Blog post written by Audrey Nickel
So, you want a tattoo in Irish Gaelic, eh? Well, you sure won’t be alone!
One of the things that astounded me when I first started hanging out on Irish discussion forums was the sheer number of tattoo translation requests we got on a regular basis. In fact, close to 80% of all our translation requests were for tattoos!
That’s a lot of ink!
Consequently, I wasn’t too surprised when we began to get requests for information on tattoo translations here.
Why in Irish?
On the Irish Language Forum, where we handle a fair number of tattoo requests, we occasionally ask people why they want tattoos in Irish. What is the appeal? Answers generally fall into five categories:
These tend to be people who are of Irish descent and want tattoos in the Irish language to honor their heritage.
This is definitely related to the former category. People seeking memorial tattoos often want them in Irish to honor a deceased friend or relative who was proud of his or her Irish background.
People often associate Irish, rightly or wrongly, with particular expressions of spirituality. We’ll see this especially among neo-pagan and “Celtic Christianity” devotees, though we’ll also see people not affiliated with any particular religious movement who seem to have some spiritual affiliation with Irish symbolism and language.
Some people just happen to think that Irish is pretty (I happen to agree!)
Some people want particularly common sayings in Irish because they think that will make them stand out among those who choose more common languages. This is the one group I tend to try to discourage.
As I said before, a lot of people request Irish tattoo translations, and many of them request the same translations. If you want something like “None but God may judge me” or “Live, Laugh, Love” in Irish, well…as I said before, you’re going to have a LOT of company.
If you still want it in spite of that, however, by all means, don’t let me stop you!
A popular idea
Regardless of the reason, there’s no doubt that tattoos in Irish are extremely popular, particularly in countries that saw a high level of Irish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (especially the U.S., Canada, and Australia).
Knowing that, and knowing how easily foreign-language tattoos can go horribly wrong, I’d like to offer tattoo seekers some valuable advice.
The good news and the bad news
First, the bad news: We really can’t do a tattoo translation for you here. There are lots of reasons (some of which will become clear as you read on), but perhaps the most important is that that this simply isn’t a translation site.
Now, the good news: I’m going to tell you what you need to do (and perhaps most important, what you SHOULDN’T do) to get a good, reliable, translation into Irish for your tattoo, in the quickest and most accurate way possible.
First, and most important, the “don’ts”
Don’t try to do it yourself
I really can’t stress this enough: If you’re not a fluent speaker of Irish, don’t even THINK about trying to do your own translation. I don’t care if you have an Irish-English dictionary. You have almost as good a chance of getting a good translation by cutting all the words out of it and throwing them up in the air.
Irish grammar and syntax is so completely different from English, and the words change so radically depending on how they’re used, it’s virtually impossible for a person who doesn’t speak Irish to put together a grammatically correct (or even coherent) sentence.
Don’t use an automatic (machine) “translator”
Using an on-line automatic translator such as Google Translate or Babelfish may seem like a good idea, but trust me: You DO NOT want to use these services for anything you plan to have written permanently on your body.
Such services can be OK for getting the gist of something written in a foreign language (for example, if you happen to find yourself looking a page in French, you don’t speak French, and you want to get some idea of what it says).
When you want a translation INTO a language you don’t speak, however, you need to know that playing with these automatic translators is like playing with fire. You might get a correct translation, but you can’t count on it — and the rarer the language is, the less likely you are to get anything workable at all.
If you want to get an idea of just how bad “machine translation” can be, check out this post on the subject. If that doesn’t scare you off the entire idea of using something like that for a tattoo translation, perhaps you ought to reconsider the tattoo thing all together!
Don’t trust something you read in a book
I have to tell you up front: I’ve seen some truly horrible Irish in books, from stuff that is simply badly spelled or uses poor/questionable grammar to stuff that isn’t Irish at all, or that is Irish but doesn’t say what the author claims it does.
If you see a phrase, a sentiment, a saying, or even a name, that you like in a book (and this includes books written by Irish authors, by the way), NEVER take it as correct as given. Use the methods I’m going to tell you about below to be sure it’s absolutely correct before even thinking about having it inked.
That goes for jewelry too
Sadly, there’s a lot of jewelry out there (including jewelry sold in Ireland) that has bad Irish on it. The ones that spring immediately to mind are those rings engraved with Mo Anam Cara, claiming it means “My Soulmate.”
Every time I see one of those rings, I want to run down the street screaming. Not only does “Mo Anam Cara” NOT mean “my soulmate,” it’s a grammatical nightmare. If you want to know more about this, check out our post on Irish Endearments (the “Soulmate” discussion is about halfway down the page).
And now for the “do’s”
If you follow these simple “do’s,” you stand a very good chance of getting an Irish tattoo you can be proud of:
Do start looking for a translation WELL in advance of your tattoo appointment.
There’s nothing more horrifying for a translator than to hear “my tattoo appointment is in an hour.” Accurate translation can take a while. It’s best to start seeking your translation a couple of weeks, at least, before your tattoo appointment.
Do exercise caution with translations given you by friends or family
If you happen to know someone who is fluent in Irish, of course, you’re already one step ahead in this game. But do exercise caution, and be sure to get the translation verified by a minimum of two other people.
