Irish Language Blog

Cé mhéad “Shades of Gray” (Grey … Liath … Léith … de Grae, srl.)? Posted by on Jul 22, 2014 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

I was recently reminded of a rather infamous episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, entitled “Shades of Gray.”  B’fhéidir gur cuimhin leat é.

That got me thinking of other uses of the phrase, “Shades of Gray (Grey),” even aside from the current tie-in by E. L. James.  I’ve been pondering how to translate the book and movie title, Fifty Shades of Grey, and have ended up in a bit of an impasse, at least as far as the “imeartas focal” goes.

Of course, word play is always hard to translate, since different pairs of words sound alike in different languages.  For example, so far, I don’t know of any language other than English in which the old chestnut of a riddle, “What’s black and white and red all over?” actually works as a pun.  The answer is a “newspaper” (black and white and “read” all over, at least pre-Internet).  But there’s no pun if you try to translate the riddle into Irish (dubh, bán, dearg vs. léite or some other form of the verb “léigh“). It’s the same with combinations in a few other languages I can think of, like Welsh (du, gwyn, coch), French (noir, blanc, rouge), and Klingon (qIj, chIS, Doq).

So where does that leave us with “Shades of Gray” (or “Grey”) in Irish?  And what’s the word play in the title anyway?  Isn’t “shades of gray” just a stock expression, a “seannath cainte“?  Well, yes, but in E. L. James’s novels, “Grey” is also the “sloinne” of one of the characters, Christian Trevelyan Grey, with both the Trevelyan and the Grey elements coming from his adoptive parents (Dr. Grace Trevelyan Grey and her husband, Carrick Grey).  Hmm, how many Celtic connections do we have here anyway?  Trevelyan … sloinne Cornaise agus “Carrick” ón nGaeilge “carraig.”  But those topics deserve their own blogs (a mblaganna féin) and would take too much space to discuss further here.

So, back to gray/grey.

Let’s look first at how to say “shades” of, regarding a color.  “Doimhneacht” [DIV-nyukht] is probably the best choice here for “shade,” although there is at least one other possibility (“imir” as a noun meaning “shade” or “tint”). Here are the basics for “doimhneacht“:

doimhneacht, depth (in the abstract, of sound, of color, of thought, etc.). depth (in measurement), a deep place, especially in water; can be translated as “shade” regarding color, but doesn’t mean “shade” in the sense of a shadow or underworld spirit

doimhneachta, of depth, of a deep place, of a shade (of a color)

The plural isn’t always given in dictionary entries for this word, because it is so abstract, but it does exist:

doimhneachtaí: depths , shades (of a color)

And now for the gray/grey part.  The basic word for “gray” in Irish is “liath” [LEE-uh; the “th” is silent].  Here are some of its forms:

as an adjective: liath, singular, and liatha [LEE-uh-huh], plural, as in: féasóg liath, a gray beard; féasóga liatha, gray beards

as a noun: liath, gray (grey), gray color (grey colour)

léith [lyay], of gray (of grey)

and , though we won’t need them here, the plural forms: liatha, grays (greys) and liath, of grays (of greys)

So now, we’re ready to say “Fifty Shades of Grey,” right?

Bhuel, b’fhéidir go bhfuil agus b’fhéidir go “won’t” (speaking of old chestnuts of jokes).

“Shades of gray” for a color would be “doimnhneachtaí léith.”  (UK/Irish English: “Shades of grey” for a colour …).  The structure is “doimhneachtaí” followed by the noun in the genitive case, like “léith” for “liath.” Some examples for other colors include “deirg” for “dearg” and “goirm” for “gorm” (with “deirge” and “goirme” as the genitive of the the adjectives when modifying feminine singular nouns, as in “costas na léine deirge” and “uigeacht na léine goirme“).

So “doimhneachtaí léith” would suit for most purposes, like Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Shades of Gray” or Jasper Fforde’s novel, Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron (2009), if either of them were getting translated into Irish.

There is also an option using “den” (of the) and no genitive case (Ailliliú!).  That would be “doimhneachtaí den liath,” but the pattern “sa tuiseal ginideach” seems to be the more, errmm (squirm, really, given our context!), dominant.

