The Pleasures of Translation: Dinnseanchas

Best places to visit in Ireland

The Yellow Steeple as seen from King John’s Castle Trim, Co. Meath. This pic has nothing to do with the post below, but it’s a lovely summer scene and that’s better than the dull day currently outside my window.

I’ve been attempting some translation from Irish to English and vice-versa over the past year. The main reason is when writing a novel that takes place partly within a community of native Irish speakers, you need to convey both the flavor of the language and use the actual words in a way that allows non-Irish speakers to understand them. The second reason is that most of my research is now centered on academic texts about Irish history and mythology, texts which frequently use untranslated words and phrases in Gaelic that most non-academics like me are unfamiliar with. I get sent to the dictionary most days, but your average Irish-English dictionary doesn’t always include academic phrases, or if they do it’s a very workmanlike and modern translation. So, I’ve been going off on digressions where I break down an unfamiliar word and work out the meaning of the original parts. The resultant translation is usually more poetic than the more succinct modern dictionary.

Irish History Expert, Irish TravelTake dinnshenchas, the name of a collection of the origin stories of Irish places. I haven’t yet come across a book where familiarity with the word is not assumed — although Dooley and Roe do offer a descriptive approximation in the introduction to their translation of Acallam na Senorach/Tales of the Elders of Ireland. Look up dinnshenchas in the dictionary and you’ll find it rendered as “dinnseanchas” and simply translated as “topography” and would be forgiven for thinking it was a dry technical term.

However, when you break the word down into its parts, you find a much more interesting word:

Dinn —  the preposition “of”, but also seems to be derived from de, which means breath, or “to breathe”

Shen (or sean) — sean means old. As far as I can make out, either the “h” is silent when combined in “sh,” so shen would be pronounced much like sean, or shen is simply an older spelling.

seanchas — dictionary definition: “lore or tradition”

I wonder if chas is related to sceal, a story? I believe, cas is similar to chas phonetically, and cas means a twist or turn. As legends and lore are basically the twists and turns of events, I wonder if an older translation might be something like “turns of old events.” The opening lines of the Odyssey come to mind: “Sing to me , Muse, of the man of twists and turns…”  This feels apt, as many of the places are named for heroes who died there; those heroes might be said to have experienced a twist or turn in their own stories which lead to their deaths, and earned them the dubious notoriety of giving their name to the place they died.

The unifying feature about the dinnshenchas tales is that frequently the price of immortality was death. It seems half the places in Ulster are named after warriors Cù Chulainn defeated. But, I suppose ‘twas ever so: no politician would agree to name anything after a political rival, but once they’re safely dead they fall over themselves to praise them.

So the literal translation of dinnseanchas would seem to be something like “of old lore” or, more poetically, “the breath of old lore.” Yes, the dinnshenchas tales contain the lore of place-names, in other words topography, so the modern use of the word is correct. However, I prefer the suggestive aspects of the poetic translation.

*The above is offered with the caveat that I’m not a fluent Irish speaker, and my school-boy Irish is many years behind me.  This is probably why I enjoy attempting my own translations: those of us who are not fluent may perceive similarities of pronunciation where a native speaker knows there is none, and may end up with a slightly more idiosyncratic and colorful translation because of it. Perhaps some poetry can be gained in translation, and not lost.

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  1. Mae East by Shannon Hadley’s avatar

    The picture initially brought into your post, because I remember standing at that exact same spot. Beautifully taken.

    I enjoyed your post as well though and I think it’s fascinating that you’re studying this. It is such a difficult and unique language.
    Good luck to you!

    1. Rich’s avatar

      Linguists seem to consider Irish a relatively straightforward language because it has comparatively few irregular verbs, but I’ve always had to work at it. Maybe now that I’m using it for fun it’ll come easier?

      1. Mae East by Shannon Hadley’s avatar

        I’d like to think you’re right about that. I send you luck regardless.

      2. Lois Farley Shuford’s avatar

        Great post.
        I think the study of linguistics is fascinating – especially with a language like Irish which is so full of connection to place and to story. I suspect you’d find the same thing to some extent in the US with Native peoples language, which we’ve got plastered all over the country, but have lost most of the meaning.
        I was telling Irish friends about the origin of many of our State and river names (Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Connecticut, etc. etc) and they had no idea. there’s all this history in names, and we don’t even think about it.

        1. Rich’s avatar

          Yep, it’s something I’ve become more interested in as I get older.

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