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/

 

A Rocky Mountain “Haigh”: Irish Immersion in Montana

July 22 found me flying eastward on I-90 toward a new experience in the western foothills of the Montana Rockies.

It was pure serendipity.

I was in the midst of planning our annual two-week road trip to visit family in the Pacific Northwest when a friend of mine on Facebook posted information about the week-long immersion course hosted by Friends of Irish Studies in Butte, Montana.

I have been peripherally aware of the Butte course for years, but had never thought about attending it because of the distance. Also normally when I’m in the Northwest I’m with my husband and daughter, neither of whom has any interest in Irish.

This year, however, I was going to be doing the greater part of the trip alone, as my husband had recently started a new job and my daughter had plans to visit her girlfriend in Seattle. It suddenly occurred to me that Butte isn’t all that far from my father’s home in Spokane, Washington — just a four-and-a-half-hour drive (which, when you’re doing a 2,000-mile road trip, isn’t much of a distance at all) — and that there was nothing preventing me from taking an extra week to immerse myself in some Irish (That’s an advantage of being a writer. You can do your work pretty much anywhere.)

That’s why July 22 found me flying eastward on I-90 (And I do mean flying! Montana has an 80 mph speed limit!) toward a new experience in the western foothills of the Montana Rockies.

A Stunning Location

If you’ve never been to Butte, you owe yourself a visit. This small city (population approx. 34,200) is situated in a beautiful bowl-shaped valley, with mountains on every side, and a constantly changing view of Montana’s trademark big sky.

A magnificent thunderhead, seen from just outside Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus in Butte.
A magnificent thunderhead, seen from just outside Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus. Centennial Hall is the dorm in which most of the Irish students were housed.

It’s a mecca for those who enjoy outdoor sports, such as hiking or camping, as well as for people with an interest in western U.S. history (it is still very much a mining town, and evidence of that is visible everywhere, from the ubiquitous mining head frames and the strangely beautiful Berkeley Pit to the World Museum of Mining, which gives visitors an opportunity to experience mining from a miner’s point of view).

The people who live there are fiercely proud of their city (the name of which, by the way, is pronounced “byoot,” NOT “butt” — a mistake the guide on the city tour told us is relatively common), and with good reason. In addition to its stunning location, interesting history, and unique architecture, Butte also boasts Montana Tech, which, according to the Princeton Review, ranks among best colleges in the country.

What many visitors don’t realize, however, is that Butte is also a major center for Irish culture. In fact, during its heyday, Butte had the largest concentration of Irish immigrants and their descendants west of the Mississippi!

A trinity knot: One of several Irish symbols near the entrance to The Berkeley Pit.
A Trinity knot: One of several Irish symbols near the entrance to The Berkeley Pit.

 

It’s home to multiple Irish festivals throughout the year, as well as to one of the best Irish-themed shops I’ve encountered: Cavanaugh’s County Celtic.

 

http://www.mtgaelic.org/
Entrance to Cavanaugh’s County Celtic, on Park Street in Butte.

If Irish history and culture is of interest to you (and, if you’re reading this, I imagine it is), Butte is definitely a must-visit!

A Week of Firsts

I’ve attended many Irish immersion courses over the years, both in the U.S. and in Ireland, but the Butte course was a first for me in many ways.

To begin with, it’s the only week-long course I’ve attended outside of Ireland (full-week courses are not as common in the western U.S. as they are on the East Coast). Weekend courses are wonderful, but often it seems that they’re over too quickly. It was nice to have the time to get to know people, and to explore the area, as well as more time to practice speaking Irish!

It’s also the first immersion event I’ve attended on a university campus which, among other things, meant that we had the option to save a lot of money by staying in the dorms ($25 a night, and wi-fi included…heck of a deal!). The dorm we were housed in — Centennial Hall — was less than a block from the Student Union Building, where we had our classes (and almost as important…just a few steps farther along to a Starbucks!)

The most interesting thing to me, though, was the fact that it’s the only immersion course I’ve attended at which most of the students, as well as the teachers, spoke the same dialect — Munster Irish.

