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?

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Nicholas Williams’ droch-Ghaelainn in An Hobad

  1. This was certainly a very well written honest critique about this less-than-impressive translation of “The Hobbit”. In fact, books like “An Hobad” are the reason that I decided long ago to only read books written by native Irish speakers rather than things written in “the official standard”.

  2. Yes, I agree Ramón, and it is shame that nearly everything published in Irish nowadays is in this butchered form.

  3. Dia dhuit a chara,
    It’s extremely interesting to have this kind of commentary on translations into Irish – though I must tell you that my Irish is very poor, On another forum, I’ve mentioned translations by Breadan O Doibhlin from French to Irish such as the Little Prince/An Prionsa Beag and a book of French poetry On Fhraincis, only to be told that his contributions to an Irish translation of the Bible weren’t appreciated by one native Irish speaker on the forum. I don’t know if you’ve read these books, but I’d welcome your comments on them.
    Is mise le meas
    Franc Bell

  4. I haven’t read those books, and try to limit my exposure to Standardised Irish as much as possible. I would advise you only to read Irish written by the stronger Gaeltacht writers. Anything written in Standardised Irish, or written by a learner in the Galltacht, should be avoided like the plague.

  5. San iomlán táim ar aon intinn leat maidir leis an leagan Gaeilge de “The Hobbit.” Cé nach rachainn chomh fada sa cháineadh is a chuaigh tusa, is fíor go bhfuil rian an Bhéarla le sonrú go láidir ann – agus go bhfuil taitneamh agus spiorad an scéil millte ag an aistritheoir.

  6. David, thanks for this detailed analysis of Williams’ translation of the opening of the Hobbit. I would have thought he was capable of better work. I agree whole-heartedly that if one is a learner of Irish Gaelic, then one should have an educated speaker proof the work. Seems obvious, but, I suppose, rarely done. Common sense is, all too often, uncommon.

  7. To the apparently fox-tv-inspired writer of this piece,
    how does Nicholas Williams’ being a Sasanach have anything to do with his competence in Irish translation?
    I haven’t read the book yet, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been rushed, or just carefully proofread by you. (Did you ever offer?) He can speak it better than most anyone on the island of Ireland, which is better than any in the Catholic church, who have a history of nonsupport. Williams believes in the archaic concept of a queen and a monarchy. So what? Everyone is entitled to a bit of fantasy. You, a Catholicist, obviously have an atavistic love of archaic spellings like ‘Gaedhilge’ and ‘Oifigeamhail’? Aren’t you also a fantasist? He taught Irish at UCD for 30 years! You also fail to mention that Alan Titley, a Corkman, helped with the translation.
    Regarding an caighdeán ofigiúil (Most everyone would refuse to use your antiquated spelling.), it is a much easier way to learn a language, regardless of your potshots at those who standardized it for the potential learner. If you learn German, you learn Hochdeutsch; Italian, standard Italian; French, standard French. Try learning Tagalog by starting out with one of their zillion dialects and you’d be laughed off the planet.
    The priests and brothers did nothing but protect the pederasts and thugs of the over-rich Catholic Church. If anything, they worked in concert with your aforementioned Sasanaigh in sabotaging Irish. Cork Irish would be great to study, especially with its awkward spellings, but the way to go, as with all world languages, is to study the standard first.

  8. Look, I object to reading comments on my blog in poor English. “Most anyone” is just ignorant. Do you mean “almost anyone”?

    I’m wondering if you are the same Paul Murphy (aka Pól Ó Murchú, an inauthentic name for an American) who wrote a grammar book of, duh!, STANDARDISED Irish – such was his contempt for real native Irish.

    If you are not him, then good.

    It is false to say he speaks Irish better than almost anyone in Ireland. WHAT ABOUT THE NATIVE SPEAKERS? They are the gold standard.

    I am obviously not a Catholicist – if such a word exists.

    The fact this Nicholas Williams clown taught at UCD is neither here nor there – he is a supporter of made-up fake forms of languages. Alan Titley is **NOT** a native speaker of Cork Irish!!! He is a man from Cork who supports bowdlerising the Irish language and is contemptous enough of native Irish to use a fake made-up standard in his writings.

    You fail to realise that standard German, Italian etc, do exist – and were not purely the inventions of committees. Standard Irish is EXCLUSIVELY used by learners.

  9. You’re right, I forgot the apostrophe. It should be ‘most anyone. That’s not poor English, it’s a typo.
    Now that the trivia is out of the way, isn’t your name Webb? Are you English? Is it authentic?
    By the way, it should be ‘If you are not HE, then good.’
    Gold standard? If so, then why do they sit on their smug arses and do nothing about the state of the language other than talk the language of the victim? What do you yourself contribute except a mishmash of cumbersomely spelled Irish?
    Nicholas Williams is a genius who would probably work with any gold-plated Irish speaker if he had the chance. He’s not an anti-intellectual, as you imply.
    Alan Titley spent years at the Irish language. He did much more than come up with a way to divide Irish speakers through a defaming blog site. An example of a book that was bowdlerzied is Peig. And that expurgated version was supported by the puritanical Catholic Church, your corporate friend.
    In your expert English, you should know that a nonce word such as ‘Catholicist’ is valid in the context. It would mean ‘a person who views the world through the eyes of the monolithic Catholic Church’, the destroyers of the Irish language.
    As a final note, how do you know how other countries devise their standard?

    • No. With or without the apostrophe, the use of ‘most for almost is to be deprecated. People like Williams or Titley don’t have good Irish; they have a made-up thing that is not native Irish, and yet they view themselves as good users of the language. My blog above shows that Nicholas Williams could do with basic lessons in Irish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s