Irish Tattoos That Make Us Cringe

It’s March, and St. Patrick’s Day is in the air! To celebrate, my publisher and I have put up a “Bad Tattoo” post on Bored Panda.

It’s a promotion for the book, of course, but it’s also a great antidote for all the kitsch that comes our way at this time of year.

It may seem surprising, but reading and doing tattoo translations can actually be a good way to learn basic Irish-language concepts, including sentence structure, idiom, and the use of articles and the genitive case.

And if schadenfreude is your thing, looking at these particular tattoo “translations” will definitely scratch that itch!

Enjoy, and if you’re so inclined, please share! The world needs more exposure to Irish and fewer bad Irish tattoos!

Erin Go Wut?! Real-Life Irish Tattoos That Make Us Cringe

Happy March!

GG

The Great Soulmate Debate

This tattoo doesn’t say “My Soulmate.” It says “I was grossly misled.”

I must admit, before I started learning Irish, I didn’t think much about the word “soulmate.”

Other than the occasional romantic reference, the only time I ever gave the concept much thought was in my junior-year college philosophy class (thank you, Whitworth University!), when I encountered it during a unit on Plato.

In “Symposium,” Plato’s Aristophanes envisions human beings as originally having four arms, four legs, two faces, etc. They were extremely powerful, and posed a threat to the gods, so  Zeus, (who, in addition to being a god, was also a bit of a jerk), decided to divide them in half.

Even after their bleeding halves were patched up by a sympathetic Apollo, humans continued to mourn for, and ever search for, their missing halves: their “soulmates.”

(I always knew that philosophy class would come in handy some day, just like my high school algebra! Oh, wait…).

Love is in the Air

Over the years, the term “soulmate” has taken on something of a romantic connotation, particularly in the U.S.  — A sense of “fated lover” that is quite different from the way Europeans tend to interpret it (usually, in Europe, it has more of a “really-close-friends-separated-at-birth” connotation).

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching then, and with romance in the air, this seems to be a good time to wrestle with this most vexing of Irish translation requests.

The Infamous “A” Word

When I first started learning Irish, I used to hang out on an internet Irish translation forum, and it wasn’t long before I realized that translation requests for “soulmate/soulmates” were a huge source of unease and indecision.

Part of the problem was that Irish simply doesn’t have a native term for the concept of “soulmate” (Which seems to surprise a lot of people, but really shouldn’t. The concept is Greek, after all…why would Irish have evolved a native term for a foreign concept?). So we had to work a bit to come up with an appropriate term for whatever the translation seeker meant by “soulmate.”

(The idea that there is a one-for-one equivalent in any given language for a term or concept from another is a fallacy, by the way. Language is an expression of a culture, not simply a code. For example, what is the English term for “Nirvana”?)

The bigger issue, though, was that some people vociferously promoted (and continue to promote) an Irish term whose meaning couldn’t possibly be further from a romantic context (or even a good buddy context)anamchara.

Anamchara means “confessor” (as in the person who hears your confession before mass) or “spiritual advisor” (as in the person who guides the spiritual formation of a young monk or priest).

Even though it’s a compound of the Irish words anam (soul) and cara (friend), which might seem to make it a reasonable candidate for “soulmate,” it’s a word with a very specific meaning in Irish that has absolutely nothing to do lovers, or even with close friends (unless your best buddy is also the priest who hears your confession!).

Its proponents were so adamant, however, that many of us cringed as soon as we saw the term “soulmate,” knowing that an argument about anamchara lay ahead. We called it “The ‘A’ Word,” and dreaded dealing with the people (few of them fluent Irish speakers, and none of them native speakers) who insisted they had the right to fundamentally change the meaning of an Irish word to suit their own interpretation.

The “A” Word was such a point of contention that one of the forum regulars, a fluent Irish speaker, had as his signature line “You and me babe! Spiritual advisors forever!” (Yes, he was being sarcastic. He was NOT in the anamchara camp!)