Munster is the dialect with which I am the least familiar (though I can understand it, thanks in large part to TG4!), and it was interesting and useful to hear it all around me for an entire week.

Class Structure

I have to admit I was a bit concerned at first, when I realized there were only two levels: bunleibhéal for beginners and lower intermediates and ardleibhéal for upper intermediates and advanced speakers. I wasn’t certain that it could be made to work for people of markedly different levels.

Fortunately, it worked out very well indeed! In our class (ardleibhéal), we broke into groups during the morning session, with the more advanced students working among ourselves on conversational exercises. During the afternoon the class came back together to work on reading and listening comprehension and and on translation.

The daily pattern was similar to what you find with other immersion courses: A morning session with a 15-minute break in the middle, about an hour and a half free time for lunch, then back for an afternoon session (also with a brief break) that continued until about 4:00.

After Class

One thing that did differ from what I’m used to is there were no scheduled afternoon/evening workshops or activities (sessions, dancing, etc.), and I found that I missed that a bit.

That’s not to say that we didn’t do things together after class. We went out to dinner together on two occasions. One afternoon we went together on a guided trolley tour of Butte, which was really interesting, and a lot of fun (should you find yourself in Butte, I highly recommend it)!

Students waiting for the trolley tour of Butte.
Waiting for the trolley tour
Picture of the Butte Trolley.
The Butte Trolley. Highly recommended should you find yourself visiting Butte!

On another afternoon, some of the more athletic among us went for a hike up near The Continental Divide (given my bad knee and back, not to mention my tendency for altitude sickness, I had to regretfully decline, but I heard that it was a lot of fun!)

And, of course, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to stuff ourselves with street food, listen to music, and ogle the motorcycles and classic cars at Evel Knieval Days!

I often found myself taking advantage of the long summer evenings and the nearby walking/cycling trail (which ran right past the dorm), to enjoy the historical markers and the ever-changing sky.

Sunset on clouds in Butte, Montana
No, it’s not a volcano. It’s a dramatically beautiful sunset!
Beautiful sunset from the walking trail near Montana Tech.
You never get tired of sky watching in this Rocky Mountain town! This was taken from the pedestrian/cycling trail near Montana Tech.

Still, as a musician (and as someone who was drawn to Irish by a love for traditional music), I found I missed having some kind of musical gathering. Next time I’ll just have to pack my small harp!

I’ll Be Back

I have no doubt that there will be a next time, when circumstances allow. I had a good time in a beautiful place with some wonderful people, and as always, I learned a lot. Agus bíonn sé go deas i gcónaí bheith ag caint as Gaeilge, in Montana nó in Éirinn! 

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures of beautiful Butte.

Le meas, GG

The author standing in the viewing stand at The Berkeley Pit.
Me at the viewing stand at The Berkeley Pit. You can see the pit from just about anywhere in Butte, and it’s strangely beautiful, with its varying colors.
The butte from which the city of Butte draws its name.
This is the butte from which the city of Butte draws its name, taken from the walking trail near the Montana Tech campus.
Rainbow over Butte, taken from in front of Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus
Rainbow over Butte, taken from in front of Centennial Hall on the Montana Tech campus.
Mining head frame, Butte, Montana
A mine head frame. You’ll see these all over Butte. The colors of the open pit behind it are astounding.
The entrance to Montana Tech illuminated at dusk
The entrance to Montana Tech illuminated at dusk
People eating dinner together at a restaurant in Butte.
Dinner together. I was truly impressed at the quality of the restaurants available in this small city!

 


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, Gaelic, or Irish Gaelic: What’s in a Name?

If you’re at a social gathering here in the U.S. and you tell someone you speak, teach, or are learning Spanish (or German, or Icelandic, or whatever), nobody gives you a confused look, or asks you what you mean by “Spanish.”

This post originally appeared on my Tumblr blog in February, 2017

Sometimes I envy people who speak Spanish, or German, or Icelandic, or just about any other language I can think of. They have it so easy!.

