Welcome Springtime!

So you think “the first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!

Lá fhéile Bríde sona daoibh! Happy St. Brighid’s Day to you all!

I had hoped to write a completely new post for this special day, but time got away from me. Maybe next year!

So in celebration of the REAL first day of spring (Think the “first day of spring” is on the vernal equinox? Think again!), here’s a link to a post I wrote for Lá Fhéile Bríde  for Bitesize Irish Gaelic in 2013.

It includes some background on the woman (or women?) whom Christians know as a saint and Pagans know as a goddess, as well as some things you can do to celebrate her feast day.

St. Brighid’s Day: Comes the Irish Springtime

And, thanks to the wonderful Irish singer Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, here is a beautiful hymn to Brighid to brighten your day:

Gabhaim Molta Bríde

Wherever you are in this beautiful world, have a wonderful day! Bainigí sult as, agus Brat Bríde oraibh go léir! (Enjoy, and may Bríd’s cloak shelter you!)

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 Bad is Bad

What is it about us Irish learners that makes us willing to settle for shite?

So here’s a legitimate question:

What is it about us as Irish learners that makes us willing to settle for shite? Or, worse, line up to defend it?

You see them everywhere you look on the internet: Free or low-cost posters, calendars, “translators,” and teaching materials and videos that are absolutely rife with mistakes. Misspellings, incorrect word usage, mispronunciations, grammatical issues, Béarlachas (Anglicized Irish)…you name it, you’ll find it.

Worse, you’ll find people who not only lap this stuff up, they bristle at anyone who criticizes it.

I’m not talking about the occasional typo, misstatement, or brain fart here. They happen to all of us (If you want to hear how many mistakes I can make in one hour, just follow me around at any Irish immersion weekend! As soon as I open my mouth, everything I know about Irish grammar seems to go out the window!)

I’m not even talking about the occasional mistake that gets past editors and proofreaders. Anyone who’s ever published knows just how often those happen! Heck, an entire school of literary criticism was caused by a typesetter’s error in Moby Dick!

It’s a matter of attitude

What I’m talking about is amateur-produced learning/teaching materials….specifically about learning materials published by people who are not only not qualified to be putting out such materials, they, frankly, don’t give a damn about the quality of what they produce .

Why is it that, when “learning” materials are published with tons of mistakes, by people who just shrug and say “I don’t have the time to worry about that” when those mistakes are pointed out to them, we say “well, at least they’re trying” instead of calling them out on it? What, exactly, are they “trying” to do? Teach people how to speak Irish incorrectly? Or maybe line their pockets? Or perhaps get their 15 minutes of fame?

Or maybe it’s all of the above.

Worse, why do we promote such materials? “They’re nice people” isn’t a good enough reason. There are good learning materials out there that we should be promoting, and maybe those “nice people” should be using those to learn a bit of Irish instead of trying to create materials of their own.

(Oh, and those reliable learning materials are also produced by nice people. Nice people who know what they’re doing).

Who’s attracting whom?

Another argument I’ve heard in favor of promoting these materials is “At least they’re attracting people to the language.” But is that really the case?

I submit that the people they’re “attracting” are people who are already drawn to the language. Those people may have been searching for a tattoo translation, for a name for a child, for a transcription of a memorial, or for a translation for a book or poem, but the interest in Irish was already there.

In nearly 14 years of learning Irish, I have yet to meet someone who was just surfing along, minding his or her business, when suddenly up pops a video or a poster and it’s “A ha! I think I’ll start learning Irish!”

I think that, if anything, these “resources” are distracting learners from looking for or finding good learning materials.

“Nothing” isn’t the only option

Why do we look at materials that are full of mistakes and say “well, they’re better than nothing,” when “nothing” isn’t the only choice? There are plenty of good, reliable Irish learning resources out there. Most of them don’t cost all that much, and some of them are even free of charge! You can check some of them out here: Beyond Duolingo.

The internet is your friend if you know how to use it, but when you’re a beginning language student, it’s best to use it with a bit of caution and guidance.

“The goodness of their hearts”?

