Dennis King wrote me about the Three Monks Project, which is right up my alley, involving as it does Old Irish, humor, and translations into many languages. This page tells the history of the joke, which was printed in English translation in 1892, long before the original Irish turned up, and provides a line-by-line analysis; this one lists all the languages it’s been translated into, and if you click on the link in the fifth (“Ainm an Scéil”) column you’ll be able to read (and, if there’s the appropriate loudspeaker symbol, hear) the translation. Another Good Thing on the Internet! And if you are able to translate the short anecdote into a language they haven’t already got, they’d be pleased as punch about it.


  1. Who do we submit new translations to?

  2. Hi Nightingale,
    You can send them to me: donncha1 at Q dot com
    We’ve had Maltese on our wish list for a long time!

  3. Bathrobe says

    It’s nice that they have both Buryat and Mongolian, as well, of course, as both Cantonese and Mandarin.
    One thing I noticed is the translation of the word ‘monk’. The Japanese and Mandarin versions translate ‘monk’ as 修道士, which is their normal word for a monk in the Christian tradition (i.e., in a monastic order). The Korean and Cantonese versions use words referring to Buddhist monks or priests (명의 스님 and 和尚 respectively). Mongolian and Buryat use лам / лама (lam or lama), also referring to a Buddhist monk or priest.

  4. Bathrobe says

    Oh, rather interestingly, the person who translated into Classical Chinese used the word for a ‘Taoist priest’! (道士)!

  5. Bathrobe says

    Comment from a Mongolian friend: “I dont understand some words but you can understand”. 🙂

  6. Bathrobe says

    To quote: Which part don’t you understand?
    “idea”, “whatis mean”
    “not funny
    may it is IQ test”
    I guess humour isn’t universal…

  7. Trond Engen says

    Heh. I know this joke in Norwegian. Here it’s about three trolls, each in its own mountain, and there’s a century between the lines.

  8. A Lithuanian recently told me a version of this joke. This version is at the expense of the Estonians, who are stereotyped as speaking slowly and sparely. Here, an Estonian father and his two sons leave in the morning on their cart. One brother comments, as they leave, “It is 6 in the morning.” About noon, the second brother says, “No, it is 5.” As they approach home in the evening, the father turns to them and says, “You bad boys, stop arguing.”
    I heard it in English translation, so I was not treated to an Estonian accent, alas.

  9. In Russia they tell this joke, except instead of monks, the protagonists are Finns, instead of years it is hours, and instead of a monastery, it’s a bar. The punchline I heard was – “did you come here to chatter or to drink?”

  10. I heard a variation of this joke in Australia as a kid. A new monk arrives at a monastery where they take a vow of silence but are allowed to speak two words every ten years. After the first ten years he says “Food bad.” After the second ten years he says “Bed hard.” After the third ten year he says “I quit.”
    “Well, I’m not surprised,” says the Head Monk (who is apparently allowed to talk). “You’ve done nothing but complain since you got here.”

  11. The guy who reads the German version has an accent which isn’t standard Hochdeutsch, I think — can anyone tell where he may be from?

  12. David Stifter, who reads the German, is a native of Vienna. He also translated and reads the Heanzisch version. He heads up Roinn na Sean-Ghaeilge (The Department of Old Irish) at Ollscoil na hÉireann, Má Nuad (National University of Ireland, Maynooth).

  13. Here it’s about three trolls, each in its own mountain
    So a troll is an ‘it’, Trond? I’d always thought it was a ‘he’.

  14. Question for Trond!
    Re: the Three Monks version in Norsk at:
    I’m guessing that this is Bokmål or Riksmål. Is that correct?
    What would the joke look like in Nynorsk?

  15. Trond Engen says

    AJP: et troll – trollet – (flere) troll – (alle) trolla eller -ene. It didn’t occur to me that this might be an instance of carrying my native Norwegian over into English.
    Dennis: Since I don’t speak (or read) Irish I wouldn’t mess with the translations. I may also miss some monastic or Catholic terminology. But I’ll give it a go. Here’s the Norwegian text:

    Tre munker vendte ryggen til verden.
    De drar inn i ødemarka for å bøte for sine synder foran Gud.
    Et år gikk uten at de snakket til hverandre.
    På slutten av året sa en av mennene til en annen: “Vi lever godt.”
    Med det gikk det et år til.
    Da sa den andre: “Visst gjør vi det.”
    Etter det var de der enda et år.
    “Jeg sverger ved min sedvane,” sa den tredje mannen, “Gir dere meg
    ikke litt fred, kan dere få ødemarka helt for dere selv!”

    You’re right that it’s Bokmål. It’s neither completely at the conservative (Riksmål) end of the specter, since ødemarka shows the feminine definite ending, nor on the colloquial end, since the reflexive pronoun selv is the danified form. It still feels vaguely conservative, but it may just be that it’s somewhat stilted, probably reflecting a narrow translation. Both the Danish and the Swedish strikes me as more idiomatic. And there’s a strange mistranslation, apparently: Sedvane instead of kutte or munkedrakt. English habit through Google Translate?
    I would write a Nynorsk text like this:

    Tre munkar vender verda ryggen.
    Dei fér ut i øydemarka for å bøte for syndene sine.
    Det første året gjekk utan at nokon av dei sa eitt ord.
    Sist på året sa den eine: “Det er eit godt liv.”
    Det neste året gjekk.
    Då sa den andre: “Ja, visst.”
    Det gjekk endå eit år.
    “Eg sver ved kutta mi,” sa den tredje, “Gjev de meg ikkje snart fred, kan de få sitje her i øydemarka utan meg!”

