March Madness

St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and ridiculously bad Irish T-shirts, memes, and posters are cropping up everywhere.

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  (“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!

Bonus mistake

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.

Le meas,

GG

P.S.: Yes, the heading above the pictured shirt is wrong too, and by now you can probably figure out why!

 

 

The Modest Preposition

The humble preposition plays a vital role in the Irish language

A while back, I wrote a Facebook post lamenting the loss of the preposition “from” in the phrase “to graduate from college.” Apparently, in increasingly common usage, one no longer graduates from college, one “graduates college.” (There are lots of reasons why this oddly truncated phrase doesn’t work, which I’ll let Grammar Girl describe in detail. To me it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.).

This led to a discussion about prepositions in general, with predictable side trips into regionalisms/colloquialisms, prescriptivism vs. descriptivism, language evolution (or devolution), etc., but what it all boiled down to was that prepositions are little words and, in English at least, are sometimes easily tossed aside.

(That said, I’ll challenge anyone who defends “graduate college” to explain why he doesn’t also “go school” or “sleep night”).

Me being me (yes, the geek is back!), this got me thinking about the vital role the humble preposition plays in the Irish language.

Little Word, Big Job

First let’s talk about the basic function of a preposition. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about it:

Prepositions show direction, location, or time, or introduce an object. They are usually followed by an object—a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun. The most common prepositions are little and very common:

at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to, with

Further…

Prepositions typically show how the noun, noun phrase, or pronoun is related to another word in the sentence.

a friend of mine

the dress with the stripes

hit by a ball

no one except me

That’s a lot of work for a bunch of small words!

And how they work can vary greatly from country to country and from region to region, as this article demonstrates:

Prepositions: The super-handy and horribly confusing widgets of language, by James Harbeck.

Still, useful and perplexing as they are in English, prepositions take on a whole new job when it comes to Irish. They can take the place of verbs.

Let me explain

Perhaps the above needs a little explanation. It’s not that Irish doesn’t have verbs. Irish has plenty of verbs, and conjugating them drives new learners crazy (Though I’m not sure why. Irish verb construction is really very simple. More on that in another post).

English, however, is much more reliant on verbs to convey meaning. We have a dedicated verb for just about every conceivable action. Give us a concept and we can verb it (see what I did there?).

Irish, on the other hand, often favors a preposition, supported by some form of the verb “to be” to convey the same concepts. For example, in English we have (verbs in bold):

  • Seán has a new car
  • Máire is sick
  • Gráinne loves chocolate
  • Síle loves Sinéad
  • Éamonn hates tomatoes

The same sentences in Irish (verbs underlined; prepositions in bold):

  • carr nua ag Seán. (Literally “Is car new at Seán”)
  • tinneas ar Mháire (Literally “Is sickness on Máire”)
  • Is maith le Gráinne seacláid (Literally “Is good with Gráinne chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle do Shinéad (Literally “Is love at Síle for Sinéad”)
  • Is fuath le Éamonn trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with Éamonn tomatoes”)

“Tá” and “Is” are both words that correspond to the verb “to be” in English (they’re not used interchangeably, but that also is a subject for another post…or maybe a book…or perhaps a small library).

But wait…there’s more!

An interesting thing about Irish prepositions (and a feature of Celtic languages in general) is that they have a special affinity with another class of small words that begins with “P” — pronouns. Irish conjugates prepositions by joining them with pronouns, in a form that is formally called a “prepositional pronoun.”

Knowing how prepositional pronouns work is integral to learning and speaking Irish (unless you want to sound like Tarzan).

Meet the pronouns

You probably remember from school that a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun (which saves us from having to say such things as “Audrey drives Audrey’s car to Audrey’s office every morning. Audrey gets out of Audrey’s car and unlocks the door to Audrey’s office and then goes to Audrey’s desk and checks Audrey’s email” which would be a pretty tedious and cumbersome way to talk, you have to admit).

These are the pronouns in English:

I/me
You
He/him
She/her
We/us
They/them
It

These are the pronouns in Irish:


Tú/thú
Sé/é
Sí/í
Muid or sinn (“sinn” is primarily used in Munster)
Sibh
Siad/iad

Because all nouns in Irish, animate or inanimate, have grammatical gender, Irish doesn’t have an equivalent of the neuter inanimate pronoun “it.” Also, unlike contemporary English, Irish has singular and plural forms of “you”: tú/thú for singular and sibh for plural.

