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The Irish Language: Let’s Get Literal…Or Not

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:

Seán ard: “Seán is tall”…literally “Is Seán tall.”

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:

Bon voyage.

More examples

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.

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17 thoughts on “The Irish Language: Let’s Get Literal…Or Not”

  1. I have good memories of the old Irish blessing, and appreciate you mentioning that in passing as an example. Would you please take that further, and give a good, culturally correct translation of the entire blessing? I could have the words wrong, but found it posted somewhere as the following:
    Go n-éirí an bóthar leat
    Go raibh an ghaoth go brách ag do chúl
    Go lonraí an ghrian go te ar d’aghaidh
    Go dtite an bháisteach go mín ar do pháirceanna
    Agus go mbuailimid le chéile arís,
    Go gcoinní Dia i mbos A láimhe thú.

    Thank you!

    1. To further explain, there is a song I remember from my childhood which, though poetic, uses words which build pictures of the meaning in my mind.

      May the road rise to meet you
      May the wind blow at your back
      May the sun shine warmly on your face
      May the rains fall softly on your fields
      And until we meet again,
      May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

  2. I am a Budist and I have just started learning Irish .lt seems to me that the grammar of Irish is less igo centric than English. Not being able to possess things is central to Budist teaching.

  3. I was exposed to Irish at a young age, but never managed to string sentences together. When I DARED to ask how to say hello I was told something to do with God and Mary! in those days a second question was a no no!… Not a good beginning!

    1. The standard manner of saying hello in Irish is Dia duit and the reply is Dia is Muire duit. Similar phrases exist in practically all European languages. In English, goodbye is a contraction of God be with you. Even in Russian, the most common word for thank you is a contraction of God save you. Almost 2000 years of Christianity is bound to leave a trace, just like how pagan phrases still exist in many European languages, such as some of the months and the days of the week.

      If you don’t want to mention God, you can just say hello (heileo), or hi (haigh) or just skip the greeting altogher and ask “how are you?”

      1. I think God gave every nation a heart language that He taught them in order that whatever they do, think or say they are reminded that He is with them, always…
        I have 14 great great grandparents that are from Ireland, the other 2 are from England and Scotland,
        My soul doth yearn for ancient Ireland when it knew God personally, I therefore would prefer the literal old Irish translation, before it became mis translated and mixed with English. It seems to me that this is why the Irish have so lost there way, they were robbed of their heart language that reminded their souls of God.
        I pray God restores that connection to Him..restored relationship starts with our heart language that every nation was given by God Himself at the Tower of Babel…
        All the references to God and His Way must be restored..

        Ive just started my journey, but once I heard a few of the old literal translations I was hooked!

        Go raibh maith agat

  4. My M.Phil.. thesis ‘Defining and Characterising Idiomaticity’, examined some of the problems identified above. Idiomatic expressions are intrinsically non-compositional (they have to learned, just like individual lexemes) and this will present difficulties for members of language community not familiar with (i.e. who do not know) the idiom… much less second-language speakers of a language.


  5. patrick mc nally

    As a point of interest we have another verb “fan! ” remain ! Stay!. Which gives ” ag fanacht le……waiting for. There is the expression “eirigh amach na casca ” which I think means the Easter Uprising in English. Padraig.

  6. I have to come down on the side of literal translation, too, Eion. I’ve bashed my head against this wonderful language for a long time, and I’m continually frustrated by courses that ask me to mentally reach for Bearla word order. Why all the mental gymnastics? Just teach me the way my mind needs to work to reach for the correct Irish order. Help me think in Irish, dream in Irish, sing in Irish, because I really want to understand the language, with all its lovely idiomatic quirks. I want to know it from the inside out, rather than simply parroting it from the outside out. The most helpful of all scenarios would be having the Irish presented first, followed by the literal translation, and finally followed by the Bearla meaning, but no courses I’ve ever studied (and I’ve tried a LOT) ever supply their lessons in what (to me) is the most logical manner.

    1. I know this post is fairly old but, I just came across it and this response. I couldn’t agree more and don’t think I could say it any better.

      If, as Charlemagne said, “To have another language is to possess another soul”, then understanding how the thoughts were formed and interpreted in Irish help build depth of understanding of not just how to translate but how to think like a native speaker would.

      To me, that’s one of the most interesting parts of learning a language – learning the differences in how ideas are formed and expressed. That’s almost as important as learning the language itself in my opinion.


        1. Will definitely check out that podcast next. I just “discovered” the podcasts today and have started listening and subscribed on iTunes.

          Thanks for providing so many great resources alive and active for Irish language learners!


  7. Marjolaine Messier

    I am very much a beginner in learning the Irish language—only had 2 classes so far. Personally, I find that literal translation is helpful to understand some specific words, but not for translating complete sentences. For now, understanding what it means when spoken the English way is much more helpful in connecting the two in my mind. Literal translations can sow much confusion and make learning the language more difficult than necessary as it turns out to be like learning two “foreign” languages simultaneously.

  8. Féabar Mac Maoláin

    As an intermediate Irish speaker I find literal translations to be extremely helpful in getting my mind around how thoughts are expressed in Irish. Humans verbally communicate similar thoughts in very different ways. Therefore, the literal translation is an indicator of how the Gaelic speaking people groups transmitted those thoughts in a different way than other language speakers. I find once I understand how it communicates the thought, I just substitute that way of communicating the thought in Irish. I learned early on that Irish is so different from English it is best to just imagine a picture in my mind of the scene I want to communicate and to say it from the mental picture.

    1. I absolutely agree with you: it’s a real insight into how a peoples overall communicate: their mindset, and the environment where they live. It’s definitely an interesting subject. Thanks for reading Audrey’s article.