammatical injury, our unfortunate tattoo-ee has left out a letter. Instead of “deirfiúr,” she’s got “deifiúr” – the first “r” is missing.

It Was Almost Five

When I started writing this post, I almost called it “Five Mistakes in Two Words.”  I thought that translating “big sister” literally to mean “older/eldest sister” might be incorrect (English idioms often don’t work well when translated directly into other languages). I would have said “deirfiúr is sine” (“eldest sister”).

A friend of mine, however, who is a native-speaker of Conamara Irish, has assured me that “deirfiúr mhór” is used, and would not be considered incorrect, so our mis-tatted friend gets a pass on this one!

It is another thing to keep in mind, though, when seeking a tattoo translation: English phrases can’t always be translated directly into Irish. Every culture and language has its own mode of expression.


Tattoos can be a beautiful form of self-expression. They can be a deeply personal way to honor your Irish heritage, or that of a loved one. They’re also, however, pricey, painful, and permanent. If you’re going to get one, isn’t it worth the time and research necessary to make sure it’s perfect?

I never have understood why anyone would get a tattoo in a language he or she didn’t speak…at least without doing A LOT of research. It’s often shocking to me to see how little time and effort people put into something so important to them that they want it permanently written on their skin.

Just don’t do it, folks. And don’t let your friends do it. Friends don’t let friends get bad tats. Put in the time before you lay down your money. Is that too much to ask?

Le meas,


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

The Sad Saga of a Bad Tattoo

People love getting tattoos in Irish, but apparently they don’t always appreciate the challenges involved with getting a good, accurate translation.

This unfortunate tattoo has been making the rounds at Facebook recently. If you want to know what’s wrong with it, read on!

Hang around Irish speakers and learners long enough and you’ll know it – badly translated Irish tattoos are a real problem. People love getting tattoos in Irish, but apparently they don’t always appreciate the challenges involved with getting a good, accurate translation.

Every so often a new tattoo fail makes the rounds of social media, and the response is predictable. We palm our faces and groan “why?” We tear our hair, shake our heads, rend our garments (well, figuratively anyway!), and perhaps even enjoy a little schadenfreude.

If you’re new to Irish, though, or if you’re not learning the language but hang out with people who are, you may find yourself saying “What exactly is wrong with it? Somebody let me in on the angst!”

Happy to do it! Dissecting bad translations is actually a really good teaching and learning tool (I learned more about Irish grammar from watching people discuss the rights and wrongs of tattoo translations than I did from any grammar book). But first, the big question…

What Is It Supposed to Mean?

You can’t really dissect a bad translation without knowing what the person intended to say. Sometimes that can be challenging to figure out, but, as it happens, this one is easy. What was intended was the famous line from the poem “Invictus” by English poet  William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”

If you’re not familiar with the poem, you can read it here:

(You should read it. It’s really good!)

This is a fairly common translation request, especially among men. Unfortunately, what this man ended up with is absolute nonsense.

As for where it came from, in this case I think we can be pretty sure that Google Translate or some other automatic machine translator is to blame.In fact, if you go to Google Translate and enter the words “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” guess what you get? Yep:

Tá mé an maistir mo chinniúint; tá mé an captaen m’anam

I’ve said it over and over again, but it bears repeating – never use a machine translator for anything important or permanent! I guess yer man above didn’t get the memo.

So now that we know what the poor man meant to say and where he found what he did, let’s take this “translation” apart bit-by-bit, starting with the first word in the “translation”: Tá.

The Wrong Verb

One thing you learn early on when you’re studying Irish is that the language has two verbs that correspond to the verb “to be”, (root form: ) and the copula Is (pronounced as in “hiss,” not as in “his”).

These verbs have specific functions, and they are NOT interchangeable. Unfortunately, this “translation” has the wrong one.

Tá is used when you’re talking about what a person or thing looks like, its state or condition, what it’s doing, what it possesses, etc. For example:

Tá mé tuirseach: I am tired 

Tá gruaig liath orm: I have gray hair

Tá mé ag scríobh: I am writing

With certain limited exceptions, Tá cannot be used to say what someone or something IS. For that you need (you guessed it!) – Is:

Is bean tuirseach mé: I am a tired woman

Is bean liath mé: I am a gray-haired woman

Is scríbhneoir mé: I am a writer

Using Tá in place of Is is so wrong, we even have a term for that kind of error: We call it a Tá sé fear (or TSF) error. Tá sé fear is the incorrect way to say “He is a man” (correct would be Is fear é).

