As some of you may know, when I’m not writing for Bitesize, I hang out on an internet discussion forum called ILF (“Irish Language Forum”) to which people go for Irish translations, as well as for support in learning the language.
A fair number of our requests are for tattoos (yes, really!), as well as for engravings, plaques, and other things of a permanent nature, so our guests are understandably interested in making sure their translations are correct.
It’s not surprising, then, that a common request is “would you please write out the English translation literally for me, word-for-word, so I’ll know that it’s correct.”
In the classroom
I’ve come across this request frequently in classes I’ve taught as well. “Can you tell me what it is word-for-word? I think that will help me understand it better.”
It seems like a reasonable request doesn’t it? So it often comes as a surprise to people that I’m reluctant to do it. To be honest, in most cases, I think a literal rendering does more harm than good.
Just to clarify…
I should say here that I’m not entirely opposed to giving some literal renditions, especially in the earliest stages of learning.
It can sometimes be useful, when teaching basic sentence structure, to show how the Irish words would correspond to their English counterparts.
For example, when I first introduce the concept of Irish as a VSO (verb-subject-object) language rather than an SVO (subject-verb-object) language, I do offer sample sentences with literal translations to demonstrate the difference:
Tá Seán ard: “Seán is tall”…literally “Is Seán tall.”
Tá mé tuirseach: “I am tired”…literally “Am I tired.”
As we get into more complex sentences and idioms, however, literal translations are less helpful, and can, in some cases, do more harm than good.
A matter of idiom
One of the reasons learners initially find Irish challenging is it expresses concepts very differently from English. Beyond learning grammar and vocabulary, learning Irish has a lot to do with embracing its unique idioms.
Some of these idioms, it’s true, make sense when translated directly, and can even give us some insight as to how Hiberno-English developed its unique turns of phrase.
Others, however, are almost nonsensical if translated literally into English. They have to be understood within the context of the language itself.
Consider the following Irish sentence:
Chas mé le Seán inné agus mé ag siúl go dtí an scoil.
“Translating” this directly, word-for-word, might net you something like this:
Turned I with Seán yesterday and I at walk until the school.
Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
One problem is, while cas, by itself, does mean “turn/twist,” and le, by itself, does mean “with,” when they come together (even if separated by other words in the sentence) they make an entirely different verb: “meet.”
Another issue is that Irish often uses agus where English would use “while/when/as.” So, while “agus” literally means “and,” it makes more sense here to translate it as “as.”
Finally, though “ag” can mean “at,” when it comes before a verbal noun, such as siúl (“walk”) it becomes the equivalent of the English suffix “-ing.” Ag siúl = “walking.”
Thus, the correct translation of that sentence is:
I met Seán yesterday as I was walking to the school.
Literal translations lead to mistranslations
As it happens, there are other verbs in Irish that change meaning when paired with certain prepositions. For example:
Éirigh = “rise”
Éirigh le = “succeed”
Éirigh as = “quit/retire”
In fact, it was literal reading of the idiom éirigh le that gave us one of the most notorious mistranslations from Irish to English. Does this sound familiar?
May the road rise with you.
That’s right…the “old Irish blessing” with which you may be familiar doesn’t actually say “may the road rise with you” or “may the road rise to meet you,” or anything to do with rising roads at all! What it says, in Irish, is:
Go n-éirí an bóthar leat.
And any form of the verb éirigh, (in this case the subjunctive case go n-éirí) when paired with the preposition le (in this case, the prepositional pronoun leat), means “succeed. So what it actually MEANS is:
May your road succeed.
Or, more idiomatically:
Successful journey to you.
Or, even more idiomatically:
Consider these sentences:
Tá carr agam. “I have a car.”
Is liomsa é. “It is mine.”
Is breá liom é. “I love it.”
The thing is, specific words for “have,” “mine,” and “love” don’t actually appear in any of those sentences. Translated literally, word-for-word, they would read:
Is car at-me.
Is with-me it.
Is fine with-me it.
Learners: Internalize the idioms
It makes much more sense, and in the long run is much easier for the learner, to simply learn the idioms:
Tá X ag Y = “Y has X”
Is le X é/í = “It is X’s”
Is breá le X é/í = “X loves it”
You will actually internalize these much more quickly if you accept them for what they mean, rather than mentally translating them.
So what’s a poor tattoo-seeker to do?
That’s well enough for people who are actually learning the language (which includes most, if not all, of you who are reading this!), but what about the person who simply wants a translation? Would a literal rendition help?
Not really. The bottom line is there’s no way a person can judge the quality of a translation if he or she doesn’t know the language. That goes for any language, by the way, not just Irish.
Here’s a thought, though…if it’s worth getting tattooed, maybe it’s worth learning the language itself! Why not give Bitesize’s free introductory lessons a try? You have nothing to lose, and you may find you’ve got a fascinating new hobby!
Tell us your thoughts
What do you think about the value of literal, word-for-word translations? Do you think they’re valuable for a language learner? Let us know your thoughts below.