And what’s all this I hear about “It’s OK because they’re doing this out of the goodness of their hearts”? First of all, that’s not always the case. Secondly, since when has that been a good reason to promote substandard learning materials?

Mistakes happen, but…

Mistakes happen…we all know that. At least we writers know that!! Typos, printer errors, and just plain old “what was I thinking?” When most of us make mistakes, as soon as we realize them, we’re sorry and we say so, and we try to put things right.

But when those mistakes happen and the response is “I don’t have the time to proof my work” or “oh well…the computer will figure it out eventually,” or “gee, she’s doing her best!” why the hell do we say that’s OK?

Worse, why do we suggest that new learners use these resources? Doesn’t this language, and its learners, deserve better than that?

Is “broken Irish” really better than “clever English”?

There’s a saying you’ll encounter if you spend much time around Irish language speakers and learnersIs fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste — “Broken Irish is better than clever English.”

It’s meant to encourage people to use what Irish they have without fear of making mistakes, and in that way, it’s a good thing. Speaking and using a language is very different from simply learning to read or understand it, and you can’t learn to speak a language if you’re afraid to open your mouth.

And Irish learners have more and more opportunities to do just that. Facebook sites such as “Gaeilge Amháin,” for intermediate and advanced speakers and “Irish for Beginners” for newer learners give people the chance to practice their Irish in a safe and supportive forum.

Increasingly more and more on-line opportunities are springing up for people who want to practice their spoken  and written Irish. Immersion weekends, week-long courses, and conversation groups are also becoming increasingly common throughout the world.

And, of course, there’s the “Pop-Up Gaeltacht” movement!

In spaces and groups such as these, of course “Broken Irish is better than clever English.” Speaking fearlessly is an important part of the learning process.

But learning and teaching materials are an entirely different story. What you learn as a beginner can be very hard to shake off later, so learning materials — especially those designed for self-teaching or for listening practice — need to be as correct as they possibly can be. In these cases, Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste” definitely does NOT apply.

Just say “no”

It’s time, and more than time, that we stop giving poor quality learning materials a “pass.”  If people want to put stuff out there to help people learn, that’s wonderful. But we need to insist that these people do whatever they can to make sure that what they produce is correct, including FIXING problems when they’re pointed out.

More importantly, we need to stop referring people to incorrect resources, when really good, solid, self-teaching methods are already available.

We need to start taking pride in this language we love. It deserves no less.

Oíche Shamhna, or Halloween, Old Irish Style

This is the time of year when an ancient Irish celebration turns our world black and orange.

This post originally appeared on my Tumblr blog in October, 2016.

‘Tis the season! This is the time of year when an ancient Irish celebration turns our world black and orange and fills our streets with little (and sometimes not so little) ghosts, goblins, and superheroes.

Happy New Year!

In ancient Ireland, Oíche Shamna, or “Samhain Eve” (“Samhain,” pronounced “SOW-un” (first syllable rhymes with “cow”) is the Irish name for the month of November, and also the name of the Old Irish new year celebration) was a time when the veil between the world of the living and that of the dead was believed to grow thin.

People believed that the dead, both good and bad, could walk among the living on that night. They prepared offerings of food and drink to welcome their beloved dead, as well as to appease spirits who might mean to do them ill.

People also believed that the fairy folk were better able to “cross over” on such a night. Fairies in Irish mythology are not elegant elves or glittery pixies. They are supernatural creatures that are, at best, mischievous, and, at worst, truly terrifying.

For this reason, treats would also be left out to propitiate any visiting fairies in the hope that they would leave the household alone. This eventually evolved into young people dressing up as such creatures (or as deceased ancestors) and going from house to house collecting goodies. ‘

Sound familiar?

A Tradition that Spans Cultures

My recent travels took me to México, where I had the opportunity to view examples of Mexican art, both ancient and modern, with the guidance of local experts. It was quite an eye-opening experience!

I was struck by the similarities between the carvings in the ruins at Huatulco and Puerto Chiapas and some of the carvings on ancient Irish artifacts – particularly the use of the spiral and the “tree of life.”