It Gets Worse

Irritating as the anamchara debate was (and continues to be), at least anamchara is a legitimate, grammatically sound, Irish word. It doesn’t mean what its proponents would like it to mean, alas, but at least it’s not utter nonsense.

It wasn’t long, though, before we actually began to see utter nonsense produced in the (seemingly) eternal search for an Irish term for “soulmate.” A prime example is the three words tattooed on the neck of the unfortunate person in our featured photo:

Mo Anam Cara

This is just a grammatical nightmare. There’s no other term for it. This construction simply can’t exist in the Irish language.

What makes matters even worse is the fact that this “phrase” (can you actually call three words jammed together in no logical order a phrase?) is  frequently seen on jewelry that is actually PRODUCED in Ireland (where, frankly, they should know better) and sold in Irish/Celtic shops all over the world.

So What’s Wrong With It?

What’s wrong with it? Well, where to start?

What’s happened here is someone’s taken three Irish words:  Mo (“My”), Anam (“Soul”), and Cara (“Friend”), and put them together using English syntax. I’ve said it before, but repeat after me: Languages are not codes for one another. 

You absolutely cannot take words from one language and put them together in the form of another and hope to make any sense whatsoever. Seriously.  Languages just don’t work that way. Sorry, but it’s true.

In Irish, when you use one noun (such as “soul”) to describe another (such as “mate” or “friend”), the describing noun comes AFTER the noun it describes and is in the genitive case.

For example, in English we have “traffic light,” in which the word “traffic” describes the kind of “light” we’re talking about. “Traffic” comes first, because that’s how we do things in English.”

In Irish, however, things are reversed:

Trácht = traffic

Solas = light

But…

Solas Tráchta = traffic light (literally “light of traffic”)

If we’re speaking of a soulmate (or, more literally, a “soul friend”), the word “soul” describes the kind of “mate” or “friend” you’re talking about. So it must come AFTER the word for “friend,” and it must be in the genitive case:

Cara Anama = Friend of (a) Soul/Soul Friend/Soul Mate

Another problem is with the possessive adjective mo (“my”). When it comes before a vowel, it elides (i.e., the “o” disappears and is replaced with an apostrophe):

Anam = “Soul”

Mo = “My”

M’anam = “My soul”

In order to say “My Soul Friend/My Soul Mate” literally then, we’d have to say:

Cara m’anama

It’s Just Not Fair

I do have to have some sympathy for the tattoo seeker here.

Normally there’s a little of the “Why didn’t you do your research?” sense going through my head when looking at a tattoo disaster. I feel sorry for the person with the wrong thing tattooed on him or her, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the tattoo seeker to check sources to be sure that the translation is correct.

Given the source(s), though, I really do feel sorry for this person.

Things Aren’t Always as They Seem

A point I make frequently in my book is the importance of finding trustworthy resources for translations, especially if those translations are for something permanent such as a tattoo.

I also advise my readers not to take any Irish words or phrases they may encounter in a book, in a song, or on a piece of jewelry or artwork, as a given…even if that book, song, or jewelry comes directly from someone in Ireland.

Although Irish is a required subject in school there, very few Irish people not brought up in a Gaeltacht leave secondary school with any sort of fluency in the language. And most stop using Irish much, if at all, after graduating (kind of like me and that high school algebra!).

Of course there are both native speakers and fluent second-language speakers of the language in Ireland, as well as professional translators, but it seems that few writers, artists, or jewelry makers (or even sign makers!) bother to consult them.

I can’t really blame anyone, though, for seeing something on a piece of jewelry from Ireland, being sold in an Irish-themed shop or on an Irish-themed website, and assuming it must be correct. Knowing what I know, after so many years with the language, I would always take such a translation to people I know to have excellent Irish for verification.

But not everyone has had that kind of exposure to other languages (especially here in the U.S., where language learning lags significantly behind most other countries). It breaks my heart to see people fall victim to this kind of thing.

So What CAN I Call My Soulmate?

