Nicholas Williams’ droch-Ghaelainn in An Hobad

I often find myself shocked by the poor quality of the Irish of the people who staff the official language movement. PUL was determined that learners making the language up should not control the language, and would have shared my poor opinion of the various professors of Irish. I don’t doubt they do have knowledge of something—but they spend their time promoting a made-up version of the language. Take Nicholas Williams, for example. This man—an Englishman—has expert knowledge of Celtic languages, although he makes a fool of himself by spending his time devising a Cornish-based conlang. What is that Cornish word for “neutron” again?

His translation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit is fit only for the bin. Whatever Williams is an expert in, it is not late traditional modern Irish, and it seems to me arrogant and rude in the extreme for non-native speakers to translate these things into Irish. At the very least, strong native speakers should proofread and subedit the translations before publication.

Let’s look at the opening page, in English:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats-the hobbit was fond of visitors. The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it-and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.

Nicholas Williams begins his translation with this:

I bpoll sa talamh a bhí cónaí ar hobad. Níor pholl gránna, salach, fliuch é, lán le péisteanna stróichthe agus le boladh láibe. Níor pholl tirim, lom, gainmheach a bhí ann ach an oiread, gan aon rud ann le n-ithe ná suí síos air; poll hobaid ab ea é agus is ionann sin agus compord.

Numerous problems from the outset! Not only is there no Irish word hobad—it is correct to use loan words in italics where no native word exists, mirroring the way in which native speakers use words such as “microwave” in their Irish (there is no Irish word oigheann mícreathonnach). An even more glaring problem is the syntax of i bpoll sa talamh a bhí cónaí ar hobad. This sentence is non-idiomatic in the extreme. Irish defines what you’re talking about, and then comments on it. For example: tá daoine ann, agus is é is dó’ leó ná go…, rather than is dó’ le daoine go. If hobad had been definite—if we had already been talking about the hobbit—we could have said i bpoll sa talamh a bhí cónaí ar an hobad. But hobad here is indefinite; it has not been mentioned. So we must state its existence first in Irish, and then comment on it. Something like:

Do bhí hobbit ann, agus i bpoll sa talamh ’ bhí cónaí air.

Other problems with Williams’ tripe: lán le péisteanna. Does lán le exist in Irish? Isn’t this influence from Williams’ study of other European languages? Lán de is the correct phrase. What about gan aon rud ann le n-ithe ná suí síos air? Does being a professor allow you not to repeat the le before suí síos? Williams fails to translate “oozy”.

Williams’ next paragraph is:

Bhí an doras cruinn ciorclach ar nós sleaspholl loinge, péint uaine air, agus murlán buí práis ina cheartlár. D’osclaíodh an doras isteach ar halla sorcóireach ar gheall le tollán é, tollán fíorchompordach gan deatach ar bith ann. Painéil adhmaid a bhí ar na ballaí, leacáin agus caipéad ar an urlár agus bhí cathaoireacha ann mar aon le mórán crúcaí i gcomhair hataí agus cótaí—thaitníodh cuairteoirí go mór leis an hobad.

There are numerous problems here, the most glaring of which is the use of the past habitual: d’osclaíodh an doras ar halla. The past habitual (gnáthchaite) is used in Irish for repeated action in the past. It is not a full equivalent of the French imperfect (neamhfhuirithe). Let us look at this paragraph from PUL’s Eisirt (p20), the spelling of which I have modernised:

Ach nuair a thosnaigh Eisirt ar ghníomharthaibh gaile agus gaisce Iúbhdáin do mholadh, agus gníomhartha a laochra a bhí féna smacht, agus ar an léirscrios a dheinidís ar namhaid i gcogadh agus i gcruachómhrac do mholadh, ar chuma ’nar dhó’ le duine gurbh fhathaigh mhóra iad go léir, is amhlaidh a bhí Feargus agus an chuideachta go léir i riocht dul i laige le neart suilt agus gáirí. Nuair a bhíodh Eisirt dhá ínsint sa dán conas mar a deintí na cathanna móra do throid, do léimeadh sé ’na sheasamh agus shiúladh sé anonn ’s anall ar an mbórd, agus faor ar a ghuth agus tine chreasa ag teacht as a shúilibh, fé mar a bheadh sé i lár catha éigin agus namhaid chróga aige dá leagadh in aghaidh gach focail dá labhradh sé. Tríd an sult go leir dóibh ní maith a bhíodh ’ fhios ag an gcuideachtain ceocu ba cheart dóibh sult a dhéanamh de nú eagla ’ bheith acu roimis nuair a chídís an rabhartha feirg sin ag teacht air.

