So You Want a Scottish Gaelic Tattoo – Part One
So you want to get a tattoo — in Scottish Gaelic. You want to honour a family member, or your Scottish heritage, or you just think the Gaelic language is cool, but you don’t speak Gaelic yourself. What should you do?
If you’ve already designed your tattoo, and you know exactly what you want it to say, your first impulse will probably be to turn to the internet for a translation. Here in Part One I’ll show you why that’s not a good idea, and in Part Two, I’ll give you some advice if you still really have your heart set on a Gaelic tattoo.
Now, how do you think you’re going to get a translation on the internet? Online translating services don’t do Scottish Gaelic (yet). This is what happens when you’re dealing with a “lesser-used” language. There just aren’t that many of us Gaelic speakers around, and so large companies tend not to cater to us with goods and services. But even when online translating services do offer Scottish Gaelic, beware. Google Translate made a hash of Irish, and online translators generally don’t work that well.
So maybe you find an online dictionary and try to do the translation yourself. You will still end up with a Bad Gaelic Tattoo. For example:
Although this particular tattoo was intended to be in Irish, I’ll discuss it here because bad Scottish Gaelic tattoos have the exact same problems.
The bearer of the tattoo believes that it says “DRUG FREE.” The idea of a person declaring her/himself “drug free” is a specific American English cultural concept. It’s a declaration that the person in question does not take alcohol, nicotine, or recreational drugs that are illegal in the U.S. This orientation to drugs is a cultural phenomenon or movement known as “Straight Edge.”
Apart from the problem that the cultural concept does not translate, this tattoo has fatal spelling and grammar problems. In Scottish Gaelic, “drug” is druga or droga and the plural, “drugs,” is drugaichean. In Irish it’s singular druga and plural drugaí. Gaelic words don’t have apostrophes in the middle, and “-ail” is not a plural suffix. So “drug’ail” is not a Gaelic word.
When confronted with this information by blog commenters, the tattoo bearer insisted that her trusted friends who were raised Irish-speaking in Ireland had given her this translation. She said: “Fine; whatever. The people that I know say that I’m right; the Irish Gaelic-English dictionary says that I’m right. But, go ahead guys. Tell me that my tattoo is wrong. It doesn’t matter. I’m happy with it.” She stated that she had also looked up “drug” in an English-Irish dictionary and found the word drugáil, and that the apostrophe was supposed to represent the fada (or srac in Scottish Gaelic) over the á.
Another commenter pointed out that in the dictionary where the tattoo bearer looked it up, drugáil was defined as a transitive verb, in the sense of “to drug (someone).” More precisely, it is a verbal noun which means “drugging.” Additionally, apostrophes are not used as substitutes for accent marks in Irish or Gaelic (or in French or Spanish for that matter).
Beyond that, the adjective saor does mean free, but it’s not used in the same way as “free” in English. If you wanted the sense of “free” that’s in the English expression “drug-free,” the sense of being not under the control of drugs, or of drugs being absent from one’s life or body, then it might make sense to use the expression gun (“without”). Except that gun also changes the first sound of the following word, if it’s a consonant, so that would make it literally “gun dhrugaichean,” without drugs, except that in this case the n blocks lenition of homorganic t and d, so it’s “gun drugaichean,”… but even that does not have the Straight Edge connotation of the English phrase “drug free.”
So the way this tattoo reads to a Gaelic speaker is either “FREE DRUGGING” or “FREE DRUGS” with a side helping of “I CAN’T DO IRISH SPELLING OR GRAMMAR.”
After multiple Irish speakers left comments pointing out that her tattoo was incorrect, the tattoo bearer finally stated: “It’s already on my back, right or wrong, and the sentiment is still there. I did research for two years before I got the tattoo, and no one ever told me it was wrong until after I got it. So, fine. It still means the same thing to me that it always did.”
The end result is that an English-speaking woman paid a large sum of money to have broken bits of Irish inscribed across her back for others to see, but it only means something in her own mind. To the fluent Irish speakers of the world, it’s garbled nonsense.
This ex-U.S. paratrooper got a Scottish Gaelic tattoo to commemorate his multi-generational family tradition of airborne military service:
The tattoo was supposed to read “FAMILY TRADITION” but it’s a train wreck. This is what happens when you try to look up English words in a Gaelic dictionary and then string them together according to English grammar rules.
Beul-aithris means “oral tradition” and so perhaps this person thought that aithris just meant “tradition”, but aithris means “report,” “account,” “recitation,” or “narration.” For example, Aithris na Maidne (Morning Report) is the name of the BBC’s Gaelic morning radio news program.
