Irish Language Blog

How to say ‘rat’ in Irish and a preliminary glossary for reading ‘An Píobaire Breac’ (an t-aistriúchán le Seán Ó Dúrois) (Cuid 1 as 4) Posted by on Sep 23, 2017 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

In today’s post, we’ll look at one of my favorite translations into Irish, Seán Ó Dúrois’s version of Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”  The two words that intrigue me the most are “francach” and “luch mhór,” both of which mean “rat.”  But they each have at least one other potential meaning, well, at least they both do if capitalization isn’t an issue (and that seems to be on the wane these days, given the predominance of text messaging, and less formal writing in general).

Why do I like this translation so much?  It has such a rollicking rhythm and rhyme scheme, it just keeps rolling along and it’s really fun for a class to read out loud, either stanza by stanza or rhymed couplet by rhymed couplet.  BTW, the rest of the book is delightful also, with fun poems about such topics as animals (“An Crogall,” “An Zú,” m. sh.), word play with sounds (“Mionbheithigh,” “An Taibhse Cait,” m. sh.), and a nice seasonal piece for Christmas, “An Chéad Chrann Nollag.”

Anyway, back to “An Píobaire Breac.”  First, a quick look at the poem’s title, then we’ll check out the “rat” vocab, and it there’s still space, a few more not-quite-so-common words.

For newcomers to Irish, the word order is “article (“the”) + noun + adjective,” which is the typical sequence for noun phrases in Irish. The word “an,” somewhat confusingly from an English speaker’s viewpoint, means “the.”  But remember, it’s pronounced like “un” (rhyming with “sun” and “fun”), not like the English “an” (which rhymes with “pan” and “tan”).

Píobaire” is pretty straightforward, meaning “piper,” and based on the Irish “píb” a musical pipe or bagpipe.  There are at least two different, if slightly related words for “pipe” in Irish, “píopa” for water, gas, or smoking, and “píobán,” another choice for water or gas pipes (but not for smoking); neither is used for bagpipes.

We probably don’t translate “breac” as “pied” all that often, but then, how often do we use “pied” in modern, everyday English?  Remember, Browning’s version was published in 1842.  If he were retelling the legend today, who knows what word choice he would use.  “Multi-colored” — too many syllables and not alliterative.  “Parti-colored” — also too long.  Words like “dappled,” “brindle,” “skewball,” and “pinto,” are all fun, but are mostly used for animals.  “Spotted” and “mottled” might sound more like they’re describing the piper’s skin rather than his clothing.

Getting back to our actual Irish word, “breac,” it’s usually translated as “speckled,” and in the modern Irish context, probably shows up the most frequently in the term “Breac-Ghaeltacht” (a “speckled” or partial Gaeltacht).  “Breac” has a number of other translations, including many of the synonyms for “pied” listed above, but it also delves into other linguistic territory as this list of some its meanings shows: dappled, variegated, patchwork, spotted, and dotted or studded (which can also be “breactha“), and then we diverge with meanings like “indifferent,” “middling,” and “not very good.”  We come a bit full circle with “snag breac” for “magpie” and, of course, “breac,” as a noun is well known as the Irish for “trout,” a fish which is typically “speckled” in appearance.

And, btw, there are a few other interesting choices for “pied” as well: alabhreac, ildathach (closest to “multi-colored”), and riabhach (which can also mean “striped”).  As for some reasonably well-known animals whose names have “pied” in English, we have a connection with “alabhreac” for the pied flycatcher (cuilire alabhreac).  But for the pied wagtail, there is  a completely different approach, with the term “glasóg shráide,” which fairly literally translates to “little green one of the street”) — so I guess I’ll have to check out the coloration for the genus “Motacilla” for some future post.

The title of the original German version doesn’t emphasize the “pied-ness,” simply being “Rattenfänger von Hameln.”  The story has been retold so many times, though, that a full study of the terms for the “francaire” (rat-catcher) or “luchaire” (rat-catcher or mouse-catcher!) of Hamelin would be a project for a long rainy day.  At any rate, I would say that “pied piper” has a more appealing ring than simply calling the fellow a “rat-catcher.”  Which aspect of his “skill sets” is most important — his musicianship or his ability as an exterminator?  I’m happy to go with the musical side! 

