Translator Spotlight: An Interview with Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh

I’ll admit it. While I appreciate the value each and every language brings to the world, there is just something special about Irish Gaelic. It’s a beautiful language that has survived many centuries and witnessed a great deal of history. Irish has also contributed to our lexicon by bringing many words into English, especially English as it’s spoken in Ireland. We even featured a few Irish words in translation on our booth recently at Localization World Dublin.

Recently, Smartling published the 50 most beautiful words in the Irish language (available in eBook and Slideshare format). To collect them, we enlisted the help of an Irish translator, Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh. Given my penchant for the Irish language, I couldn’t resist sitting down to ask him a few questions. Read his answers in the interview below.

How did you first learn Irish?

My parents spoke some Irish to me at home, but English was the dominant language both at home and in the community, Irish having receded westwards in Ireland over the last few centuries. I first learnt Irish properly at an Irish-medium school whose motto translates as ‘hope in heritage’. Practically all of my teachers were native Irish speakers, so this was a great bonus. When I was 10, our class spent a month in an Irish-speaking part of the country in the west of Ireland, and this experience left a lasting impression on me. Living in an English-speaking part of the country, Irish-medium radio has always been a vital link with the living language for me.

How did you become a translator for Irish?

After finishing college, I occasionally got asked to translate items and this has more or less continued to the present day. One of the most valuable experiences for the development of my ability as a translator was a period I spent working in an Irish-language newsroom, where translation accounted for a portion of what we produced. I benefited greatly from the suggestions of a senior editor who took the time to look over my shoulder.

What criteria did you use to select the “most beautiful” Irish words?

Primarily, I tried to select words that encapsulated or evoked a beautiful or inspirational idea. I thought this was the best approach, as I suspect I would have run into trouble had I focused on words that sounded beautiful to a speaker of the language. Beauty in sound very often does not translate!

If you could only pick just one word, which do you think is most beautiful?

I’ll go for spleodar, which denotes vivacity and exuberance. The fun seems to burst forth from this word and, for me, it even resonates a little with the English word explode – in both sound and sense!

Which word did you find hardest to describe succinctly for non-Irish speakers?

Perhaps the word meas, which can mean ‘estimation, opinion, regard, respect’, but it seems to have a feel all of its own and, as such, it is still very often left untranslated in the English of Ireland.

What are the greatest challenges that Irish language translators face?

The fact that Irish is not a widely spoken language and that a deep knowledge of it may take a lifetime’s work (albeit worthwhile)! The spectrum of its registers is not as wide as it once was and the areas of life in which it is used are likewise restricted, therefore one is often faced, for instance, with having to coin new terms when translating into Irish.

What do you wish more people knew about the Irish language?

That, despite having become a minority language in its homeland, it is still fun and rich and exuberant, and fully equipped to express the whole range of human emotion and experience – in its own unique way, having evolved over thousands of years on an island on the edge of Europe. As for interesting facts, Irish seems particularly rich when it comes to nouns describing different types of people – I have a list of over 4,000 such terms. Mind you, it would probably be fair to say that many of these would not make the ‘beautiful words’ shortlist based on the criteria mentioned above!