So You Want a Scottish Gaelic Tattoo – Part Two

by | May 19, 2015

My previous post showed you what can go wrong if you decide to get a Scottish Gaelic tattoo when you don’t speak the language. If you still have your heart absolutely set on getting a Gaelic tattoo, despite all of the warnings, here are some suggestions of how to go about it:

(1) Find a professional translator who will do the translation for you.* It’s not easy to find a professional translator who deals with Scottish Gaelic. Why? Because as I discussed in the previous post, Gaelic is an endangered language. There are just not that many of us Gaelic speakers in the world, compared to speakers of Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, and Hindi/Urdu, for example. If every non-Gaelic speaker who got a Gaelic tattoo paid a professional translator to translate or check it for them, this would support the Gaelic language community in a significant and concrete way. If you are planning to spend hundreds of dollars, pounds, or euros to have a design injected permanently into your skin, then it is not unreasonable to spend a bit more to ensure that it is correctly spelled and idiomatically translated. You will have peace of mind, and your tattoo will be not only beautiful but also ethical.

(2) My second suggestion is hardcore — learn the language. If Gaelic is important enough to you that you want to inscribe it permanently on your body, then spend 3 to 5 years studying Scottish Gaelic first, at your own pace, in whatever manner you can afford (here are some suggestions and resources). Studying the language will start to give you a feel for the culture and the kinds of things that people express in Gaelic. (Hint: it’s different from English.) After 3 to 5 years, you will probably still not be fluent enough to make your own elaborate tattoo translation, but you will be able to do some simple ones, you might have a greater sense of what Gaelic expressions are desirable to tattoo, and you may even have started to make some friends and acquaintances who would be willing to do a reliable translation out of goodwill, because you are helping the language too (but my warnings still apply). In this case, your tattoo will be even more deeply significant to you, as well as being supportive of Gaelic in general.

(3) If you can’t do either of these two things, my third suggestion is to find a line or phrase from a Gaelic poem or song that speaks to you, and make that your tattoo. Most Gaelic poetry is published in parallel English translation; that is, with the original Gaelic poem on one page and the English translation on the facing page. Translations are usually done by the author her/himself for modern poetry. So you will be able to read and appreciate the poetry in translation, and then select the Gaelic translation of the line on the facing page. I would recommend that you post such a Gaelic passage on an online forum and say “I want to make this into a tattoo — which portion of the Gaelic passage corresponds exactly with this passage in the English translation?” The good news is that you are liable to get much more reliable and friendly advice than you would when asking for a random translation, as you will be demonstrating greater involvement with the language.

You can find Gaelic poetry books to order online from Sìol Cultural Enterprises in Nova Scotia, the Gaelic Books Council in Scotland, and publishers and bookshops. If you prefer something medieval, why not start with an anthology of poems from AD 600-1600? If you prefer modern poetry, there are anthologies of that, too. You can also ask people for reading recommendations on various topics: love, war, death and loss, spirituality, sexuality. In this way, just as with hiring a translator or actually learning the language, your Gaelic tattoo will still be supporting the Gaelic language, not detracting from it. But Gaelic poetry books are expensive, you say? Probably no more expensive than the tattoo you are planning.

I’ll conclude with an example of a chest tattoo using a line of Gaelic poetry that is personally meaningful. It’s the tattoo of my friend Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, himself a Gaelic poet:

 

"Bristibh bannan bhur cuinge" - a literary Gaelic tattoo

“Bristibh bannan bhur cuinge” – a literary Gaelic tattoo

 

He chose a line from one of Christopher Whyte’s Gaelic poems: “Bristibh bannan bhur cuinge” (Break the cords of your bondage).

Marcas described the personal significance of his tattoo and the Gaelic language in his poem “Cùmhnant mo chléibh” (Covenant of my chest) which is published in his book Deò (pp. 120-125):

Le cùmhnant snaighte air mo chliabh,
Chuir mi romham do chleachdadh son sìth.
Gun cuirear eagal is fearg fada bhuam.
Gum bristinn bannan mo chuinge.
Gun sgrìobhainn dàn dod làrach nam chridhe.

 

With a covenant carved on my chest,
My decision; to use you for reconciliation.
To send fear and anger away,
To break the cords that bind me,
And to write in praise of your place in my heart.

 

"Bristibh bannan bhur cuinge" - a literary Gaelic tattoo

“Bristibh bannan bhur cuinge” – a literary Gaelic tattoo

 

* Professional Scottish Gaelic translators:
Akerbeltz Translation – http://www.akerbeltz.com/contact.htm

When I receive contact info for other professional Gaelic translators, I’ll add them to this post. (Ma ‘se neach-eadar-theangachaidh a th’annaibh, nach cur sibh teachdairdeachd thugam? Bhithinn toilichte ur n-ainm a chur a steach.)

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