So, now, the Irish for “rats.”  There are two main approaches:

a) francach, a rat, which, if capitalized (Francach), would mean “a Frenchman;” the same word can be used as an adjective, with “luch,” giving us “luch fhrancach” (a rat).

b) luch mhór, and its variation, luchóg mhór, both of which literally mean “big mouse.”  So, I’m left with the quandary, what to call Reepicheep and Peepiceek, the very large talking mice of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia.  If we call them “lucha móra” or “luchóga móra,” would they be mistaken for rats?  Or could we say “oll-luch” or “oll-luchóg“?  But the “oll-“ phrases would really mean “great / huge / immense” mouse, and with Reepicheep and company, we’re talking about knee-high-ish, not “Them!-ish” or “The Killer Shrews-ish,” i.e. human-size or larger.  Hopefully, the answer is in the offing, when we get the Irish translation of Prince Caspian in “the Chronicles of Narnia” series.  Reepicheep first appears in Chapter 6.  Unfortunately, this character is not in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (An  Leon, an Bandraoi, agus an Prios Éadaigh, 2014), the only Narnia volume to appear in Irish so far, so I can’t see what the translator has decided for this term.  I’ll try to remember to check it out when “An Prionsa Caspian” (the presumed title), appears and do another post on rats vs. mice in Irish and in translations.

At any rate, Ó Dúrois uses both “francach” and “luch mhór” early on in his translation “Cad é a bhí cearr?  Cá raibh an locht? / Is furasta a rá! Na lucha móra / a ba chúis le caoineadh agus deora …” and later in the same stanza, “… mar bhí francaigh ann ag scrios na háite.”  Actually, from a poet’s perspective, it’s great to have two words to choose from (synonyms rule, anyway!) since the best one for the rhyme and meter can be picked.  As the translation progresses, though, Ó Dúrois seems to favor “francach,” or its plural, “francaigh,” which appear throughout.  He doesn’t use “luchóg mhór,” which has always seemed to me more like “big mouse” than “rat.”  “Luch mhór” seems more like “rat” to me, perhaps because the “-óg” ending of “luchóg” is already somewhat diminutive and therefore sounds smaller, more like a mouse.

I don’t have much more space in today’s post, but here’s a dornán of other interesting words from the poem:

Stanza 2: plá, plague; crá, torment

Stanza 4: scoilt, crack, split

Stanza 5: beadaí, dainty, fussy, epicurean (as a noun: foodie, food-lover, epicure)

Stanza 7: ag bárcadh allais, sweating heavily, streaming with perspiration, or in the English idiom, “sweating bullets”

Stanza 8: laiste, latch (of a door); gréagach, bright, splendid, beautiful, or (intriguingly), garish or gaudy (in upper case, Gréagach, it does mean “Greek”)

Well, that’s about enough for one post, so it looks like doing the poem justice will take blagmhír amháin eile.  Go dtí sin, SGF  – Róislín

Eolas foilseacháin: Ó Dúrois, Seán.  An Píobaire Breac agus dánta eile do pháistí.  Binn Éadair, Baile Átha Cliath, 2004.  Gan ISBN sa chóip atá agamsa.  I measc áiteanna eile tá an leabhar ar fáil ó agus agus

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  1. Seán Ó Dúrois:

    Go raibh mile maith agat as na focail chineálta sin. Tá mé iontach sásta gur bhain tú sult as na dánta. Más mian leat, tugaim cead duit an dán An Píobaire Breac a chur suas anseo ina iomláine. Seans go spreagfadh sé daoine leis an leabhar a cheannach agus chuideodh sé go mór le foghlaimeoirí agus iad ag amharc ar na nótaí seo. BB, S.

    • róislín:

      @Seán Ó Dúrois Go raibh míle maith agatsa as scríobh chugam agus as cead a thabhairt dúinn an dán a athfhoilsiú ina iomláine sa bhlag. Déanfaidh mé sin go luath agus tá súil agam go spreagfaidh sé daoine leis an leabhar a cheannach. Tá mé cinnte go gcuideoidh sé le foghlaimeoirí, dán deas beomhar a léamh, go mór mór mar beidh téama an dáin ar eolas acu cheana féin. Má scríobhann tú leabhar eile, cuir scéal chugam, le do thoil, agus b’fhéidir go dtig linn píosa beag eile a dhéanamh. GRMMA arís – Róislín

      • Seán Ó Dúrois:

        @róislín Go ndéana sé a mhaith duit! Tá mé ag obair ar roinnt soinéad faoi láthair. BB, S.

        • róislín:

          @Seán Ó Dúrois Tá áthas orm sin a chluinstin. Cuir scéal chugainn nuair a bheas siad foilsithe, le do thoil. – SGF, R

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