The real eye-opener, however, was our visit to an art gallery in San José del Cabo that featured artwork based on the upcoming Méxican holiday Dia de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead.

Seeing a familiar holiday in a new light

Of course I was already familiar with Dia de los Muertos. I live in a place where it is widely celebrated. I’d never really given any thought, though, to how similar it is to the ancient Irish observance of Oíche Shamhna, whichover the span of centuries, eventually morphed into our modern Halloween.

The concept of honoring ancestors with their favorite foods and music; the sense of the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead growing thin, allowing the dead to visit the living; the acceptance of mortality as part of the cycle of life rather than something to be dreaded and shunned…all are significant aspects of both celebrations.

Even though I’ve celebrated Halloween all my life (and have known about its Irish roots since high school), and have lived among people who observe Dia de los Muertos for much of my adult life, just how closely the two celebrations are related never really clicked for me until that day in San José del Cabo.

Fascinating, isn’t it? Two completely different pre-Christian cultures, on two continents, evolving what is, essentially, the same celebration.

It gets even more fascinating when you look a little deeper and realize that similar celebrations have evolved on virtually every continent. Really makes you wonder if there might be something to it, doesn’t it?

In any case, I knew that I had to write something about Halloween and its Irish connections when I got home. The problem was (and is) that my travels have left me very short of time, and I wasn’t sure I could give the topic the justice it deserves.

Then I realized that I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

From the Archives

When I worked as a blog writer for Bitesize Irish Gaelic in 2012 and 2013, I wrote extensively about Halloween, so I dug through my archives and found three posts that I think my followers will find interesting:

Oíche Shamhna (Halloween) Part 1 Happy New Year!: This post describes how the ancient Irish celebration evolved into the holiday we celebrate today.

Halloween Old Irish Style How the ancient Irish observed Oíche Shamhna, with suggestions incorporating some of these traditions into your own Halloween celebration.

Irish Language Phrases for Oíche Shamhna Irish words and phrases appropriate to the season, with phonetic pronunciation.

I hope you enjoy these posts. Please feel free to share the links, but please DON’T copy large blocks of text from them without the approval of the owners of Bitesize Irish Gaelic*

Oíche Shamhna shona daoibh go léir! (Happy Halloween to you all!)

GG

* Full Disclosure and a Plug

Or maybe it’s a plug and full disclosure. In any case, if you’re looking for an on-line program for learning Irish, Bitesize Irish Gaelic is one I highly recommend (And not just because I used to work there.That’s the disclosure part. Don’t worry…I left on good terms, and still pop in from time to time in a supporting capacity)

The program is designed as a series of very short, “bite-sized” lessons, each of which can be completed relatively quickly. Lessons are categorized s “Grammar,” “Vocabulary,” and “Conversation,” and feature audio recorded by a native speaker.

Pricing is on a sliding scale depending on how much of the program you want to access. It’s a month-to-month set-up, so you can always leave (or upgrade!)

Bitesize offers extensive support, and additional resources, including frequent podcasts and a private Facebook group.

Anyway, if you’re looking for an affordable way to get started learning Irish, give it a look!

www.bitesizeirishgaelic.com

Slán go fóill, and Happy Trick or Treating!

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/

It’s A Long Life With A Bad Tattoo

Irish isn’t a “toy” or some kind of “cool” code. It’s the heart and soul of a culture.

I swear I don’t go out looking for bad Irish tattoos. I don’t take any particular delight in tearing apart peoples’ expensive ink.

It’s impossible to be involved with Irish on the internet for any length of time, however, without encountering bad translations — and way too often, those bad translations are written on someone’s skin.

It saddens and angers me that people misuse the language in this way. Irish is a living language. It’s not a toy, or some kind of “cool” code. It’s the heart and soul of a culture.

Just as important, the more bad Irish there is out there, the further the language is diminished, and the harder it becomes for people who truly care about the language to find good translations.

When things such as this come across my desk, therefore, I have to say something, if for no other reason than to make it clear to people that doing your own tattoo “translation” without the help of experts is both a recipe for disaster and a profound insult to the language.

