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Translation not needed for Chinese gravestone inscription, Chancellor rules

27 November 2020

So long as the phrase is consistent with, or not contrary to, Christian teaching, he said

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GRAVESTONE inscriptions in a language other than English do not require a translation, so long as the phrase is consistent with, or not contrary to, Christian teaching, the Diocesan Chancellor of Leeds, Professor Mark Hill QC, has ruled.

Guidance was sought when a parishioner applied for Chinese wording to be included on a gravestone in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Woodkirk, near Dewsbury, in West Yorkshire. The case follows the refusal in Coventry Consistory Court to allow a Gaelic epitaph, “In ár gcroíthe go deo” (“In our hearts for ever”) to appear on Margaret Keane’s headstone at St Giles’s, Exhall, near Nuneaton, unless accompanied by an English translation, on the grounds that it might be seen as a slogan or a political statement (News, 12 June).

The Bishop of Cashel & Ossory, the Rt Revd Michael Burrows, who is the episcopal patron of the Irish Guild of the Church, said at the time that the decision, and the judge’s justification of it, had raised “serious issues in terms of cultural respect between our islands which go to the very heart of the delicate Irish peace process. . . the judge’s apparently fixed notion that the use of the Irish language is inseparable from a political agenda.”

Mrs Keane’s family described that ruling as devastating. “Our Irish is not political. It is much more sentimental than that. We did not feel we were making any statement, other than love for our mother.” An appeal has been permitted by the Dean of the Arches, the Rt Worshipful Morag Ellis QC, on the grounds that the ruling might have been “unfair”, and that the issue of non-English inscriptions on memorials was likely to arise again.

Professor Hill QC said in the Dewsbury case that he could see no objection to having the deceased’s name in Chinese and English and an additional Chinese phrase alongside.

“There is no general prohibition on the inclusion in inscriptions on headstones of words and phrases in a language other than English; there is no general requirement for an English translation to be additionally inscribed on headstones; to the contrary, in a linguistically diverse nation, liberty should be afforded to the bereaved to memorialise their loved ones in a language which reflects a range of factors, including their heritage, culture, nationality, race, and ethnicity.

“However, clergy should be astute to refuse the inclusion of words or phrases which have the potential to offend Christian doctrine or teaching.”

He recommended that those wanting a translation could make use of “one of the myriad apps” available.

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