Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Name Post: Names in Translation


In my introduction to Irish names, I wrote about how in the Irish language it often takes more words to get to the same meaning in English. I wrote that Go raibh maith agat” is the equivalent of “thank you” in Irish, but it literally means “may you have a thousand good things.” What I didn’t mention, however, is how this actually translates back in context.

In Dublin, what you hear far more than “thank you’, is “thanks a million.” People say “thanks a million” to bus drivers, they say it to waiters (“This looks grand, thanks a million.”), they say it when people hold doors open for them. Today, most people living in Ireland speak only a few words of Irish. It's something they've learned in school and have since forgotten. Because of this, I don’t think you can argue that “thanks a million” comes from translating “may you have a thousand good things” in their minds. I like to think that this is what their ancestors did, however, generations ago, and that somehow, after wishing someone thousands of good thing in Irish, a simple “thank you” did not suffice. 

Translation is a messy process. I'm wondering what exactly the translation of “Go raibh maith agat” would be? Do you argue that the translation is “may you have a thousand good things”, or “thanks a million”, because that is the English equivalent that is actually being used? When you switch languages, you are often switching much more than that—geography, cultural contexts, differing lifestyles and sentiments. 

In Ireland, names seem to undergo frequent processes of translation. This translation clearly takes place in roll call at school, when children’s (often English) names are read under their Irish equivalents every morning. As I mentioned in my last post, poets and artists today are often engaged in an act of translation as well; using Irish name equivalents on their work as a political statement. 

It’s not a new idea here. For years under the Penal Laws, people were not allowed to give their children Irish names, so all documented names were Anglicized. This didn’t prevent people from using Irish names at home, however, so John would be Sean and Margaret would be Máiréad in their parents' mouths. (Funnily enough, this is not dissimilar to in Zambia, where I talked about how there is a history of floating names that aren't documented but that are frequently used).  I find it interesting that while historically, people would have Anglicized versions of their names on documents and use Irish names at home, in contemporary Ireland it's almost the opposite; school children answer to Irish names but most use English names in all other contexts of their lives. 

What I’m thinking about now,  however, is whether these names are actually translations. Is John an actual translation of Sean, or is it how the name sounds when on the tongue of a native Irish speaker? Is this all that a translation is, after all?  And if we say that Thomas is a translation of Tomás, and Jean is Sean, is it a stretch to say that Aoife is Eva? Where is the line in finding a translation, and finding a separate name altogether?  
Furthermore, there's a difference between equivalents and translations. I recently read a brief article about this translation confusion in Ireland, which shows how these questions get more unclear when looking at names’ Latin origins as well ( They use the example of “Charles” to demonstrate this. An Irish Charles will probably have been called “Cathal” at school (the Irish equivalent of Charles), but in the Irish language, when people talk about historical figures like King Charles, they use “Searlas” as the equivalent. Katherine, the author of the article, went back to the Latin roots and found that Carolus and Cathaldus are two distinct names. Cathal isn’t really Irish for Charles, but it’s the name chosen as the English equivalent. I wonder about the children of immigrants in primary schools here and what happens when their names are translated to Irish. Are their names left untranslated, or do they go sound by sound to try and find Irish equivalents?

It reminds me vaguely of being in in fifth grade French class and learning (to my delight) that we could choose “French names” for ourselves. The class ended up being divided into people whose names could be vaguely French already (Michael would just be “Michel” when the teacher pronounced his name, “Madeline” could keep her spelling and gain a new pronunciation). And then there were the Zorabs and Justins and Tyrones who just needed to choose something new. And the Nell, who, rather than choose a rough translation like “Helene” or something along those lines, she wanted to be something exciting, like “Nathalie Pascale” or “ Charlotte Sophie.” (Nell soon realized that no one ended up actually using those names beyond the first day, but it brought her great comfort to write it on the top of her papers). 

Iarfhlaith told me a story last week about his friend who was once stopped by the police. He gave them the Irish version of his name, which he had taken to using, and the policeman wouldn’t take it. “That’s a nonsense name,” the policeman said. “What’s your real name?” 

Translations are political and personal. Most people here still do have English versions of their names on passports and birth certificates, whatever they choose to go by in their daily lives, and there are stigmas attached to them, particularly in Northern Ireland.

I’m starting to believe that, like “hygge” in Danish (look it up: and the classic "schadenfreude", names are words that simply can’t be translated. I think this might be because it is not really words that create the definitions of names, but people. A Michel isn’t a Michael, not really at all, and I think there is a world of difference between John and Sean. In times past, names used to be translated more frequently than they are today, I think. I'd guess this because this year I've found many examples of places where there used to be more (or stricter) laws governing what kind of names people could and could not have. 

I wonder if it is actually a beautiful and unanticipated benefit of globalization that names are earning their own right.  It is undeniable that names still have certain stigmas attached to them, particularly in a global context. And, as Iarfhlaith's story shows, there are still people who unabashedly call some names "nonsense names", even names that originate from the very country they are standing in. But I like to think, and want to think, that maybe we're moving to a place where a name is a name, without translation. 

It might be the difference between saying thank you, and saying it a million times over. 

(Speaking of globalization, Blogger informs me that this week the majority of my readers are in the U.S. and Russia. Anyone care to explain how that happened?) 


  1. I have no glue, why most of your readers are from Russia, it should be Germany, haha. But if that comforts you: Most of my readers are from Germany,(of course) the USA and Russia as well, and apart from you I don't know any Russians :-D

    1. Oh sorry, sure, I have GLUE but no Clue (languages are so hard :-D)