Pronoun Choice and Placement

If you look at the examples above, you’ll see that sentences with Tá and sentences with Is place the pronoun  (me/I) differently. In Tá sentences, the pronoun comes right after the verb (and is often combined with it in the first person to make “Táim”).

In sentences with the copula, however, the pronoun is generally placed after the noun. So if this fellow had wanted to say that he was a master or a captain in a general sense, he would have needed:

Is maistir mé: I am a master

Is captaen mé: I am a captain

With definite clauses, however, (i.e., clauses that refer to a specific master or captain), the pronoun moves back to immediately after the verb and takes the emphatic form: In this case, Mise:*

Is mise an maistir: I am the master

Is mise an captaen: I am the captain

And Speaking of Definite Clauses…

Unlike English, Irish doesn’t allow a “double definite.” Where an English speaker might say “I am the ______ of the _______,” Irish requires us to remove the first “the”: “I am __________ (of) the__________.”

(Irish doesn’t  actually use the word for “of” in this kind of sentence either. More on that in a bit.)

The possessive adjective Mo (”My”) is definite, because you’re talking about a specific thing. So our friend needed to remove An (”The”) from his tattoo:

Is mise maistir mo ________

Is mise captaen m’ ________

Case Matters

As I mentioned above, in these constructions, Irish doesn’t use the word for “of.” Instead it puts the word in the “genitive” or “possessive” case.

The genitive singular for Cinniúint (Fate) is CinniúnaAfter the possessive adjective “mo” it is “lenited” or “softened” by placing an “H” after the “C”: Mo chinniúna: “Of my fate.” The genitive singular for Anam (Soul) is Anama and because Mo elides before vowels, it becomes M’anama: Of my soul.

To sum up, what our friend had was:

Tá mé an maistir mo chinniuint; Tá mé an captaen m’anam

But what he NEEDED was:

Is mise maistir mo chinniúna; is mise captaen m’anama

One More Thing

To add insult to injury, do you notice something else different between how I’ve spelled Cinniúint/Cinniúna and the way our hero spelled it? Look closely.

See that little accent mark above the “U” in mine? That’s called the síneadh fada (or just fada) or “long accent.” If the word needs one and doesn’t have it (or has one and doesn’t need it) the word is misspelled, and may even have a different meaning.

Trust me, these words need that fada! Even Google got that one right! Fortunately that’s one thing that’s easily corrected with a quick visit to the tattoo parlor (the rest of the tattoo not so much).

Does it Really Matter?

In a word, yes. It matters. Irish is a living language, just like English.

I often hear people saying “What does it matter? Not many people speak Irish, and what matters is what this guy WANTED to say, right?”

Well what would you think if you saw someone sporting something like this on his back?:

“Is me the master my of fete**; is me the captain my of soul”

You’d probably roll your eyes, palm your face, and wonder why in the heck he didn’t go somewhere to get an accurate translation. Don’t say you wouldn’t…I’ve seen it happen again and again.

We don’t expect people who don’t speak English to be able to do accurate translations on their own, and we don’t expect learners of English to speak perfectly either.  But it is reasonable to expect that, if they plan to get a tattoo in English, they would consult a fluent speaker first, and perhaps get a few opinions before proceeding.

We Irish speakers expect no less.

And That’s Why I Wrote the Book

I love the Irish language, and it saddens and angers me to see it treated so carelessly. I recognize that not everyone knows where to go to get accurate Irish translations or how to be certain that what they’ve found is correct.

That’s why I wrote The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook. If people seeking Irish tattoos will only take the time to do a bit of reading, there will be fewer instances of bad Irish in the world. And that’s a good thing.

* In constructions using “mo,” some dialects allow for the pronoun “mé” to follow the noun, but in this case the emphatic form really is called for, as the man is making an emphatic declaration.

** I used “fete” in place of “fate” here because the Irish word for “fate” is misspelled in the tattoo translation. It demonstrates just how problematic ignoring fadas is.

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