If you’re at a social gathering here in the U.S. and you tell someone you speak, teach, or are learning Spanish (or German, or Icelandic, or whatever), nobody gives you a confused look, or asks you what you mean by “Spanish.”

Irish is different. If you say you speak/learn/teach Irish, after a moment of befuddled silence, you usually get one of the following:

  • “You mean they have their own language?”
  • “Do you mean you’re learning to speak with an Irish accent?”
  • “Oy can speak Oirish too! (this person is usually quite obnoxiously drunk)
  • “Do you mean Gaelic?” (The ones who want to appear especially in-the-know may pronounce this “GAA-lik,” as it is in Scotland. I blame Outlander).

Say Something Irish

Things get more interesting if you’re asked to “say something in Irish.”

I usually resist my impulse to respond with “‘Rud éigin’ as Gaeilge” (”’Something’ in Irish”) and rattle off something I can say by heart, such as the Lord’s Prayer:

Ár n-Athair atá ar neamh, go naofar d’ainm, go dtaga do ríocht, go ndéantar do thoil ar an talamh mar atá ar neamh…

To which the response often is:

“But that doesn’t sound much like English!”

Er….duh?*

Of course, there’s always the Carlsberg approach:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uI5_b-327Dw

* Yes, I know that’s a bit snarky. But it just goes to show what some of us have to deal with when speaking of the language outside of its home island.

A Language With an Identity Problem

At issue is the fact that, outside of its home region, and particularly in the U.S., Irish suffers from a real identity problem..

You would think that, with the huge number of people from Ireland who immigrated to the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Irish was still the majority language in Ireland, some knowledge of the language would at least linger here. And perhaps it does in some Irish-American communities.

Most Americans, though, don’t seem to know that the Irish have ever spoken anything but English. And those who do don’t know what to call it, or even that it’s still a living (albeit endangered) language.

This puts those of us who work with a predominately American market in a somewhat difficult position. How do we let our target audience know that we’re speaking of a language that is native to Ireland (and that isn’t a form of English)?

The answer that many of us have arrived at is to use the term “Irish Gaelic.” Unfortunately that opens up a completely different can of worms.

Much Ado About Nothing

There are, I’m afraid, people out there who are hugely bothered by the term “Irish Gaelic.” I mean HUGELY bothered. Get-your-knickers-in-a-twist bothered. Major-freak-outage bothered.

In fact, from some of the more over-the-top responses to the term, you might be justified in thinking that calling the language “Irish Gaelic” is roughly equivalent to saying “You’re ugly, and your mother dresses you funny.”

But is it really? Are those of us who use “Irish Gaelic” in the titles of our books and learning programs really being disrespectful to the language? Let’s take a look at some of the objections raised.

“They Don’t Call it That in Ireland”

This is absolutely, indisputably true. You won’t hear people in Ireland referring to “Irish Gaelic.”

I feel the need to point out, though, that they don’t need to. If you were to announce in Ireland that you were learning Irish, they would know exactly what you were talking about (they might think you were crazy, but they wouldn’t be confused by the reference).

It’s their language, after all. Whether or not they speak it, they’re surrounded by it from birth to death…in school, on television and radio, on road signs. Irish may not be widely spoken in Ireland anymore, but it’s still very much present.

Much as I wish it were otherwise, that isn’t the case here in the U.S. If we want people to know what we’re talking about, we need to be more specific.

And yes…it sucks that we have to jump through these hoops to ensure that people know what we’re talking about. After all, if you tell someone you’re learning French, they don’t ask “Do you mean you’re learning French cooking?” But it is what it is.

“It’s Incorrect”

Well, really, it isn’t. It’s not official, and it’s certainly not the standard in Ireland, but it’s not incorrect.

Irish is a Gaelic (Goidelic) language…a language of the Celtic people known as the Gaels. It shares this distinction with its sister languages, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. And, in fact, many older Irish speakers in Ireland do refer to the language as “Gaelic.”

“Gaelic” is also a word that just about anyone will recognize as referring to a language. And if you want proof that it is, in fact, used in Ireland, I can only point to the fact that the English name of Conradh na Gaeilge is “The Gaelic League.”