As I said earlier, Irish doesn’t have a native term for “soulmate.” It does, however, have many words and phrases with similar meanings that can be used as legitimate stand-ins.  Which you use depends partially on what you mean by “soulmate” and partially on your own particular tastes.

If your “soulmate” is a lover, partner, or spouse, using one of the many lovely Irish endearments would suit. For example:

Grá Mo Chroí (The Love of my Heart)

Mo Ghrá Geal (My Bright/Shining Love)

Mo Chéadsearc (My First (aka “primary”) Love)

If you want something that’s a little closer to the actual meaning of “soulmate,” a couple of options are:

Mo Bhuanghrá (My Eternal Love)

Mo Shíorghrá (also My Eternal Love)

Cara m’anama (Friend of my Soul)

If you’re speaking of a dear friend, a couple of native Irish phrases that can work include:

Cara Mo Chléibh (My Bosom Friend)

Mo Dhlúthchara (My Close/Compact Friend)

It’s Just Not That Easy

Translating from one language to another is never as easy as many people think. There are so many things to be taken into consideration: Not only word choice, spelling,  and grammar, but culture and history as well.

The take-away from this is always, ALWAYS get solid confirmation before using a word or phrase from another language. A professional translator is best, of course (and often much more reasonably priced than you might expect), but failing that, get at least three truly fluent speaker in agreement on a translation before proceeding.

Whichever You Choose…

No matter what term you use for the people you love, in English or in Irish, I wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day! Lá Fhéile Vailintín Sona Daoibh! 

P.S.: A bonus cultural note: Those leafy things on the tattooed one’s back aren’t shamrocks. The Irish shamrock has only three leaves. Four-leafed clovers are considered lucky in many cultures because of their rarity, but they don’t have any particular relevance to Ireland. 


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/

 

 

 

 

Sometimes Words Fail

Usually it isn’t too hard for me to figure out the intended meaning of a tattoo, no matter how mangled the Irish. This one, however, has me stumped.

Usually, when I come across a badly mistranslated Irish tattoo, it isn’t too hard for me to figure out what the intended meaning was, no matter how mangled the Irish.

This one, however, has me completely stumped. I’ve tried every way I know to work out what in the heck this guy meant to say, and I’m coming up blank.

A Good Catch

This tattoo was spotted on an episode of the television programPenn & Teller: Fool Us” by Jessica Quinn, a member of the Facebook group “Irish For Beginners.”  She was able to grab a shot of it and post it on the group page.

And that’s when the fun began.

Not Your Average Bad Translation

As I said, usually it isn’t too hard for me to figure out the meaning of a bad translation. That’s because people who don’t know what they’re doing usually follow predictable methods:

The “Let’s Pretend it’s English” Method

By far and away the most common error people make when attempting to translate from one language to another is to assume that all languages follow the same basic grammar and syntactic rules as English.

They’ll find an English-Irish dictionary, or perhaps do an internet search on the individual words they want to translate, and then put the results together as if they were English. That’s almost certainly what happened with the infamous “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar” debacle.

These are usually pretty easy to spot, though. All you have to do is take the primary Irish meaning for each word and read it as if it were English.

The “Ask Google” Method

Inevitably some people take their translation requests to Google “Translate.” Bad move. Really bad. Google is notoriously bad at handling Irish.

These can be a little harder to spot, as Google doesn’t always give the same output when translating Irish to English as it does when translating English to Irish. You can plug in the Irish and not get the English phrase or sentence that the searcher used. I wrote a little about that problem in this 2012 blog post for Bitesize Irish Gaelic: Irish Translators.

The “Ask a Friend/Family Member” Method

If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard someone say “I got this translation from a friend/family member in Ireland,” I’d be able to afford an entire summer in Donegal.

Sometimes there’s no actual “friend or family member.” The person is just trying to cover up his or her own clumsy translation attempt.