Some Irish speakers really dislike the casual use of the language for such things as tattoos, and feel that this kind of use in and of itself degrades the language. There are people out there who flatly refuse to do tattoo translations for that reason.

I look at it from a different point of view. People are going to use Irish in tattoos whether we Irish speakers like it or not. Most of them have their hearts in the right place. They want to honor their Irish heritage, or the Irish heritage of a loved one. I’d rather help people get things right than make fun of people who get it wrong.

This is also, by the way, the reason I wrote “The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook.”

That said, I do think it’s important to point it out when things DO go wrong. Incorrect Irish does nothing to help the language, or to help other tattoo seekers, who may emulate your mistakes.

So What’s Wrong With This One?

When I mention that a particular translation is incorrect, people inevitably ask me what’s wrong with it. In order to know that, the first thing is to ascertain what the “translator” intended to say.

Fortunately in this case, the tattooed one has told us what he was seeking: “Live a good life, not a long life.”

I guess I don’t NEED to tell you that he he messed it up big time. But, being me, I really do HAVE to tell you: He messed it up big time.

Parts of Speech

Let’s start with the first word: Beo.

It’s pretty clear that this tattoo seeker started out (at least) with an internet or dictionary search for a translation of the English word “live” in Irish.

As I mentioned in my post “Even Racists Got the Blues” (and which I’m certain is clear to you once you think about it), English has two words that are spelled “live”: One that rhymes with “hive” and one that rhymes with “give.” Unfortunately, this “translator” grabbed the wrong one.

Two words that are spelled in the same way, but that have different pronunciations and different meanings are called “homonyms.” English has a lot of them. That’s why it’s so very important to be aware of “parts of speech” (a term you may remember from grammar school).

When you look up a word in any dictionary, you’ll find that it’s marked as belonging to a particular “part of speech”: For example “nouns” (words that stand for people, places, or things), verbs (action words), adjectives (words that describe nouns), or adverbs (words that describe verbs).

When you’re translating, especially when dealing with words that are homonyms in the source language, it’s especially important that you pay attention to these parts of speech, because they almost certainly will be represented by different words in the target language.

In this case, what the “translator” was looking for was a verb: “live” as rhymes with “give.” What he found, though, was an adjective: “live” as rhymes with “hive.”

The Irish word beo can mean “live,” “alive,” or “lively,” depending on context:

Baoite beo: Live bait

Tá sé beo: He is alive

Mo bhuachaill beo: My lively lad (from the song Mo Ghile Mear)

The Irish for the verb “live” is mair. In a sentence such as this, though, it would probably be expressed as a wishGo maire tú… (“May you live”), if it were to be used at all. Even more likely would be a completely different construction, which I’ll get to in a bit.

But Wait…There’s Mór

Our tattoo seeker did get one word right in this phrase: Saol does indeed mean “life/a life” (It can also mean “world.” It’s a versatile word). The problem is with the adjective: mór.

Mór has a lot of potential meanings. Its primary meaning is big/large, but it can also mean “great” (as in size or age, not as in “wonderful”). It can also mean “grand/elder,” as in máthair mhór (a term for “grandmother”).

Mór can mean “intense” (pian mhór — “intense pain”). It can mean “serious” or “grave” (earráid mhór — a grave error). It can mean lots of things, but one thing it DOESN’T mean is “good.”

In fact, the phrase saol mór has the specific meaning of “the whole world/everybody,” which doesn’t make any sense at all here. If you want to say “a good life,” in Irish, you’d say saol maith (there are almost certainly other ways to say it, but that’s a direct translation).

I’ve been wracking my brain trying to figure out where he got “saol mór” for “a good life.” I suspect he saw the word “great” as one of mór‘s possible definitions and assumed it meant “great” as in “wonderful” or “terrific,” but that’s just a guess.

Even A Broken Clock is Right Twice a Day

Our “translator” got part of the second phrase correct as well. Saol fada does, indeed, mean “a long life. As the proverb says, even a broken clock is right twice a day (well, assuming it’s an analog clock, anyway).