Dream can mean “people,” “kindred,” or “folk,” but it’s not the usual Scottish Gaelic word for family (which is teaghlach). “Á” means “out of” and so it’s possible that they mistook this for “of” (which is de), while also omitting the srac over the “á.” Apart from the word being wrong, however, this grammatical construction (family tradition, that is, tradition of the family) would actually require the genitive case in Gaelic. The genitive case is a category that nouns fall into when they are used in expressions of possession, measure, or origin. In English we can use either a possessive form or “of” to indicate this relationship, for example: “Mary’s coat” or “the coat of Mary”; “a month’s vacation,” or “a month of vacation.” In Gaelic, nouns are modified in spelling and pronunciation when they are used in the genitive case. In the literal Gaelic translation of an English phrase like “family tradition,” in other words “tradition of the family,” the word for family (teaghlach) would be written in the genitive case (in this case teaghlaich).
Even “dualchas teaghlaich” sounds a bit odd however, because it’s redundant. Ironically, the word dualchas alone would have sufficed to convey the meaning he wanted.
So the way this tattoo reads to a Gaelic speaker is: “REPORT OUT OF THE PEOPLE (AND I DON’T KNOW GAELIC)”
Even when you think you know what your tattoo says, are you sure that the spelling and grammar are correct? This one was supposed to say “ALBA SAOR” — “FREE SCOTLAND” (where “free” is an adjective, not an imperative verb). Instead a spelling mistake transforms “saor” into “soar” — an easy mistake to make when neither you nor the tattoo artist knows Gaelic, and the English word “soar” is so close in spelling.
The placement and spelling of the adjective “saor” (free) are also problems. Again, Gaelic is not like English. In regard to adjective placement, it’s more like French: most of the adjectives go after the noun, and a small number are placed before the noun. And like French, adjectives change when they modify feminine nouns. Saor goes after the noun, and it modifies Alba which is feminine, so it should be “Alba shaor.”
If “saor” is placed before the noun, it’s an imperative verb, an order to “Free!” or “Liberate!” as in, “Free Nelson Mandela.” But the imperative in Gaelic comes in two versions, singular and plural, and this is the singular — an order given to one person only, and someone familiar or lower in status at that.
So it’s a lovely sentiment, but to a Gaelic speaker this tattoo looks like it says something like “DUDE, LIBARETE SCOTLAND! (AND I DON’T KNOW GAELIC)”
How about this one? Celtic knotwork + Gaelic = seems legit.
But it’s not, because grammar. Gaelic is a Celtic language and one unique feature of the Celtic languages is something called initial consonant mutation. In Scottish Gaelic, depending on certain grammatical features of a sentence, the way that you pronounce the first consonant of a noun will often change. In this case, the possessive “mo” (“my”) lenites the initial consonant of the noun it modifies. In the Scottish Gaelic writing system this is indicated by placing an “h” after the initial consonant. Mo + seanair = Mo sheanair. Mo + gràdh = Mo ghràdh. This changes the pronunciation of the word differently according to which sound is being lenited. (If the noun starts with a vowel, then it’s just m’ instead of mo. Mo + anam = M’anam.) A dictionary will not tell you these things.
Also, this tattoo text sounds a little weird, like the person’s grandfather is their lover.
What about this one? You can’t go wrong with “I Love You”, can you? Any reasonably diligent internet search can tell you that “I love you” = “Tha gaol agam ort” (literally ‘love is at me on you) in Gaelic. But:
The artist accidentally used a capital “C” instead of a “T” — not a Gaelic mistake per se, just a common mistake in calligraphic font usage. But the result is hilariously bad Gaelic: the first word looks like “Cha” instead of “Tha”. “Cha” isn’t grammatical here, but it instantly puts Gaelic speakers in mind of “Chan eil“, as in “Chan eil gaol agam ort,” as in “I do not love you.”
So the way this tattoo reads to a Gaelic speaker is: “I Not Love You.”
Thank goodness it’s probably just Photoshopped, like the model’s abs.
Anyway, you get the picture. You might not want to rely on looking up individual words in a dictionary and stringing them together, and there’s no guarantee that your friends are correct, either. There’s no guarantee that the Gaelic phrases you find in books, or on Pinterest, or even for sale on jewelry, are correct either. The same goes for Irish, as this helpful article points out.
So you turn to the other thing that the internet is good for: connecting with total strangers. You look for a discussion group on social media. Maybe you find a discussion board devoted to Scottish culture, or a Facebook group devoted to the Gaelic language. You post a query. Here are some typical Gaelic tattoo requests on social media:
“What’s ‘three beautiful girls’ in Gaelic?”
