Irish Language Blog

Into the (Concept of) “West”: Siar, Thiar, agus Aniar Posted by on Nov 18, 2010 in Irish Language

(le Róislín)

Let’s temporarily move away from the “after” and “ex-“ meanings of “iar” and look at the basic adverbs pertaining to the direction “west.”  Eventually we can expand this to the other three points of the compass and the directions up and down, since they all work in basically the same way.

The differences hinge on whether motion is present and whether “west” is the point of origin or the destination.  So we have three different (but related) words for “west” (stationary), “west(wards)” (motion to the west), and “from the west” (motion from the west).   English, of course, has these concepts as well, with motion indicated with words like “westward,” “westering,” and “westerly.”  But there’s key difference for learners of Irish, I think.  In Irish, the form of the word “west” itself appears to change more obviously and, if nothing else, one can say that the core of the word “west” ends up with three different initial letters (an-, s-, and th-), making the three words seem less related.  Till you get used to the system.  Here are some examples:

thiar (west, stationary), as in the line from the song “Casadh an tSúgáin”:

Thiar i nGaillimh d’ól mé leo mo sháith (West in Galway I drank my fill with them).

Stationary is probably a good position to be in while drinking!

siar (westwards), as in the line from another song, “Trasna na dTonnta”:

Trasna na dtonnta, ‘dul siar, ‘dul siar (across the waves, going west, going west).

Note that the word “ag,” which would normally come before “dul” is not used here because of the rhythm of the song.

aniar (from the west, eastwards), often used together with the preposition “as” (out of, remember the “hard” s, unlike English; say “ahss”):

Tá sé ag teacht aniar as Connachta (He’s coming from Connacht in the west / eastwards from Connacht).

Now we can ponder the less straightforward, including a possible translation for the title of an Irish movie that rattles around in my mind whenever this topic comes up.  You may have just guessed it.  Into the West, with Gabriel Byrne (1992).  The movie juxtaposes traditional Irish traveller life with late 20th-century Dublin and the west of Ireland with the American West, and is well worth seeing on all accounts, not just as a crucible for translating “west.”  And, yes, I did sort of borrow that idea for the title of this blog.

Mulling over a translation of the movie title, Into the West, though, it appears a bit tricky.  One could do an adequate job with the phraseIsteach san Iartharbut to me, at least, and apparently to a few online chatters on the topic, it doesn’t have quite the same feel.  Grammatically the phrase works and it has even been used in reference to a Taxi Trax trip in Belfast as part of Féile an Phobail ’09.  Presumably this is some sort of nod to the movie title, although the actual subject of the tour was Béal Feirste Thiar (West Belfast).  But one could debate, perhaps endlessly, the relative merits of phrases like “Ag Dul Siar” (going west) or simply “Siar” (westward) or “Siar Linn” (west with us).  The latter might not be very flowing in English translation but the pattern in Irish is quite typical in Irish, as noted in the previous blog.  There are also lots of other phrases using “linn” (with us) like this: ar aghaidh linn (on we go, very literally “ahead with us”) and the multiple-punning Gael-Linn.

One could ponder the use of a 1st-person plural imperative, with the “-imis” ending, along the lines of “téimis” (let us go) or “guímis” (let us pray).  First hitch is, though, that “siar” isn’t really a briathar (verb) – it’s a dobhriathar (adverb).  As an adverb, “siar” and a few other adverbs of direction can take the 2nd-person plural imperative ending (-igí) as in “amachaigí” and “isteachaigí.”  But to the best of my knowledge, these adverbs can only take the 2nd-person plural ending, not 1st-person plural.  Second hitch is that if such a word (siar + –(a)imis) existed, it might be interpreted as “let’s go back” instead of “let’s go west.”  Perhaps a perpetual dilemma, given the multiple meanings of “siar,” but in the realm of movie titles, one probably wants the title to evoke as specific an image as possible.

So far, I haven’t seen any availability of the movie completely translated into Irish, with a title decided upon by the film crew.  I’d love to see what the original writers and producers would come up with.  Ever since I saw that Synge’s play, “Riders to the Sea” has been evocatively translated as “Chun na Farraige Síos” (Down to the Sea), I never expect that translations of titles will remain close to the originals.  Actually, I guess I realized that a couple of decades ago, but the Synge example really crystallized the idea for me.  To literally put the word “riders” in the Irish title seems clunky, to me and apparently to the official translator, no matter what variation might be used (marcaigh, eachaithe, etc.).

So, as far as I can tell, the translation for the movie title, “Into the West,” is still up for grabs.  But it’s a good example of how hard it can be to translate even seemingly simple phrases.  Slán go fóill – Róislín

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