Odi et Gaol: Catullus 85 between Latin and Gaelic

I was incredibly intrigued lately to learn that Iain MacGilleathain, lesser known brother to Somhairle MacGill-Eain, had produced a translation of the Odyssey into Gàidhlig. There being a veritable dearth of information on John, I ordered Iasad Rann, which is a collection of his verse (and a few prose pieces) in Gaelic, Latin, and English, either written by himself, or translated from Gaelic, Latin, English, or ancient Greek. Today I share with you some thoughts on Catullus 85:

Catullus 85 is one of Catullus’ best known poems. Here it is:

ōdī et amō. quārē id faciam fortasse requīris.
nesciō, sed fierī sentiō et excrucior.

The short elegaic couple opens with a powerful juxtaposition of two emotions, I love and I hate, delivered with short verb forms, and placed on an equal footing. It is this opposing, yet simultaneous, experience that sets the poem on fire. The lack of any transitive objects intensifies our focus on the emotional states in view. The poem then softens,  ‘why do I do this, perhaps you ask‘, moving us to the question of the poem – why? The poet externalises this question, invites the auditor into a dialogue, while fortasse (perhaps), lessens the intensity. The second line of the couplet continues in a softer or weaker vein, I don’t know, which resolves in an entirely unsatisfactory manner the question just introduced. And yet therein lies the knot of the poem’s experience. The play of vowel sounds in the second line, almost entirely e-i-o, produces a cohesive assonance. The final thought, but I feel it [to be so], and am tormented. The poem ends as strongly, and painfully, as it begins, with the visceral impact of excrucior.

Here is MacGilleathain’s Gaelic rendering:

Tha gaol is gràin
am chàil-sa ’n-nochd; 

cha tuig mi ’m fàth,
’s tha ’n cràdh gam lot.

Iain’s version maintains the juxtaposition of the Catullan original, with gaol (love) and gràin (hatred) placed side by side with a simple and succinct conjunction is. Since Gaelic typically uses these nouns to express the verbal ideas of love and hate, the transformation from verb to noun forms is entirely appropriate. What’s lacking from MacGillleathain’s is the sense of the interlocutor, the question of “perhaps you ask why I do this”. We have instead am chàil-sa ‘n-nochd, indicating the kind of voracious vigour and appetite of this/these desires (assuming my own understand of the Gaelic is correct!). But what our second line does achieve is raising the intensity of the emotions in line one.

Line three, though, combines the Latin 1b and 2a into a single thought, “I don’t understand the reason”. fàth here being the cause or reason. The inexplicability of the tormented experience of love and hatred remains the same. The final line, as with Catullus, returns us to intense feeling, expressed as pain, with cràdh. This time gam lot. The word lot most likely recalls ‘lot’ in the English sense, allotment, share, portion, though it can also mean an injury or wound. This homonymy plays well here, the translator-poet evoking our sense of agony (cràdh), both in the woundedness that is love, and the woundedness that bestirs hate, as well as one’s ‘lot’ (echoing Catullus’ unspoken idea that certainly we don’t choose to feel this way!).

The Gaelic rendering has a fairly simple iambic dimetre, as I hear it, and you can hear it too, in the translator-poet’s own reading. The assonance of a/o sounds, and some consonance throughout the lines, as well as the rhyme of gràin/fàth, and nochd/lot, round out the poetic treatment here.

longe absit a me, to make any poetic judgment on MacGilleathain’s rendering, but it’s a fine rendering in my view, and preserves the powerful sentiment of the original, in a new linguistic vessel.


Learning to live with your Monitor, aka dealing with error correction

The Monitor Hypothesis is part of Stephen Krashen’s theory of Second Language Acquisition. The hypothesis is that the ‘monitor’ acts to apply conscious, explicit, learned grammar to ‘edit’ your output. The Monitor only does so when (a) you have enough time, (b) you focus on form/correctness, (c) you know a(n explicit rule) to apply. (you could know an implicit rule and apply it to, to be fair)

In Gaelic there is a structure called ‘the inverted nominal’. When your sentence begins with some kind of modal or modal-like construction, e.g. “I want, I need, I like, I dislike” etc.., then a direct object of the verb will precede it (the verb in question takes a form called the verbal noun).

Tha mi ag iarraidh cèic ithe – I want cake-to-eat.