There are a couple of reasons for this:
- Not everyone is as “fluent” as he or she claims. In fact, sadly, I’ve seen “translations” offered by people who clearly have no Irish at all. I don’t know why anyone would do this, but I’ve seen it on more than one occasion.
- Even fluent speakers can make spelling or grammar mistakes — and this includes native speakers. Just think how many native speakers of English you know who have poor grammar or are terrible spellers! And even if your source normally has great spelling skills, anyone can make a typo.
- Your source may not fully understand the idiom you’re using, especially if the two of you come from different countries (and even if you’re both also fluent/native English speakers). We’ll talk more about idioms in a bit; it’s an important thing to keep in mind.
Do find a reliable source for translation and verification
We’re lucky to live in the internet age, which means you have resources available to you that, even 25 years ago, people could only dream of. One very good resource for tattoo seekers is the internet discussion forum.
The beauty of a discussion forum is that several people of various levels will have the chance to see your request and respond to it.
You’ll want to be careful, though. Not all discussion forums about Ireland or even about the Irish language, will be able to help you. Here’s what you want to look for:
- The forum should be one that is willing to do tattoo translations. Not all are. If they are, you will usually find something about tattoos in the forum’s rules or guidelines. If you’re not sure, you can always ask.
- The forum should have a good roster of “regulars.” In other words, when you scan the forum, you should see several names that appear again and again. If you only see one or two “repeat posters,” you have less of a chance of getting sufficient learned input to make a good judgment.
- The forum should have a good record of timely “answers.” Read through a page or so of posts. Are questions addressed promptly? (say, within a few hours?) Do several people weigh in, or is only one (or perhaps two) people answering all the questions?
As I mentioned before (and not just because I’m affiliated with it), the Irish Language Forum is one good place to start…probably the best place to start as of this writing. It’s frequented by several good Irish speakers, including some native speakers, as well as lots of dedicated learners of various levels.
So, I’ve found a forum. Now what do I do?
Here are a few other important “do’s”:
Do tell the forum up-front that you’re seeking a tattoo translation.
People will tend to be extra-careful with the translation if they know you’re seeking it for something permanent, such as a tattoo. If nothing else, they will be sure to tell you to wait for further input.
Do tell them about other translations you may have received.
If you’ve already received a translation from a friend or relative or another forum, or if you’re asking about something from a book, tell the forum what other translations you have and where you got them.
Please don’t try to “trick” them by just posting the translation and asking “is this correct?” without being clear that it’s a translation you’ve gotten from somewhere for a tattoo.
In any language, there can be many different, but accurate, ways to say something. If you post other translations you may have gotten, the forum can tell you if they’re OK (and if not, why not).
Also, if you’re not clear about the reason you want a particular translation “verified,” the people on the forum might not point out minor grammatical or spelling errors, as they may think you’re trying to learn Irish and not want to discourage you!
Do be flexible
Remember those idioms I mentioned earlier? Every language has ways of saying things that don’t really translate directly into other languages.
For example, the English expression “what goes around comes around” makes absolutely no sense when translated directly into Irish. Instead, we’d say filleann an feall ar an bhfeallaire (“treachery returns to the betrayor”).
Also, direct, word-for-word, translations from one language to another rarely work. I’ve written a bit on why this is so here, if you’re curious.
If you’re willing to be flexible on the exact wording of the translation, you’ll be more likely to get something that actually makes sense in Irish.
Regarding personal names
If you’re using an individual’s name in your tattoo, please be aware that not all given names have Irish forms. Those that do generally come from Irish to begin with, are biblical or saints’ names, or have long-standing association with Ireland.
Even with names that do have Irish forms, it’s not usually done to change them unless the person him or herself typically used/uses that form.
If you really want the name with a special Irish spelling, be sure to ask, but also be aware that it might not be doable.
Do be patient
While you should expect some kind of a reply to your request within a few hours (how long may depend on what time of day you post it and where in the world the forum regulars live), the discussion about the best way to phrase your request may take several days.
Check your post frequently (at least a couple of times a day) to see if there’s any new information. On most forums, if your post gets near to the bottom of the page, you can “bump” it back up to the top by posting a reply to it (sometimes a friendly forum member will even do that for you by posting a reply that just says “bump”!).
Most important of all, DO wait for at least three people to agree on a translation!
I can’t stress this one enough! Translation isn’t always a straightforward science. Also, most forums will allow beginners to attempt translations, as doing so is a great learning tool.
Usually what will happen is someone will take a stab at the translation. Someone else will come along and correct it, or perhaps suggest a better alternative. Eventually, through consensus, a good, workable, translation will be reached.
The golden rule is to wait to proceed with a tattoo, engraving, or any other permanent use of a translation until at least three forum regulars have agreed that the translation is a sound one.
Sometimes this will happen pretty quickly. Some tattoo requests are very common, and it’s a pretty fast matter for three forum regulars to give the translation and confirmations. In other cases, you may be looking at days of discussion to arrive at something three can agree on.
If it’s worth getting inked, though, it’s worth getting it right, isn’t it?
And speaking of worth…
If you’re looking for a tattoo in Irish, chances are the language has some meaning for you. Have you ever thought of giving learning Irish a try yourself? Bitesize Irish Gaelic offers a free, no-risk, trial, and is a great way to learn!
Check it out! Maybe someday it’ll be YOU offering the translations!
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