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.


Dreaming of an online reading platform for Gaelic Learners

I was very interested, and a little surprised, by the recent announcement by the Gaelic Algorithm Research Group about a Gaelic Linguistic Analyser which performs Part-of-Speech tagging, lemmatisation, and syntactic parsing. Surprised, because I knew of the work that had been done previously on automatic PoS tagging, but did not realise that things had developed considerably from then.

For quite a few years, I used Foreign Language Text Reader with my Gaelic reading, allowing me to tag and store glosses and other data for individual words, and multiword expressions. When migrating to a new computer recently, I sadly lost all my stored data on FLTR.

In the work I have been contributing to the Greek Learner Text Project, and in the many discussions I’ve had with James Tauber,, a lot of our shared interest comes back around to a set of a few questions:

  1. How do you help learners read more text, more easily?
  2. How do you select appropriate texts for readers?
  3. How do you build a platform that overcomes the difficulties of reading

Those discussions often involve a cyclical movement from pedagogy to interfaces to data. I think in an ideal world, you would have a reading interface/platform that (a) gave pop up information on all the words and phrases you needed help on, (b) had accurate tagging and data on all the words in lots of texts, (c) tracked words (and structures, syntax, etc. etc) that you were exposed to (e.g. not just a binary know/don’t know, but number of exposures, times you’d needed to click for help, time since last exposure, etc.), (d) could suggest new texts that required minimal steps of new vocab (or structures), e.g. ideally to keep you reading with a 98% recognition level.

This requires both a tools, such as those being developed for the Greek Learner Texts (which are generally language-independent), and a platform, such as being developed for Hedera, and it requires a corpus with relevant data, and/or the ability for learners to import their own texts. There already exists some a digital corpus for Gaelic texts, DASG, though it does not appear to be open access at all, nor is it clear what data is associated with it.

All of which is to say, I think we’re at the point where there is enough of a convergence of tools and resources that creating something like a learner-oriented Gaelic reading platform, and a database of texts, is more within reach than ever before. However, two particular obstacles remain: firstly the POS tagger is 91/95% accurate, depending on whether using a full or simplified tagset. This could be improved by hand-curating tagging, and feeding manually corrected tagging back to the GARG would probably be able to improve this over time. For the meantime, starting with computer tagged texts and correcting them remains necessary. I had previously made a small start on hand-tagging some texts, but it is very laborious, correcting computer-tagged texts should be a lot faster. Secondly, the copyright status of texts is an issue. For Ancient Greek, our great advantage is that texts were authored millenia ago, and many print editions are out-of-copyright. Providing contemporary Gaelic texts will require specific permissions. It would be great to see producers of publicly available material (e.g. LearnGaelic.scot) include licensing permission for reuse of texts for a project like this.

For my part, I plan to make use of the new Linguistic Analyser to start analysing some texts and producing some curated datasets of my own, to then test and integrate with tools from the Greek Learners Text Project.

If you’d be interested in collaborating on any of this from the Gaelic side, please do get in touch: thepatrologist @ gmail.com

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!