In the computing context, something which is "virtual" does not exist in the implied form, but it acts as if it existed, being simulated/imitated/mimicked by other means. We can use it exactly as if it did exist in the implied form — it behaves like the real thing, though it isn't the real thing. Examples: virtual disk (simulated in memory), virtual machine, virtual memory, virtual address, virtual file.
The official Irish for "virtual" is "fíorúil" (FR 343). This is unobjectionable from the etymological point of view, deriving from "fiogharamhail" meaning "figurative". But as a systematic term it is useless, because — apart from a purely formal affix — it has become identical in form to its polar opposite term, from which it must absolutely be distinguished: "fíor" meaning "real". (This is a consequence of the spelling reforms which abbreviated "iogha" to "ío" instead of to "ia" and thereby conflated two units whose contrast is essential. From there the conflation permeates into the spoken language.)
Alternative terms for "virtual" include:
I find any of these acceptable, but if pressed would place them in the above order. They may be made even more precise, if need be, by prefixing "ríomh-".
However, the clearest term of all may be an even simpler one — bréag- or bréige. It conveys the idea accurately, and shows clearly the opposition with fíor, eg. fíor-dhiosca vs diosca bréige or bréag-dhiosca. "Feigned" and "false" are among its relevant senses in Ó Dónaill.
This term, for the multi-media simulation of 3D environments or worlds, is unlike the examples above, where "virtual" is a synonym of "simulated". In fact, "virtual reality" is a play on words. When an English-speaking computer user first encounters the term "virtual reality", he tries to interpret it as "simulated reality" — but immediately realizes that this is a contradiction, and, in the manner of humour, has to backtrack to look for another interpretation. He then "sees the joke", and that "virtual" here has its popular, non-scientific sense, and the term actually means "near-reality" — that which is virtually, or nearly, real.
If "virtual reality" must be literally translated into Irish, we should translate "near-reality", not "simulated reality". To translate "simulated reality" — as "réaltacht fhíorúil" (FR 343) or earlier "réaltacht shamhalta" (TRS), which are equivalent to the more patently absurd "réaltacht bhréige" — is to miss the joke, and to produce a term void of meaning. Its interpretation poses the same difficulty to the Irish speaker as "virtual reality" does to the English speaker, but in the Irish there is no alternative sense of "fíorúil" or "samhalta", and no solution.
Rather than offer a literal translation of "near-reality", however, there is a better way. As a term in English, "virtual reality" is bad. It is humorous, it is catchy, but it does not tell us what is being simulated — or even that simulation is involved, which it is. The English speaker is left to wonder "But what is it that is being simulated?" We would be better off with a term "virtual x", meaning "simulated x", where x stands for the thing being simulated. It makes it clear that simulation is involved, and x will tell us what is being simulated. So what is x? Can we unravel the joke?
The best answer is "worlds" or "environments", of a 3-dimensional multi-sensory nature. So what shall we use: saol, saoltaí, domhan, bith, cruinne, timpeallacht, timpeallachtaí? "Bith" is relatively uncommon, but is clear enough, and is well suited to term-building.
Realistic possibilities include
The last two lines have the advantage of emphasizing that virtual reality is not an individual thing, like a virtual disk, but a collective process or technique. The terms in the last line are particularly compact. "Bith-aithris" would be my preference for "virtual reality", with "bith (ríomh-)aithriseach" for an individual "virtual world".
Two other notes:
1. There have been suggestions what we should respond with a joke of our own: "breac-réaltacht" (Marion Gunn), "fíorú físe" (Colm Mac Aindreasa). These are worth recording, but like the English joke "virtual reality", they are not very helpful as terms. Like it, they give no real characterisation of the concept, leaving us to find that out for ourselves and then continue to associate it with the humorous name.
2. In a few minutes on internet search engines sometime in the late 1990s, I found the following counts:
The popularity of French and German terms meaning "virtual worlds" and "virtual environments" shows that they too are uncomfortable with literal equivalents of "réaltacht bhréige".
This is a further use of the word "virtual" which I encountered recently. The term "virtual friend" was applied to someone with whom all contact is made through the computer or internet, and who is never encountered or seen in person.
There is a tenuous connection with the sense of virtual as "simulation in another medium",
and "cara aithriseach" might work, but "bréag-chara" would
not. I think
we should recognize that "virtual" is just being used here to mean "accessed
through the computer,
not directly", and I suggest "ríomhchara" or
"cara eadarlín" as Irish terms.