The problem is with the preposition ganI’m not sure where he got the idea that gan means “not,” but it doesn’t. It means “without.”

So, to sum things up, our hero may have been trying to say “Live a good life, not a long life,” but what he got was something quite different:

“Alive a big life without a long life”

Ouch.

So How Should You Say It?

There are probably several ways to express this concept in Irish, but the simplest to my mind (and what I probably would have suggested had this fellow asked me for advice) is:

Is fearr saol maith ná saol fada: A good life is better than a long life

This has the advantage of being a standard construction in Irish, familiar to most speakers and learners from traditional proverbs:

Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste (“Broken Irish is better than clever English”)

Is fearr rith maith ná droch-sheasamh (“A good run is better than a bad stand” — i.e., discretion is the better part of valor).

I would also, however, suggest that he seek out a professional translator (if it’s worth having it on your skin forever, it’s worth paying a little for a good translation, am I right?).

If a professional is out of the question, I’d strongly encourage him to visit The Irish Language Forum, where there are lots of people with good Irish who can weigh in on the best way to express what he wants to say.

In fact, I think I’d encourage him to visit the forum even if he does get a professional translation, for a little peace of mind, if nothing else.

Surely that’s not too much to ask?

It’s Not Just Irish

If it’s any consolation, Scottish Gaelic speakers have to deal with this kind of thing too. Here’s a Bored Panda post that my friend and editor Emily McEwan wrote about bad tattoo translations in that language:

Gaelic Tattoos That Make Me Cringe

Happy Schadenfreude!

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/

You Know You’ve Been Studying Irish Too Long When…

Fadó, fadó, ar an idirlíon…

Once upon a time, there was a lovely little Irish discussion and translation forum on the internet.

The members of the forum were good friends and, when they weren’t busy doing tattoo translations, discussing the tuiseal ginideach and the modh coinníolach, or dissing the Caighdeán Oifigiúil, they enjoyed playing word games.

Favorite games included Fiche Ceist (“Twenty Questions”) and Raight Inglís Iúsuinn Aighrís Fáinics (“Write English Using Irish Phonics”). These games were educational as well as a lot of fun.

Fiche Ceist, for example, was a great way to sort out the difference between Tá and Is, and Raight Inglís Iúsuinn Aighrís Fáinics really helped new learners get a handle on the Irish spelling system (which is a lot easier than you might think).

One day a member of the forum, having just had an amusing (if a little embarrassing) experience at a Mexican restaurant, invented a new game: “You Know You’ve Been Studying Irish Too Long When…”.

The goal, of course, was to finish the above sentence.

The game was an immediate hit, and the responses ranged from the rueful to the hilarious. Unlike the other games, it wasn’t particular educational, but it was definitely a bonding experience for people learning a minority language.

Just for fun, then (and because we can all use a little bonding), play along! Come on…we’ve all been there! Finish the sentence! Here are some of the best from the archives of The Irish Language Forum:

You Know You’ve Been Studying Irish Too Long When…

You find you have an incredible urge to lenite words following “the,” “my,” and “your,”regardless of what language they’re in.

You run across an English word starting with “ch,” “th” etc., and you find yourself automatically converting it to “root” form.

You realize that “ng” seems like a perfectly logical and normal way to start a word.

English words start to look wrong if they don’t follow the “caol le caol” rule.

You want to look up “lenition” in an English dictionary, and realize after about 10 minutes that the reason you can’t find it is because “lenition” doesn’t begin with an “s” in English.

After spending time looking at a site with songs in Welsh, Manx, Scottish Gaelic or Cornish, you find it a relief to run across a song with “normal looking” (i.e., Irish) words.

You find yourself swearing at other drivers on the freeway and realize the reason they’re giving you baffled looks is they have no idea what you’re saying.

You say “hello” to your neighbor and she gives you a funny look because, in her world, “hello” starts with an “h”…and just who are you calling a “witch,” anyway???

Your idea of a dream vacation changes from a week at Club Med to a week at Oideas Gael.

Your husband wakes you in the middle of the night and says “if you’re going to sing in your sleep, please sing in a language I understand.”

