(The) Rest in Peace

Of all the translation travesties out there, bad translations on tombstones and memorial markers make me the saddest.

Of all the translation travesties out there, bad translations on tombstones and memorial markers make me the saddest. Someone wanted to honor a loved one or a respected individual with this ingraving, didn’t do adequate research, and now their heartfelt sentiment is a laughing stock on the Internet.

The really sad thing is that this particular translation travesty is all OVER the Internet (not only on this person’s memorial), presented as the way to say “Rest in Peace” in Irish.

I guess I don’t need to tell you that it’s horribly, sadly wrong. But you know me — I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s horribly, sadly wrong.

So what’s wrong with it?

As you’ve probably guessed from the title of this post (and from the fact that this is a picture of either a tombstone or some form of memorial marker), whoever commissioned this intended it to say “Rest in Peace.”

Unfortunately, what they have there is not “rest” as in “sleep/repose.” It’s “rest” as in “remainder” (e.g., “I’ll eat the rest of the cookies”).

If that weren’t bad enough, they didn’t even get that right. “The rest” in Irish is “an chuid eile” (literally “the other portion”). Without the definite article “an” (“the”) it’s nonsense. To add insult to injury, “chuid” [sic] is misspelled. Without the definite article, it’s “cuid.”

And then there’s that idiom thing

Wrong word choices and spelling aside, another thing that’s wrong with this is that it’s not how you’d express this sentiment in Irish. Whoever came up with this attempted a direct, word-for-word translation from English, and if you follow this blog you already know that that just does not work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (and again and again): Languages are not codes for one another.

(I stole that line from someone long ago, and I can’t remember who, but it’s a good one, so I think I’ll keep it.)

Word-for-word translations rarely work between languages, especially not when the languages are as grammatically and culturally different as Irish is from English.

To begin with, “síocháin,” which means “peace” as in “the absence of conflict,” while not wrong per se, is probably not the word that would be used to express this sentence in Irish. A more usual choice would be “suaimhneas“– “tranquility/rest/repose.”

In addition, when we wish a particular state or emotion on a person, we don’t say they’re “in” that state, we say that state is “on” them: “Suaimhneas air/uirthi/orthu” (“Peace/rest on him/her/them”).

This brings up yet another point: In many cases, when translating to Irish, you need to know what pronoun to use. Irish loves pronouns, and will happily use them where a verb might be used in English. If you’re speaking of a person or animal you often need to know either the gender (or the preferred pronouns, in the case of a person) to translate correctly.

Air” = “on him”

Uirthi” = “on her”

Orthu” = “on them

A phrase that you will see on Irish tombstones is “Suaimhneas Síoraí Air” or “Go Raibh Suaimhneas Síoraí Air” — “Eternal Rest be Upon Him” (apply correct pronoun as required). This is the closest you can get in Irish to a direct translation of “Rest in Peace.”

Another phrase you’ll see frequently is Ar dheis Dé go Raibh a Anam/a hAnam/a nAnam” — “May his soul/her soul/their souls be at God’s right hand.”

How did it get this way?

When we see a terrible translation such as this, the first impulse is to blame machine translation, which doesn’t handle Irish well at all.

With that in mind, I checked Google “translate” to see what it would make of the English phrase “Rest in Peace.” Depending on the capitalization (Google “translate” is weirdly case-dependent), it returned:

Rest in Peace: No translation

Rest in peace: No translation

rest in peace: scíth a ligean — “to take one’s rest/ease”

I’m guessing that, if machine translation was used to produce this, it wasn’t Google.

The horrifying thing, though, is if you plug “Chuid Eile i Síocháin” into Google seeking an English translation, it does give you “Rest in Peace.” Even more horrifying is the fact that you can’t change it. It gives you a chance to “offer a better translation,” but not to say “this makes absolutely no sense.

It’s possible someone used a different machine translator to arrive at this. It’s also possible someone asked a friend/relative who grossly misrepresented their facility with the language.

It’s also possible that the person attempted a word-for-word “translation” from an English-Irish dictionary and (predictably) got it wrong. We may never know for sure.

It’s even likely that whoever commissioned this stone found this “translation” on the Internet. There’s a lot of really bad Irish on the Internet, which underscores the lessons to be learned from this and all other bad Irish translation:

Do not — I repeat, DO NOT — attempt to translate from English to Irish yourself unless you’re fluent in the language. Do not simply use something you found on the Internet (or in a book, or in a song, etc.) without verifying it with an expert. Finally, if you’re not using a paid human translator (which you really should do, if possible), make sure at least THREE PEOPLE AGREE, on the correct translation before doing anything permanent with it. Preferably three people from different sources.

I, and the Irish language, will thank you.

P.S.: I don’t know who took the photo above or to whom the memorial is dedicated. If anyone does know who took the picture, please let me know so I can give them credit.

In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

7 thoughts on “(The) Rest in Peace”

  1. It’s interesting that who ever had this made wanted it written in Irish although they clearly did not have much, or any, Irish themselves. This is different from the world of misspelled tatoos, I think. It speaks of a sincere longing to connect to a perceived heritage, rather than a desire to be fashionable or cool. I find it touching, and yes, it’s more than a little sad.

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    1. Hi Emma. Tattoos are also often motivated by a sincere longing to connect to heritage. I’ve been involved with tattoo translations for many years and while some definitely are done for the “coolness” factor, for many it’s a heartfelt way to express either deep pride in their own heritage or to honor a loved one who was proud to be “Irish.”

      I would say that whoever commissioned this stone likely had no Irish at all. It’s hard to be certain, not knowing where it’s located or who it’s meant to honor, but if it’s in the U.S. I’d say that’s almost certainly the case (most Irish speakers or learners here would be serious enough about the language to want to get a translation for something like this properly vetted).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I only made that remark about tatoos as at least one of my brothers (possibly both of them) have tatoos in chinese and there’s no chinese heritage in our family – that was just fashion! lol!

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  2. Can I ask you about the remark “Ar dheis Dé go Raibh a Anam/a hAnam/a nAnam” — “May his soul/her soul/their souls be at God’s right hand.”? This never chimed for me – the use of “raibh” indicates the past tense so “may they be at” doesn’t work. The verb there seems to me to be “was”. I think this is a misunderstanding of “dheis” as perhaps the tuisceal ginideach of “Dheas”, the word for the right hand side. But “dheis” can also be translated as being gifted an opportunity. So I have always understood the saying to be “his soul was a gift/opportunity from god”. This is only my musings on it – be very interested to hear other views.

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    1. “Raibh” isn’t always past tense. It’s also the subjunctive (an modh foshuiteach), which is what we have here. It’s the same construction as “go raibh maith agat/agaibh” (literally “may you have good”).

      You can mine the grammar at Teanglann.ie here:

      https://www.teanglann.ie/ga/gram/Bí (choose “modh foshuiteach” from the drop-down)

      “Dheis” is the dative (aimsir tabharthach) of “deas” (right/right hand). If you’re learning Irish, you may be familiar with it from the phrase “cas ar dheis” (“turn right”).

      The meaning of this phrase is well established.

      Liked by 1 person

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