“What’s ‘I am my beloved, my beloved is mine’ in Gaelic?”
“What’s ‘king’ and ‘queen’ in Gaelic?”
“What’s ‘I am not finished’ in Gaelic? What’s ‘start somewhere’ in Gaelic?”
“What are these 3 different phrases in Gaelic before my friend’s tattoo appointment tomorrow?”
“What’s ‘Father until we meet again may God hold you in the hollow of his hand’ in Gaelic?”
“What’s ‘Home is behind, the world is ahead’ in Gaelic?”
This kind of tattoo translation request gets several kinds of reactions in online forums:
1) Well-meaning attempts to give you the translation you want, from people who are not qualified. There are a lot of adults learning Gaelic who are not yet fluent in the language or knowledgeable about the culture. With their help, if you are lucky, you may end up with a translation that is literally correct, but sounds awkward and weird. This may be because that thing you want your tattoo to say is not ever actually said in Gaelic. Just because something can be translated does not mean that the results will actually make cultural sense, or carry the poetic connotations that you want your tattoo to express. And if you are unlucky (or if you try to use a dictionary yourself), as you can see above, all bets are off as far as vocabulary, spelling, and grammar.
2) Genuine translations from people who are fluent in Gaelic. You’ve asked for help, and they feel obligated to give it, even though they may also advise you that the accurate translation they gave you doesn’t sound quite right in Gaelic. If you’re lucky, they might make an alternate suggestion which would be more suitable.
3) Frustration, sarcasm, or anger at yet. Another. Tattoo. Request. Fortunately for you, most fluent Gaelic-English bilingual people are actually pretty nice about tattoo requests, even when they are frustrated. Probably 99% of them won’t lead you astray by giving you fake translations that are actually declarations about the size of your genitals… but some may fantasize about doing so. Are you willing to take that risk? Especially if you plan to share photos of your tattoo online?
Here’s the thing: you will have no way of knowing whether you’ve been given a decent translation or not. That’s a major risk to the integrity of your body art.
Next, consider the ethics of these requests. First, you want something for nothing. Second, to be honest, you are wasting people’s time and effort on something that doesn’t really help Gaelic. Can you imagine if you were at work, doing whatever job you do, and people kept emailing you or popping up in your social media feeds once or twice a day, every day, to ask you to help them with the wording of their tattoo? That’s basically what happens to a lot of people who work in Gaelic language jobs. People are asking them for Gaelic translations of symbolic English phrases, for free, all. The. Time. How do you say “Happy Birthday” in Gaelic? How do you say “Merry Christmas” in Gaelic? How do you say “You shall not pass!” in Gaelic? How do you say “F off and die” in Gaelic?
What’s the big deal, though? You only want a tattoo. It will only take a total stranger, like, a few minutes to translate “One Ring to Rule Them All” into Gaelic for you. And Gaelic is SO COOL.
But Gaelic is not like English. It’s a minority language and culture that multiple governments have tried for many hundreds of years to stamp out. Its speakers have been pressured and even forced to abandon it and assimilate to English. Many were beaten in school for speaking Gaelic. It’s amazing that Gaelic speakers are still keeping the language and culture going. Gaelic is also what we call an “endangered” language, because efforts to stamp it out have been so successful in the long run that the number of speakers is still decreasing, and the language is in great danger of disappearing altogether. The “cool” factor comes in part from its rarity and double-edged romantic stereotypes of being ancient, natural, and poetic (= obsolete, animalistic, and good for nothing but poetry).
Endless free tattoo translation requests from English speakers are like death by a thousand papercuts. They suck up the energy and goodwill of an endangered language community and give nothing back.
A proliferation of bad Gaelic tattoos also weakens the language. How? Every bad bit of Gaelic that is put out there becomes an exemplar that other people may follow. It propagates mistakes (Soar Alba!), spreads ignorance, and makes the language more and more like a bad copy of English, and less and less like Gaelic. Change happens to every language whether people like it or not, but when the direction of change is taking it into convergence with a juggernaut like English, that’s called language death.
This is the reality of an endangered language.
Having said all this, if you still have your heart absolutely set on getting a Gaelic tattoo, I will have some concrete suggestions for you in my next blog post.
UPDATE: Fifteen hours after posting, I’ve already received a Gaelic tattoo translation request via e-mail! I don’t do Gaelic tattoo translation requests; to understand why, please read this post again. Please do not post tattoo translation requests in the comments or through e-mail. Also, please read Part Two of this post! Tapadh leibh.