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 program “Penn & 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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”
It doesn’t make sense by itself, but in context, I think the most likely intended meaning is “maybe/perhaps.”
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 bás, but in the context of this total mess of a translation, it’s a reasonably minor issue.
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 ná, 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 twister: Ná 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 is the emphatic form of mé: “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.
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/