The problem is that, by convention, the word “Gaelic” by itself is taken to mean the language of Scotland. This is an important distinction if you’re looking for learning or teaching resources, as anything that is simply called “Gaelic” will be for Scottish Gaelic. Hence the need to specify “Irish Gaelic,” if we’re going to use the term “Gaelic” at all.

Yes, “Irish” is the official name of the language, and all of us who speak or teach the language use it (Well, when we’re speaking English. When we’re speaking Irish, we use “Gaeilge,” or one of the regional iterations). But it’s really a stretch to say that “Irish Gaelic” is “incorrect.”

“You Should ‘Educate’ People by Using the ‘Correct’ Term”

I must say, I’m all for education. And, in fact, whenever I teach or write about the language, I make it clear that the accepted name for it in English is “Irish.”

And, well…see the section above.

But I can’t “educate” people I can’t reach. And I can’t reach people if I’m using a term they don’t understand.

In all my years learning and teaching Irish, I’ve seen many a person who was drawn to the language by what some might consider a “trivial” interest fall in love with it for its own sake. And often what has drawn them in has been the term “Irish Gaelic.” It that’s not education, I don’t know what the word means.

“It’s Disrespectful to the Language/Culture”

Oh, come on! Seriously? Do you honestly think that anyone would dedicate more than a decade to learning a language for which he or she had no respect? Or that such a person could do so without a deep regard for the country and culture to which that language belongs?

A more “polite” version of this one is “It displays an ignorance of Irish culture.” Of course, in addition to being wrong in almost every case,this presumes that no actual Irish person would ever use such a term.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the reality is that most of the people who use the term “Irish Gaelic” in the titles of their learning or teaching materials are Irish. And I don’t mean “Irish-American.”

Of the people I know personally who have developed such materials for a predominately American market, one is a native speaker and the other grew up spending summers in the Donegal Gaeltacht.  Both were born, raised in, and currently reside in Ireland.

It’s quite simply a pragmatic decision to reach (and thus to educate) the widest possible audience by using the clearest possible terms. Nothing sinister, disrespectful, or ignorant about it.

A World Language or an Exclusive Club?

I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone start using the term “Irish Gaelic” (If you think that’s what I’m saying, you need to re-read this post. Go ahead. I’ll wait).

I do, however, think that the sometimes extreme reactions to the use of that term are, at best, misguided, and at worst, potentially harmful.

While I can’t speak for everyone who learns, teaches, or promotes the Irish language, here’s how I see the situation:

Irish is not, and should not be, an exclusive club. People shouldn’t have to know the passwords and secret handshake to access it. If a little thing like being more explicit about what we call it when addressing certain audiences helps more people to come to know and love the Irish language, I’m all for it.

Irish is a threatened minority language. It needs all our help, and the more exposure we can give it, the better.

In the face of a shrinking Gaeltacht (or, if you prefer, an encroaching Galltacht), the gradual erosion of native Irish idioms and pronunciation in favor of “Béarlachas” and Anglicized pronunciation, reduction in funding, and an often indifferent (sometimes downright hostile) governmental attitude toward the language, the matter of putting the word “Gaelic” after the word “Irish” in the title of a book or a computer program is (or should be) a relatively minor concern.

There are plenty of things to be bothered, outraged, or concerned about. This isn’t one of them.

Discussion Welcome

I recognize that, for some, this is a still contentious issue, and I welcome CIVIL discussion, both here on my blog and in other places where this post may appear. Emphasis on “civil.” Don’t adopt a hostile stance, or assume that a person who holds a different view is ignorant or disrespectful toward the language and the culture.

We’re all in this together.

Le meas, GG

The featured image is a sign outside a playground in Glencolmcille. It says “Notice: Welcome to our playground (‘play park’). The equipment in this playground is suitable for children aged three to twelve. Neither bicycling nor playing football is allowed in the park. No dogs. Help us keep our park safe and clean, please. Thank you. Glencolmcille Parish Council.”


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/