Feumaidh tu bainne òl – You’ll need to drink milk.


I’m very familiar with the grammar rules that govern inverted nominals, I could explain them to you over and over. But when I’m speaking ex tempore and at pace, I often get them wrong. It doesn’t help that there are other verbal noun constructions that don’t invert. I suspect that in terms of order-of-acquisition, this one takes a while.

But this, of course, does not and has not stopped a teacher or two along my many-years Gaelic learning journey from both (a) explicitly correcting me, (b) marvelling, ‘How can you know this rule so well but you keep getting it wrong in speech? More practice needed!’

Now, I can tell you exactly why the second statement occurs. It’s not that I need more skill-practice, though it does help my monitor to do explicit skill practice. It’s that I need more and more comprehensible input. I need to hear those inverted nominal structures again, and again, and again, until they get deeply acquired, and not just explicitly learnt. ‘Cause I already learnt them, right? And any time you test me on them, with enough time, a focus on form, then I’ll apply the rules and get it ‘right’. But get my speaking at speed, and they’ll occasionally come out wrong.


As for dealing with teachers that like to error correct, even when you knew you said the wrong thing the moment it left your lips! (a not uncommon occurrence)? I’ve learnt to let it go. It depends on context, of course. In some circumstances, you could ask/tell a teacher/tutor to not correct you. In others, that ‘upward’ instruction/management might not be appropriate. Learning a language is relational, and this is one relationship you must navigate. So, as best you can, don’t take error correction to heart – it’s usually well meant, and if you can not get down about it, it probably won’t hurt you!

Gaelic, the present tense and ‘X is Y’

I was having a chat the other day to someone about differences between Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) and Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic), and also some of the issues with the grammar introduction sequencing in Duolingo.

Duolingo, as far as I can tell, built its core model tree on mapping English to the main European languages: Spanish, French, Italian, and German. In quite a few of those languages, the Present tense doubles as a Present continuous/progressive. So English “I eat” and “I am eating” can both be, say, “(Io) mangio” in Italian. Usually English speakers don’t have *too* much problem with this. Similarly, in most of those languages, the Present tense is fairly simple morphologically. So the first few lessons involve the present tense, and later on in the DL learning trees, you encounter other tenses. Participles come quite late.

Though, if you’re an English speaker, you don’t actually use the present tense for present continuous/progressive actions. You use the Present tense primarily for habitual/gnomic statements. “I eat cheese” is a habitual/general statement. We use participles, “I am eating” to form our present continuous/instantaneous tense.

This is problematic if one were to build a Gàidhlig course, because Gàidhlig doesn’t have a present tense except for the two “to be” verbs. So it’s actually quite difficult to build a course that starts with the ‘present general/habitual’ tense, so this would in fact be the non-past a.k.a. future/habitual tense. Most Gàidhlig courses teach the ‘to be’ verbs first and then introduce the ‘participle’ (actually a verbal noun), since all progressive/continuous tenses are formed with this combination of periphrastic tense.

At the same time, when you look at Direct Method readers of the kind of which I am so fond, one of the fundamental structures is something like “This is a boy”, “Donald is a man”, etc, X is Y. Unfortunately, Gàidhlig has what appears to be a grammatically complex way of expressing this. Firstly, there are two verbs to express “to be”, as in some other languages, but secondly the type of expression is varied based on whether the “Y” component is (i) adjective, (ii) definite noun, (iii) indefinite noun. And since people often want to start with (iii), this becomes:

‘Se duine a th’ ann an Dòmhnall

In literal English: It is a man that is “in” Donald.

If you parse out that sentence, it’s:

Contraction (Se + e), which is Copula Verb Is + pronoun marker e

noun: duine (man)

relative pronoun: a (who/that)

verb: tha (“to be”)

preposition: ann an (in, used existentially for phrases of the type “there is X)

noun: Dòmhnall (proper noun)

(This is part of a strong tendency to use cleft-structures and fronting in Gaelic, if you’re wondering)

That’s not easy to grammar out, certainly not for a beginner, but it’s the standard way to say X is Y (indefinite noun).

These two reasons are part of the reason I’ve never really embarked on writing a Direct Method reader for Gàidhlig. You would just have to start differently to circumvent these two issues which lead to accelerated complexity at just the very point one doesn’t want such complexity.