Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Translating Hymns (Part 2)

Continuing from my last post ….

Here’s an example of what I was describing in my last post. This is the first verse of the fourth hymn in Dánta Dé, in the section titled Maidin (“Morning”). The hymn is described as Cantain Tíre-Chonaill (“Chant [from] Tyrconnell”) and the ascription reads, Ó na daoinibh tré Antoine Ó Dochartaigh (“From the people by Anthony O’Doherty”).

A Íosa mhilis, a Mháighistir ‘s a Dhia,
A Fhuasglóir oirdheirc ainglidhe,
Féach d’ár laige ‘s ná leig ár gclaoidhe
Le tonnaibh buadhartha an pheacaidh.

Úna ní Ógáin translates this as follows:

O, Jesu sweet, O master and God!
Deliverer august, angelic,
Look on our weakness, and let us not be overcome
By the troublous waves of sin

Now, I’m quite certain that her translations are correct, but I want to understand this Irish Gaelic text as thoroughly as possible, so I go to work translating for myself. Many of the words are familiar to me – the name of Jesus, for example, Íosa, or the word meaning “sweet”, mhilis, or the verb “to see”, féach. Others look like words I know, but they seem to be older forms – for example, ainglidhe (which she has translated as “angelic”) does remind me of aingeal meaning “angel”, and tonnaibh (which she has translated as “waves”) is similar to the word I know for “wave”, tonn. Others are new to me.

So I spend a lot of time leafing through the dictionary learning new words and trying to understand the meaning of the almost-familiar words. However, many of these words are not found in my modern Irish-English dictionary (I’m primarily using Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla by Níall Ó Dónaill, as well as various other sources) because of the changes made in modern standard Gaeilge. For example, ainglidhe has been simplified to aingli. The changes to other words are not so easily discovered: tonnaibh, for example. The plural of “waves” that I know is tonnta, so I think that perhaps this is a related word meaning a particular kind of wave? I know from dealing with other “modernized” words that the “bh” letter combination has been often replaced with either “ch” or “dh”, so I look in the dictionary for that variant spelling. Nothing. I also know that “ai” has frequently been simplified to “a”. Aha! The dictionaries have both tonnach (“quagmire”) and tonnadh (“surge” or “tide”). There’s no way to really know which of these the “folk of Tyrconnell” might have intended, so either could be used as a translation and both suggest imagery for the later step of putting this chant into metrical, rhyming English.

I move on to the next word, buadhartha, which ní Ógáin translated as “troublous” (which I’m not sure is even an English word!) This one is also unfamiliar to me, but it reminds of a word I do know, buaigh, the verb “to win”. The structure of buadhartha suggests to me that it is what the Irish call an aidiacht bhrathartha (“verbal adjective”), but the verbal adjective of buaigh is buach (“victorious” or “winning”). Further, “winning” and “troublous” hardly seem to fit one with the other, so this is obviously some other word. This requires the time-consuming process of simply reading the dictionary word by word until something comes close to ní Ógáin’s “troublous” rendering. The “r” in the word, by the way, is a lead, so I look particularly for words beginning with “bua” and including an “r”. The search ends when I find buair, a verb meaning “to grieve”, and its related word buartha (“grievous, worrying, or sorrowful”). (And a bit of learning for use later on … the letter combination “adha” here was simplified to “a”; this pattern may be repeated in other words.)

This is the process I work through which each word, each line, each stanza of the hymn. In the case of this first verse of Anthony O’Doherty’s chant from Tyrconnell, I render the verse as follows:

O Sweet Jesus, Master and God,
O exalted [and] angelic Redeemer,
See our infirmity and do not allow our conquering
By [With] the grievous tide [quagmire] [of our] sins

Not too dissimilar to ní Ógáin’s original translation, but by doing the work of translation myself, delving into deeper and alternative renderings of the text, I gain insights and ideas that will be of use in the next step, turning the translation into something in English that can fit the metre of the original music to which the Irish words were set. More on that in a later post.


  1. James Yardley

    “The plural of “waves” that I know is tonnta, so I think that perhaps this is a related word meaning a particular kind of wave?”

    Tonnaibh, and other plural forms in -ibh, are relics of the old dative plural (cognate with Latin datives in -ibus). Certainly in Scottish Gaelic they are virtually confined to poetry, especially of a religious genre.

  2. eric

    Thank you, James, that’s good to know. I suspect the same is true in Irish Gaeilge, as well.

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