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/