I should start by saying that it’s GREAT that Google Translate added Scots Gaelic to its list of languages. Seriously! At a time when Gaelic speakers/learners are fighting to save the language, or sometimes just convince people that it’s a living language and not a historical artifact it’s a big step forward to have Google deem it worth the programming needed to create something like this. And that’s A LOT of programming. Rosetta Stone hasn’t felt that it was worthwhile to offer their software in Gaelic, they even dropped their Welsh program years ago. So, should you add Google Translate to your list of Gaelic learning resources, use it to translate some key phrases for that great highland romance novel you’re writing, translate a favorite motto of yours for a Gaelic tattoo? Not so fast.
Online translators like Google’s are fine for getting a basic translation, but there are limitations. You can build a translation database out of rules, and existing translations, but that doesn’t account for exceptions, idioms, metaphors, dialects…There are so many variables and nuances with any language that it’s almost impossible to account for them all. Here is an article with more specifics about how translators work and their limitations.
So, I decided to test out Google’s new Gaelic translator and see just how good it is. Disclaimer: I am not a native speaker and am still learning, so I’m not an expert. But I do have plenty of experience testing software. I have even written a software quality assurance plan. I kept my tests pretty simple. No compound sentences or anything tricky. I wasn’t trying to trip it up. I’ll leave that to speakers with more knowledge and experience. I was just curious how it handled certain aspects of the language, namely those that most different from English. Here’s what I found.
In English, when we meet someone we are likely to say, “It’s nice to meet you”. Sometimes we might say, “I’m pleased to meet you”, however that more formal expression seems to be falling out of use. In Gaelic, it’s the norm. We would say, Tha mi toilichte ur coinneachadh (I am please to meet you.) Most Americans looking for a translation would probably be more likely to put “It’s nice to meet you” into the translator. The trouble with that is two fold. First it doesn’t include that emotion “pleased”. Also, Gaelic uses gendered pronouns. There really isn’t a pronoun for it To fit with non-gendered pronouns from other languages, it sometimes defaults to the male pronoun. However that changes the subject of the sentence of the sentence. The translation below literally means, He/It is good meeting to you. That’s not exactly wrong. But it’s not something you would say in Gaelic.
Most basic English sentences begin with the subject, usually a noun: I like cheese. Dave plays baseball…But in Gaelic, most sentences start with the verb that is often followed by the subject. If I want to say, “I have a cat” I would say Tha cat agam, which literally translates to “A cat is at me.” I tried this in Google Translate going from English to Gaelic and I got Tha mi cat, which is bad grammar but closer to “I am a cat.” than it is to “I have a cat.”
When I put the correct Gaelic into the translator, it worked fine.
While Gaelic has possessive words like mine and yours, it’s more common to use a prepositional pronoun to link things to people. In Gaelic things, people, feelings are “at you”, “on you”, or “with you”. Hence phrases like the familiar Tha goal agam ort. (The love that I have is upon you.).
If you put “My” into Google Translate in just about any context it’s going to return mo. That’s not necessarily wrong, but as I said, it’s more common to say an cat agam (the cat at me). On any of these results, you can click the translation results and see other options. Sometimes the more accurate answer is in there. In this case when I clicked mo the prepositional pronoun agam appears there, but it doesn’t say anything about how to arrange that with the noun cat. You wouldn’t say agam cat.
If I translate “an cat agam” from Gaelic to English, it works fine.
The Formal You
Like most romance languages (and old English) Gaelic has more than one version of you. There is thu which you would use when talking to a friend or someone your own age. Then there is sibh which is for addressing elders or people you aren’t acquainted with. It’s much like the difference between the Spanish tu and usted I tried translating you in several contexts from English to Gaelic and every time, it returned thu. Once again, clicking on the word gives you alternatives including sibh, but no information on when to use them and why.
Likewise, if I translate sibh from Gaelic to English, I get “you” as a result, but no further information.
Directly Addressing Someone
When you’re addressing someone directly in Gaelic, you put an a in front of their name and lenite the first letter and slenderize the last vowel for masculine names. Leniting and slenderizing are ways of modifying a word to show that it is linked with another word. In this case it’s creating a form of address that’s oddly like the way we address people on Twitter these days @Mary. In Gaelic it’s a Mhairi. First, there are only but so many proper names that actually translate to Gaelic, so Google Translate just can’t make some of them work. That’s not surprising, but it also doesn’t include the a that marks it as addressing someone. In the sentence below, it translates James into Seumas, but doesn’t make it a direct address. It should be a Sheumais.
Just as with the others, translating from Gaelic to English works fine.
In Gaelic, adjectives come after the nouns that they modify. “The red car” is an car dearg. Google Tranlsate seems to get this right when you keep it simple. But when you add prepositional pronouns, the verb seems to disappear. I tried this with a few sentences, and it was pretty consistent. His bicycle is blue, turned into “blue his bicycle” there is no verb on the Gaelic side.
“Her boat is large” becomes she boat large. Again, the verb is dropped for some reason.
It seems that Google Translate does a pretty good job translating from Gaelic to English, but not so much the other way around. At least not yet. I should point out that there is always a link to “Improve this translation” that will allow users to send feedback on how and why they think the translator could do better. This is Google’s way of crowdsourcing their development. I am sure that some Gaelic speakers out there will be feeding them feedback regularly as more people begin to use the translator. However, improvements like that will take time. Even then, it still won’t be able to account for idioms and differences between English and Gaelic culture that show themselves in the language.
So, Google Translate isn’t going to be replacing Learn Gaelic or Am Faclair Beag on my list of Gaelic learning tools. I’ll still be having a translator double check my Gaelic in my books and I’m not rushing to the local tattoo parlor. And If you are thinking about getting a Gaelic tattoo, please read this first.