As you’re reading in church, you run across an unfamiliar Hebrew word and, without missing a beat, pronounce it as if it were Irish (I’m fairly certain that “Beth-peor” isn’t supposed to be pronounced the way I said it that morning!)

You read this on Facebook — “I’ve had a very productive day today agus ceapaim go bhfuil beoir nó trí tuillte agam!” and don’t even notice it switches language in the middle of the sentence. (Wait…it switches languages?)

You want to say “thank you” to the nice man who brought you water in the local Mexican restaurant, but when you try to say “gracias!” what comes out of your mouth is “go raibh maith agat!”

A French-speaking friend types a sentence including the phrase “un chat” on her Facebook page and your first, knee-jerk, thought is “Why did she lenite it? ‘Cat’ is masculine!”

You see ‘teach more’ and you think it should be ‘teach mór‘ and then you realize it’s an article on education!  

You’re thinking in Irish, writing in English, and inadvertently post on Facebook in some hybrid form (must be where Hiberno-English came from!). 

You find yourself thinking “‘Wanker?’ I thought it was just the vocative of “‘banker'”.

You mix up languages mid-word! I showed up a bit early for a sean-nós lesson the other day, and the teacher asked me if I’d like a cup of tea. I started to say “No thanks…I’ve got water.” But just as I started to say “water,” my eye fell on my water bottle, and my brain helpfully supplied “uisce.” As my poor brain teetered helplessly between languages, what actually came out of my mouth was “no thanks…I’ve got whiskey!” (I knew I wanted an English word, but grabbed the wrong one out of the air!) I’m sure my poor teacher wondered what I was doing drinking whiskey at 11 a.m.!

You hear someone say, ‘Feck him, hey?’ and wonder what they are looking at.

Dhiú raoid d’fhios ait nórmal spaoi d’ain d’iondair stain duit.

You write relidious instead of religious  

After consuming a delicious Thai meal, you find yourself wondering if you’ve just eaten curaí rua or curaí dearg…or maybe curaí flannbhuí. (You also know you’ve been studying Irish too long when such distinctions keep you up at night!)

You stroll down the beer aisle and decide to pick up a nice bottle of “Stella ar-TISH.”

The people around you, who have never studied the language, know what you’re saying! I was at choir rehearsal the other day and the director said “get out the Batten” (as in “O sing joyfully,” by Adrian Batten). I was having trouble finding it in my folder, and muttered “Ca bhfuil sé…sin í an cheist!” and the person next to me helpfully answered “Orange book, page 70.” (She was texting at the time, so it wasn’t like she was watching me paw through my folder or anything like that).

Later on, my husband and I were at a local Mexican restaurant and a group of young people at the next table were being overly loud and…er…rather inappropriately demonstrative. I nudged hubby and said “Sílim go bhfuil siad ar meisce” and he said “I think you’re right.”

You want to “correct” ceapairí ham to ceapairí haim

You hear a TV ad for the antidepressant “Latuda” and think you’ve just heard “Fá dtaobh de” (and you wonder “Fá dtaobh de céard?”)

You realize you have absently labeled the chainsaw files “beag” and “mór” and your son can’t figure out which is which.

You name your new catCat Eile.”

You want to greet a visitor from France using your high school and college French, but can’t think of a sentence that doesn’t begin with “,” “is,” “an bhfuil” or “an.”

You look up “rithim” in your Irish dictionary because you never can remember how to spell “rhythm” in English.

You try to recall the Our Father or Hail Mary in Latin or French (both of which you’ve studied), but it somehow turns into Irish by the second or third line.

You find yourself taking a close look at people’s tattoos in the hopes of finding one of your translations.

Your daughter says she wants to go to Oakland Kraken Con and your first thought is “they have porn cons now?” 

Your dog responds to “goitse.”

Your Turn!

All of the above (and many more) were supplied by various members of The Irish Language Forum and by erstwhile members of the now-defunct Irish Gaelic Translation Forum (many of whom are one and the same).

Maybe you can think of more! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!


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/