Putting it all together

In Irish, you can’t just put a pronoun next to a preposition. You must combine the two into a “prepositional pronoun.” For example, you can’t say:

Ag mé

You have to say:

Agam

Here’s the full conjugation of “ag” (“at):

Agam (“at me”)
Agat (“at you” – singular)
Aige (“at him”)
Aici (“at her”)
Againn (“at us”)
Agaibh (“at you” – plural)
Acu (“at them”)

Here are the sentences I used earlier, each with one noun replaced with a prepositional pronoun:

  • carr nua aige(Literally “Is car new at him,” i.e., “He has a new car”)
  • tinneas uirthi (Literally “Is sickness on her,” i.e., “She is sick”)
  • Is maith léi seacláid (Literally “Is good with her chocolate,” i.e., “She likes chocolate”)
  • grá ag Síle di (Literally “Is love at Síle for her,”i.e., “Síle loves her”)
  • Is fuath leis trátaí (Literally “Is hatred with him tomatoes,” i.e., “He hates tomatoes”)

What this all comes down to is that, when translating many common phrases from English to Irish, you need to know at least three things:

1) Is this an instance that requires a preposition rather than a dedicated verb?
2) If so, which preposition is required?
3) If I want to use a pronoun, how does that pronoun combine with the preposition?

(There are actually a few more things you have to know, such as “how does the preposition affect a word that follows it?” but we’ll deal with that somewhere/time down the road).

Bad news for wannabe translators

There are myriad reasons why a person who isn’t reasonably fluent in Irish (or in any other language not their own) shouldn’t attempt translations for anything permanent or public. This is one of the biggies. Idioms involving prepositions and prepositional pronouns are integral to the language. There’s just no getting around that. And if you don’t know how to use them, you’re going to get it wrong — guaranteed.

And if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times YOU CANNOT RELY ON GOOGLE TRANSLATE. Seriously. Just don’t. If you need an example or two of how just how badly Google handles Irish, check out this post I wrote for Bitesize Irish a few years back:

Bitesize Irish – Irish Translators

I’m sorry to say it hasn’t improved much in the intervening seven-plus years.

Translator’s bane, learner’s boon

If you’re learning Irish, or contemplating doing so (maybe as a New Year’s resolution!), this may seem a bit daunting. Don’t let it worry you.

The fact that these idioms are so integral to Irish means that you will begin encountering them from your earliest lessons, and the more common ones will become familiar very, very quickly. These include the kinds of sentences you will use over and over again, such as:

  • Those involving possessions
  • Those involving physical attributes
  • Those involving desires, likes, and dislikes
  • Those involving health/physical condition

It won’t take you long to begin to get a feel for the patterns. And when you need help, this is one case in which your favorite dictionary can be really useful.

Most dictionaries, whether print or on-line, have extensive entries on prepositions, which will not only give you the prepositional pronoun forms, but lots of examples of usage. Here’s an example from Teanglann.ie:

Ag (at) in Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla

You’ll get it — I promise! And faster than you might think.

The Geek is back!

You may have noticed that I haven’t been around for a while (You have noticed, haven’t you? Please tell me you noticed! Actually, if you haven’t, don’t tell me!). Adjusting to working full time after 20+ years of working from home, as well as dealing with some health issues, put a cramp in my style for a bit.

I’m back now, though, and I made two resolutions for 2020:

  1. To get this post finished and posted by the end of New Year’s Day (nailed it!)
  2. To write more frequently in 2020 (I’m aiming for publishing fortnightly, if possible. Hold me to it!)

If you think of something you’d like me to write about regarding Irish and/or translation, please let me know! You can say it in the comments below or message me via WordPress.

Athbhliain faoi rath is faoi mhaise daoibh! (A lovely and prosperous New Year to you all!)

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/

Oh, What an Idiom!

Translation is both an art and a science, and it takes more than you might realize to get a correct translation.

dul gorm censored (1)

Definition of idiom (Thank you, Webster!)