And if there were truly “fifty” shades of the color “liath” (and there probably are), we’d simply add “caoga” [KAY-guh).  Pronunciation question if “caoga” is new for you?  The “-ao-” isn’t like “ay-oh” as in AOL (America OnLine).  Nor is it like the romanized transcription of the Chinese “ao” as in “Bao Bao” (the famous panda cub, whose first birthday is coming up soon); the Chinese “ao” is like the “ou” in English “ouch,” at least that’s my best approximation.  “Caoga” is basically pronounced with the “ao” like the “ay” in “say” or “pay.”

So there’s one more hurdle for “fifty shades of gray,”  We need to make one more change, since we’ve added a number to our expression.  “Doimhneachtaí” goes back to being singular “doimhneacht.”  Now it’s “caoga doimhneacht léith.”  Why “singular” when the concept is “plural”?  I think the best basic answer is “it is what it is” (.. seanchastán eile … ).  Nouns after numbers stay singular in Irish, in almost all cases (bosca amháin, dhá bhosca, seacht mbosca, caoga bosca, etc., meaning 1 box, 2 boxes, 7 boxes, 50 boxes, with the ending of “bosca” staying singular the whole time).  Exceptions, well, yes, some of the units of measurement (sé seachtainí, srl.), but that’s beyond the scope of this blog.

Déan an t-athrú sin agus seo an frása:

Caoga Doimhneacht Léith

Ach … an cuimhin leat go raibh mé ag caint faoin sloinne “Grey”?  The leading male character in the story is Christian Grey, so the title is really a pun on his name.  And there’s the rub.  The surname “Grey” in Irish is technically “De Grae,” simply borrowing the English sound and gaelicizing the spelling.  Quite likely it’s from Norman French originally.  Eolas faoi sin ag duine ar bith anseo?  An bhfuil an sloinne sin ar dhuine ar bith agaibh?

And then there’s the surname “Gray,” with the “-ay” spelling, which can be either “Mac Cathail Riabhaigh” or “Mac Giolla Riabhaigh” in Irish!  Plus about 20 more variations in anglicized spellings, like MacGillreavy and MacArevy, to name just a few.

Liath” does show up as a surname element, in “Ó Liatháin,” according to some interpretations, but that name seems to be mostly anglicized based on its sound, not its meaning (O’Lehane, Lyhane, Leehane, Lehane, Leyhane, Lihane, Lyhan, Leehan, Leeane, O’Lyons, Lyons, etc.).  And some of those can actually derive from the similar-sounding “Ó Laighin,” from “láighe” (spear).

So that leaves us with:

caoga (50, quite straightforward)

doimhneacht (the word stays singular after the number “50”)

and then various choices for the surname/color (de Grae, Mac Cathail Riabhaigh, Mac Giolla Riabhaigh, Ó Liatháin, srl.)

Caoga Doimhneacht Léith

Caoga Doimhneacht de Grae

Caoga Doimhneacht Mhic Ghiolla Riabhaigh (“mac” becomes “mhic” in the genitive)

Caoga Doimhneacht Mhic Chathail Riabhaigh

Caoga Doimhneacht Uí Liatháin (“Ó” becomes “” in the genitive)

So, like I said i dtús an bhlag, I’m at a bit of an impasse.  Barúil ar bith agaibhse?

Maybe if I read E. L. James’s books I’ll get a clearer idea of which way to go with this.  I was really putting them off, because frankly, I find the trilogy’s theme pretty disconcerting.  But since discovering that the adoptive mother’s maiden name is “Trevelyan” and the father is “Carrick,” I guess I’ll have to start reading.   Maybe that’s a slim reason, but, hey, it keeps me busy.  Why do Celtic names appear?

On that note, slán go fóill, and please write in if you have some ideas about how to translate Fifty Shades of Grey.   Just the title, not the whole book, at least so far.  As far as I can tell there’s no Irish translation yet.  I’ve checked E. L. James’s website, which appears to list all the foreign language versions.  Is this possibly a breakthrough opportunity in Irish publishing, given the trilogy’s global popularity?  – Róislín

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