Speak Irish: Tá Ceothanna na Samhna

Speak Irish: “Tá Ceothanna na Samhna”
By Bob Carney

The fogs of November, the first line in the poem “Fanntais Ceo,” or “Fantastical Fog,” by Liam S. Gogán, sets the time and atmosphere of the story we’re about to be told. But what if we translated it incorrectly?

I first came across the poetry of Gogán in a collection of Irish poetry titled, “Leabhar na hAthghabhála,” or “Poems of Repossesion,” a bilingual Irish-English edition.  Liam S. Gogán was born in Dublin in 1891. His family was active in the Language Revival and revolutionary politics.

When Liam graduated from University College Dublin in 1913, where he had studied Irish language, including Old Irish, he became the secretary of the Irish Volunteers. A year later, he was appointed Assistant Keeper of Antiquities in the National Museum.

After the 1916 Rising, he was dismissed from his position and sent to the Welsh prison camp at Frongoch. He was released after a couple of months, and returned to his position in 1922, after the establishment of the Free State. He was promoted and worked at the museum until his retirement in 1956.

Dinneen’s Irish-English Dictionary
From 1923 to 1927, he worked on the second edition of Dinneen’s Irish-English Dictionary, in addition to his work at the museum. Dinneen’s is an important resource for writers, readers and students of Irish. After the death of his wife in 1940, a sense of mortality and melancholy became more prevalent in his works.

Translating Irish into English is a good way to further our study of the language. But using an on-line translator can often lead you far from the writer’s meaning. The first line of “Fanntais Ceo”, “Tá ceothanna na Samhna” I entered into a popular Irish to English translation app. The phrase came back as “There are the mists of night.” 

No mention of the month of November, Samhain or its genitive form na Samhna. I tried again with the last line of the poem “ no earthly force can break their vows.” Our app said, “their commitment to pay is steep.”

These translator apps rely on algorithms and use, to become better at what they do. Information, such as vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. is stored and built on, everytime the app is used. The more it’s used, the “smarter” it becomes.

Most apps are good for simple conversation in Irish, but fall short when the conversations become more involved or in the case of much poetry, imagery and even local expressions can confuse the app; it can only work with what it’s already processed.

I suggest when beginning translating Irish prose or text into English, you start with a good dictionary, (It’s Free!) or, if you prefer a book in your hands, “Foclóir Gaeilgle-Béarla.”

Start modestly, a bi-lingual book like “Poems of Repossesion” or “Bone and Marrow” are very good anthologies of Irish poetry, the later covers works from Medieval to Modern times.

Book of Proverbs
Most of us have a bible, Irish language bibles are readily available and the Book of Proverbs, “Leabhar na Seanfhocal,” is an excellent way to get started.

Read the Irish text first, jotting down the words you know or think you might know. Then consult your dictionary to help with any words you’re unsure of. Finally, check the English version to check your accuracy.

Children’s books are also a good way to develop reading skills in Irish. Once you have translated the story using the same methodology, (although pictures can help), go back and practice pronunciation on any new vocabulary. Then read the book out loud as if you’re reading to a child, this will also help your conversational skills.

For the month of October, one of the assignments in the Speak Irish Cleveland class was to choose your favorite Halloween story and change a phrase or word in a paragraph to Irish to see if the story can be enhanced. For instance, the word for magic in Irish is draíocht (dree-ohkt). Using the Irish word in place of the English can make the story more interesting.

We also use children’s stories and work as a group reading and translating. “Binjí Madra ar Strae” (Binjí the Stray Dog) was the book used this session.

No matter where your interests lie, there are books and material available on-line to get you started. It can be a very gratifying experience to pick up something and read it in the language it was originally written in.

Slán go Fóill!

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían and Aisling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]


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