When there is an actual “friend or family member” involved, though, if the translation is wrong it usually follows one of three patterns:

  1. The person has no Irish at all, or maybe just a tiny bit. In this case the “Pretend It’s English” and the “Ask Google” methods come into play again.
  2. The person has some Irish, but is out of practice. When this happens, the translation will generally be much closer to correct, but with some mistakes.
  3. The person is messing with the tattoo seeker. When this happens we usually see something silly and rather mean-spirited, such as An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas? (“May I go to the toilet?”).

When the Patterns Don’t Work

This “translation” doesn’t seem to have resulted from any of these methods. (Personally, I wish he’d followed the “Buy Audrey’s Book” method. But I digress…).

It’s possible the person’s primary language isn’t English, though usually when a person has more than one language, he or she knows better than to assume that all languages follow the same pattern.

Unfortunately, because of this, none of my usual methods for working out what was meant are helping. The best I can do is point out the problems and make a guess.

I THINK this person meant to say “Maybe death won’t stop/hinder/restrain me.”

Piece by Piece

Let’s take a look at the elements that make up this tattoo and see what they mean (and what the problems are with them).

Féidir

Féidir is a word that, in the right context, can mean “possible,” “can/may,” or “maybe/possibly.” The problem is, it can’t stand on its own.

Féidir is ALWAYS paired with the copula — a semi-verb that performs some of the functions of the verb “to be.” The forms of the copula are Is (positive), Ní (negative), and Ba/B’ (conditional).

It’s also often paired with the preposition le (“with”).

Is féidir liom: “I can”

Ní féidir leat: “You can’t”

B’fhéidir: “Maybe/perhaps”

It doesn’t make sense by itself, but in context, I think the most likely intended meaning is “maybe/perhaps.”

Bás

This is pretty straightforward. It means “death,” and is clearly intended to be the subject of the sentence (such as it may be).

Typically in Irish the definite article is used with words that are presented as general concepts, so we’d expect to see an básbut in the context of this total mess of a translation, it’s a reasonably minor issue.

Nábac

Well, the elephant in the room here is that this is two words jammed together as one. There is no Irish word “Nábac.” (No, not even in some obscure dialect in your great-great-great grandfather’s village in County Nowhere). This should be written as two words: Ná bac.

Ná is the negative imperative particle. It means “don’t.”

Bac is the singular imperative of a verb that can mean, among other things, “balk/hinder/restrain.” Paired with , it can also mean “mind” or “bother”:

Ná bac leis: “Don’t worry about it.”

(By the way, this phrase is the basis for my favorite Irish tongue twisterNá bac le mac an bhacaigh is ní bhacaidh mac a bhacaigh leat (pronounced, roughly, “nah bock leh mock uh wock-ee is nee wock-ee mock uh wock-ee lat”): “Don’t bother the beggar’s son, and the beggar’s son won’t bother you.”)

My guess here is that this person took the meaning “hinder/restrain” and mistook “don’t” for “won’t.”

Mise

Mise is the emphatic form of : “me/I.” In Irish, when we want to put emphasis on a word, we don’t stress it in speaking…we put it in an emphatic form. So, basically, what this says is ME!!!!!!!

So, Put It All Together…

Well, put it all together, and you still have a weird mess. But here’s my thinking:

The potential meanings for féidir, depending on the words that should have accompanied it, are “can/may” and “maybe.”

Bás is pretty straightforward as “death.”

Our hero may have misread “don’t hinder” as “won’t hinder.”

And mise is, while emphatic, is definitely “me.”

So I’m thinking he intended “Maybe death won’t hinder (“restrain/stop”) me.”

That’s the best I can do…maybe you can do better! Really, the only thing I can guarantee about this is that the Irish is shite.

Feel free to post your suggestions, guesses, etc., in the comments.

Le meas,

GG


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/

Even Racists Got the Blues

Most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

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.

Featured image © 2016 by Karen Reshkin. Used with permission. Karen took this picture at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Please visit her Irish-learning website A Clever Sheep (www.acleversheep.net)


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/