Translating Street Names Into Gaelic

Still from "A Knight's Tale"

My own mental image that best gets to the nature of translation involves picturing each language as a fixed set of stepping-stones in a stream. Suppose you are translating from Burmese to Welsh. A Burmese utterance is a pathway from one place to another via the [Burmese] stones. They seem to be located in convenient enough places, and you can get pretty much wherever you want to go. But when it comes to translating what you have said into Welsh, you find the Welsh stepping stones […] are often not quite in the same place as the Burmese ones, and even in the cases where they are just about in the same places, they are shaped differently, and so you can’t treat them as identical to the Burmese stones you are familiar with.

Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas (1985)

The Boon Companion and I spent a few rainy autumnal days in Ullapool, towards the end of last year. Weather fronts were passing over briskly, and every day included a period of torrential rain and a period of bright sunshine—so we divided our time between rewatching favourite films, and venturing out into the nearby town and countryside. And so it happened that we walked into the town just after having watched A Knight’s Tale (2001), which has provided my opening picture this week. Having just seen Laura Fraser’s portrayal of Kate, the understandably cheesed-off mediæval female blacksmith (second from left, above), I was perhaps primed to misunderstand the signage on Ladysmith Street in the centre of Ullapool.

Ladysmith Street in Ullapool: old translation

Isn’t that interesting, I thought. They’ve translated “Ladysmith” into Gaelic. Now I’ll see what the word for a female blacksmith is.*

But, actually, that wasn’t what they’d translated. The Gaelic Sràid Bean A’ Ghobhainn means “Wife of the Smith Street”, which would no doubt have made poor Kate the blacksmith even more grumpy. And that reminded me of Douglas Hofstadter’s analogy between translation and choosing stepping-stones, quoted at the head of this post. It turns out that Gaelic doesn’t have any stepping stones conveniently situated near the English one marked “Ladysmith”.

If the name “Ladysmith” designated an actual female blacksmith, then we could concoct a Gaelic word from gobhainn, “smith”, and the feminizing prefix bàn-. Gaelic bàn-righ, “queen”, for instance, is literally a “woman-king”, so there should be no objection to fabricating the word bàn-gobhainn, “woman-smith”, though it doesn’t appear in any Gaelic dictionary I’ve searched.

But what if “Ladysmith” actually designates Lady Smith, a woman who is married to a man, surnamed “Smith”, who holds a knighthood? (Hint: we’re moving closer to reality, here.) Gaelic has a word for that social rank—baintighearna, which is the feminine form of tighearna, “lord”. (So it’s bàn-tighearna, “woman-lord”.) But now Hofstadter’s stepping stones come into play again, because the “Lady” that corresponds to a “Lord” (certain Peers of the Realm) is not the same thing as the courtesy title “Lady”, conferred on the wife of a knight. And the lords and ladies of Gaelic tradition don’t necessarily provide an exact match for the current peerage system, anyway. And then there’s that surname, “Smith”. Should we translate that? It certainly corresponds to the Gaelic surname Mac a’ Ghobhainn, literally “son of the smith” (the origin of the Scottish surname MacGowan), but it seems a bit of a stretch to change a person’s family name to the name of a completely different family, just so we can stick a bit of Gaelic on a road-sign.

But of course, you’re way ahead of me. Ladysmith Street in Ullapool is actually named after the town in South Africa. The street name commemorates the Relief of Ladysmith, in 1900, during the Boer War. And the town was named after Juana María, Lady Smith, the Spanish wife of Sir Harry Smith, the governor of Cape Colony between 1847 and 1853. Only in an extremely convoluted way can the town of Ladysmith be described as bean a’ ghobhainn, “wife of the blacksmith”.

So the practice of converting English street-names into Gaelic is not without its difficulties and complications. With that in mind, an organization called Ainmean Àite nan h-Alba (“Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland”) published a guidance booklet in 2006, called Gaelic Street-Names: A Standardised Approach, which is full of sensible ideas. In particular, section E.3 stipulates that:

PLACE-NAMES with a Gaelic name or form will normally be in the genitive, and in the absence of an initial feminine or plural article, lenited where feasible. Non-Gaelic placenames will not be lenited, and names of places outwith Scotland will not be transliterated.

(My bold.) In other words, just leave that reference to the town of Ladysmith alone. And indeed, if you turn away from the sign I showed you earlier, and look across to the opposite side of the street, you’ll see a newer sign there looks like this:

Ladysmith Street in Ullapool: modern translation

So this one little spot in Ullapool tells us a whole story about Gaelic street-names.

Farther along the road, there’s another street sign:

Street sign, West Terrace, Ullapool
Click to enlarge

You’ll be relieved to learn that the Gaelic for “West Terrace” is not “AAHAIA’\A”—Gaelic may contain some spelling conventions that are unfamiliar to English speakers, but it’s not that weird. But quite why the letter “A” is so resistant to Ullapool weather is a mystery to me.

* You’ll perhaps be unfamiliar with this usage of the word “lady”. In Scotland, at least, it’s a way of noting that a woman has inexplicably turned up doing a job that has historically been a male preserve. Semantically, it can occupy a variable position along a line connecting respect with disapproval: “Well, I had to see the lady doctor, but she actually turned out to be okay.”
You’ll notice that the first letter “h” which featured in the phrase bean a’ ghobhainn in the road-sign has disappeared when we’re looking at the noun gobhainn in isolation. An “h” added to the first consonant of a word is a feature of Gaelic called lenition, and it appears and disappears according to the structure of a sentence.
For an amusing account of one man’s misadventure when Facebook decided that Mac a’ Ghobhainn was not a real name, see the Glasgow Herald article here. (There’s a definite level of unintended irony to the Herald‘s piece, since they not only omit the apostrophe that probably caused the trouble in the first place, but run into difficulties of their own with Gaelic names, rendering Àdhamh Ó Broin’s name as Àdhamh Ô Broin.)

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