1an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself, either grammatically (such as no, it wasn’t me) or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as ride herd on for “supervise”).

2athe language peculiar to a people or to a district, community, or class :DIALECT

bthe syntacticalgrammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language.

It’s not a bug, it’s a feature

Idioms are so much a part of our language — of ANY language — that it can be hard for learners or translation seekers to understand that they may not make sense when translated directly into another language.

We deal with idioms day after day, though we may not be aware of them. Consider these:

  • You take a bath
  • You make money
  • It’s raining cats and dogs

You don’t think about these phrases…they’re just part of how you speak. To you they sound perfectly logical. But imagine how they sound to a learner of your language:

  • You’re removing a bathtub from one place to another
  • You’re printing your own money
  • Dogs and cats are literally falling from the sky

A challenge for would-be translators

Many pitfalls await for people who try to do their own translations without actually knowing the language into which they’re translating. Assuming that idioms can translate literally across languages is one of the most common.

While this can be true for any language, the further you get from familiar English structures and culture, the less likely it is that your idiom will make any sense at all once “translated.”

This is what happened with the shirt on the poor fellow in the photo above (His face and his Twitter handle are obscured to save him from embarrassment, as I doubt he’s the originator of this mistake. It’s been going around the internet for quite a while. He looks sad because he’s just learned that his shirt is wrong).

Whoever “translated” the words on his shirt assumed that the common American English slogan “Go [sports team]” could be expressed literally in Irish.

By now, I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not the case.

Just go

There are two problems here, and the first (and most fundamental) issue is one of idiom.

What the shirt is intended to say is “Go Blue” — a slogan you’ll hear shouted enthusiastically at games by students and alumni of the University of Michigan (whose color is, of course, blue).

Irish has a couple of words that mean “go,” depending on context. The one used here is the verb téigh (Yes, I know that nothing on that shirt looks like “téigh.” More on that in a moment). Another common one is imigh.

Between the two of them, they encompass most of the usual uses of “go” (téigh is more of a general-use “go,” while imigh is more “go” as in “leave/depart”): “Go home,” “Go away,” “Let’s go to grandma’s,” “The road goes ever on,” “Does this bus go to Dublin?” “I go to work every day,” etc., etc.

And, of course, there’s always this one:

an bhfuil cead agam 2

Neither of them, however, is used as a rallying cry.

When you want to express something like this in Irish, you use the word abú, which means, roughly, “onward.” And it comes AFTER whatever you’re cheering for.

GORM ABÚ!!!! GO BLUE!!!!

A matter of grammar

The other issue with this “translation” is that, even if “Go Blue” could have been rendered using the verb téigh, the “translator” chose the wrong form of the verb.

Dul is a form known as the “verbal noun,” which, depending on context, corresponds to the infinitive (“to go”) or the present participle (“going”).

Ba mhaith liom dul abhaile: I would like to go home.

Tá mé ag dul abhaile: I am going home.

What was wanted is the imperative — the form of the verb that is used for giving an order or direction.

In Irish, the root form of the verb is the singular imperative, so to tell one person or entity to “go,” you’d simply use téigh.  For multiple people or entities, you’d use téigí. A sports team is a singular entity, so even if this could have been translated literally, the verb form should have been téigh, not dul.

Téigh abhaile: Go home.

The point of all of this

The point of this (and of other similar posts in this blog) isn’t to ridicule the University of Michigan or other groups/individuals who make these very public mistakes. It’s to emphasize the fact that, if you don’t speak a language, you can’t translate into it. You can’t even verify a translation given to you by someone else.

That’s why you absolutely must verify your sources. Check, re-check, and then check again. Even if you get a translation from a close friend or family member, get it verified. Get a minimum of three RELIABLE sources in agreement before proceeding.

Translation is both an art and a science, and it takes more than you might realize to get a correct translation.

New year, new price

Inflation affects the best of us…even translators. The price for both The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook and The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook will be going up sometime this month. If you’ve been thinking about buying a copy of one or both of them, act now! Both books are available from Amazon and from Barnes & Noble, or from your local bookstore via special order.


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/

 

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


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/

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 false one, 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 adviser” (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 advisers 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:

Anam = soul

Cara = friend

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/