Eisirt has numerous passages that illustrate the use of the past habitual. The tense is used to indicate repeated actions in the past. It seems that it is often possible to use the preterite instead (e.g. nuair a bhí Eisirt dhá insint sa dán), and that use of the past habitual therefore adds an additional layer of nuance, accounting for its relatively rare occurrence in good Irish literature. In any case, it is the usage of people like PUL that Nicholas Williams needs to make a study of in order to embark on translations that require deft tense usage. I do not know if Williams could argue that his studies of Old Irish would justify the past habitual in this passage of the Hobbit, but, be that as it may, modern Irish is a separate language, and it is the usages of the strong native speakers that must set the tone for learners such as Williams.

Leaving aside the fact that doors do not open themselves in Irishd’osclaíodh an doras is absurd, unless the door sprouted a hand and opened itself—there is no continual action here. The door just gave onto a hall; it didn’t continually or repeatedly give onto a hall. The correct Irish would be do chuaigh an doras isteach i halla. Compare do bhí an tigh anso: there would be no need for the past habitual in such a sentence (do bhíodh an tigh anso, “the house kept on being here”). There are other issues with his translation. Péint uaine air ignores the fact that uaithne (to give the correct spelling) is an unnatural green anyway, and so dath uaithne is sufficient. Sorchóíreach seems an odd word. Brat is fine for “carpet”, without reaching for caipéad. No translation for “polished” is given in this translation either. Thaitníodh cuairteoirí leis is also confused: the point is not that the hobbit liked visitors (even if that is the literal way such sentences are phrased in English), but that he liked receiving visitors; he liked it when they visited him. Róchruínn means “perfectly round”, and so it is not necessary to say cruinn ciorclach. Can a tunnel be fíorchompordach? Can you sit on a tunnel? Fíorchluthar makes more sense to me in this context. Williams fails to translate “shiny”.

Williams then goes on to write:

Théadh an tollán ar aghaidh is ar aghaidh, ní go díreach ar fad, isteach i dtaobh an chnoic—An Cnoc, mar a thugadh gach uile duine ar feadh na mílte slí thart timpeall air—agus is iomaí doras cruinn a d’osclaíodh amach ón tollán, ar thaobh amháin ar dtús agus ansin ar an taobh eile.

Once again, we have the problem with Williams’ misunderstanding of the past habitual, with théadh here. I’m not sure if mílte slí is found in the Gaeltacht. The sources I use have mílte de shlí or mílte ’ shlí. I’m not sure if iomaí is found anywhere in the Gaeltacht.

My translation of these paragraphs is as follows:

Do bhí hobbit ann, agus i bpoll sa talamh ’ bhí cónaí air. Níor rud gránna, s’lach, fliuch an poll san, áfaigh, lán de ghiotaíbh de phiastaíbh, agus lán de bhalaithe mhúscánta. Ní lú ná ’ bhí sé t’rim, lom, gainmheach, gan ao’ rud ann le n-ithe ná le suí air. Poll hobbit dob ea é, agus mar sin bhí ana-chúmpórd ann.

Do bhí an doras róchruínn ar nós sleaspholl luinge, agus dath uaithne air, agus murlán glasta buí práis ’na cheartlár. Do thug an doras isteach i halla thu, halla ar dhéanamh feadáin mar thollán, tollán fíorchluthar gan deatach ann. Do bhí cláracha adhmaid ar na fallaíbh, agus leacáin agus brat ar an úrlár. Agus do bhí cathaoireacha snasta ann, agus a lán lán bacán i gcómhair hataí agus casóga—mar do thaithn sé go mór leis an hobbit nuair do tánathas ar chuaird chuige. Do lúb an tollán ar aghaidh is ar aghaidh, ní go díreach ar fad, isteach i gcliathán an chnuic–An Cnuc, mar a thugadh gach éinne ar feadh na mílte ’ shlí mórthímpall air– agus is mó doras cruínn beag ’ tháinig amach uaidh ar thaobh amháin de ar dtúis agus ansan ar an dtaobh eile.

This translation does not move too far away from Williams’, but other phrases suggested to me that could be integrated into a translation of this passage include:

  • is ann a bhí an cúmpórd le fáil
  • halla de dhéanamh chruínn fé mar a bheadh tollán ann
  • lean an tollán cas ar aghaidh píosa maith, ach ní go díreach i dtreó thaobh an chnuic
  • cnuc a bhí breac le dóirsibh beaga

I’m not an experienced translator, and so there are undoubtedly many improvements that could be made to my translation, but in any case An Hobad is not in good Irish, and should be pulped. Why is it that any old crap will do when it comes to Irish?