    It’s different from the Bokmål text, but that’s more due to different translation choices than a real difference between the norms. A Bokmål translation by me wouldn’t be very different from my Nynorsk. (I usually write a colloquial-leaning Bokmål.)
    But, as I said, it’s not translated from the Irish original. I’ve looked at the texts in Danish, Swedish, Old Icelandic, English, Old English German and French.

  16. et troll – trollet – (flere) troll – (alle) trolla eller -ene. It didn’t occur to me that this might be an instance of carrying my native Norwegian over into English
    Ok, but et barn doesn’t mean that children are its. In fact there’s not really much connection between noun gender and noun sex, is there? Do you think of trolls as ‘it’ rather than ‘he’?

  17. Trond Engen says

    I think I’d use det about a generic troll. I think that would apply to male troll as well — trolls are male by default — but I would use the feminine (hu, ‘a, henne) for a trollkjerring.)
    One could say barnet sa at det hadde vært på skolen, but han or hun are more likely. However, barnet is not likely, being largely a written word. Ungen or the gender-specific jenta or gutten (or even more colloquial jentungen or guttungen) are preferred.

  18. Thanks for the feedback and the Nynorsk translation, Trond!
    If you’d like to see a word-for-word breakdown of the Old Irish original, you can click on the roman numerals beneath each line of text on the main page here:
    The translator of the existing Norse is, I believe, a native Norwegian, but must not have understood the English word “habit” in its religous sense. Sedvane is a problem that will have to be fixed. Thanks for the heads-up!
    So, can we go ahead and add your Nynorsk translation to the site?
    BTW, we now have a Fala translation thanks to Jesús Frades, another reader of Languagehat.
    Dennis – donncha1 at Q dot com

  19. Trond Engen says

    I think I’d better take a look at the word-for-word breakdown before giving it a go.
    Simply replacing sedvane with kutte in the Bokmål version would fix the error without affecting the stylistic choices of the translator.

  20. We’ll make that silent emendation. Thanks, Trond.
    You’ll find the word-for-word breakdown interesting, but please don’t feel you need to stick too close to it. The best translations, I think, are the ones that sound most natural in the target language. That can even include fairly drastic changes need to localize the joke culturally. Or just for fun! See, for example, the Scots translation:

  21. Ah, I see that my colleague Caoimhín Ó Donnaíle, AKA Programmer to the Monks, has put up your Nynorsk version on the site. We can change it at any time. We’d also be happy to have you record it. Let us know. Feel free to use my e-mail address.

  22. Trond, I have corrected “sedvane” to “kutte” in the Norwegian Bokmål translation – thanks!
    I have added your Nynorsk translation to the collections as well. I hope that is ok. If not, let me know. It is very easy to make changes or corrections if you wish in the future.
    I have changed the code on the Bokmål translation from “nor” to “nob” – which has the side-effect of puting it next to Danish in the listing by Language Family (I am following the codes and hierarchy of the LinguistList composite tree at If you have any comments on the labels and titles I have chosen “Norwegian (Bokmål)” and so on, both short versions and long versions, I would be very glad to have them.
    If you wanted to send us a spoken soundfile of your Nynorsk translation, that would be really great. Any sound format is fine, .mp3 or .ogg or .m4a or .wav or anything.
    Caoimhín Ó Donnaíle
    (programmer to the monks)

  23. Trond Engen says

    No problem. I’ll just go in and edit it if I feel like it. I don’t think I’ll add a Nynorsk soundfile, though — not because I’m alien to the idea, but because my dialect wouldn’t be representative for contemporary users of Nynorsk.
    I agree that a good translation should flow naturally in the target language, evoke the right emotions, and even a plausible cultural setup. I’m just trying to avoid making some silly error since I can’t read the original.
    Following an established set of codes is good. Which of the standards you choose is secondary, but whatever it is, use it consistently.

  24. marie-lucie says

    Caoimhín Ó Donnaíle
    How do you access I tried with www. but Firefox could not find it. Is there more to the address?

  25. m-l: You must use, not Usually these mean the same thing, but in this case the MultiTree people have not made it so.

  26. marie-lucie says

    Thanks John. Usually you have to add stuff to the address, not remove it!

  27. Sound files are flaky in Firefox 11 on a Mac running OSX 10.5.8 – have to use back/forward buttons several times to get sound files to run.
    Oh, and I heard Matt’s one-monk version in the UK at least 20 years ago.

  28. The Spanish translation is curiously unidiomatic; I think it’s the odd tense changes between simple past and historical present, but it doesn’t really flow.
    The rest of the Iberian languages seem much better, although the choice to use the simple past instead of the perifrastic in Catalan is somewhat surprising; although it survives in formal written language, the simple past is as dead as in French.

  29. Nice to see the Project is still functional after almost nine years.

  30. John Cowan says

    David E, I’m sure a Kusaal translation (if there’s a reasonable word for “monk”) would be a Good Thing.

    It seems to me I had written a Lojban translation, but probably I never finished it.

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