The Gaels may be brothers, and the Irish Gael may have got the biggest slice of the pie, but still…

We could do with learning a few lessons about translation from the Gaels of Scotland, according to our columnist

The Gaels Have a Word For It

There is often a hint of superciliousness about the relationship between the Gael of Ireland and the Gael of Scotland. The Irish like to boast about the constitutional position of Irish and its staus as a working language in Europe.

The Gaels may be brothers, but the Irish Gael is the blessed one who got the biggest slice of the pie. Still…

Anyone who reads Wilson McLeod’s Official Gaelic: Problems in the Translation of Public Documents will realize that the situation is the same on both sides of the Straits of Moyle as we try to build a bilingual society on the rock of translation.

Reading McLeod’s essay, I couldn’t help but think about the thousands of translations falling from the conveyor belt of this country’s Official Languages Act:

‘…it is important to ensure that Gaelic is not used in this area as mere tokenism, for, as Joshua Fishman warns, such empty public symbolism can readily become ‘the ultimate retreat into meaninglessness vis-à-vis the daily life of human beings.’

Wow, as the lady once said. There’s a statement that goes to the heart of the language question in Ireland.

It’s not all bad news, however. McLeod praises Scottish translators’ indifference to meaningless jargon:

‘As a result of an increasingly integrated approach’ becomes iad anist ag obrachadh còmhla barrachd. (Anois agus iad ag obair le chéile níos mó ná riamh…)

How many translators in Ireland would be confident enough to offer a similar solution rather than resorting to the type of translationese that leaves us with: ‘De thoradh ar chur chuige atá níos mó is mó comhtháite’?

No doubt, you already know the answer.

The State’s Translation Department and other institutions have developed a formal register for Irish that allows for the translation of legislation, contracts and statutory instruments. We have not, however, managed to create a communicataive style of translation that manages to convey both the rigour and fluency of texts intended for the ordinary citizen.

The Achilles’ heel of translation here is the public document that doesn’t require a tone of legal solemnity: the information leaflet, the website, the annual report.

Unfortunately, the same harsh, complicated Irish is used in EU treaties and flu vaccine leaflets alike.

It is not easy to address this situation when precedence is given to official translation.

This problem was evident in the recent announcement by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the HEA that funding will not be made available for any courses under the Advanced Language Skills Initiative, but will be directed instead towards courses aimed at providing official translations for Europe.

It makes no sense to ignore the needs of translators who will go on to work on television scripts, textbooks, literary works and other material meant for the citizens of Ireland.

Sometimes, I envy the Gael who got the smallest slice of the pie.

(Translated from the original Irish by

Fág freagra ar 'The Gaels may be brothers, and the Irish Gael may have got the biggest slice of the pie, but still…'