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Kimberly Powell

Translating Tombstone Inscriptions

By September 28, 2010

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Serbian tombstones in Grandview Cemetery, North Versailles, PA. Photo by Kimberly Powell.On a side detour to the Grandview Cemetery in North Versailles, PA, last weekend, my husband and I discovered a large section of tombstones that appear to tell an unusual story. To begin, they were all of similiar style, and written in what appeared to be the same language. Even more interesting, it appeared that most of the deaths took place in the fall of 1924. How were all these people related? From the same hometown? Same community? Same church congregation? And why were so many of the deaths from such a short time span?

The first step to solving our mystery was to figure out what the gravestones could tell us. But where do you turn when you can't read the inscription on a tombstone? Begin by identifying the language. "Google" any place names you see on the tombstone. Look at surrounding tombstones and if many of them appear similar,  bone up (pun intended) on the history of the cemetery to learn if it is commonly associated with a specific ethnic population or congregation. Any unusual tombstone symbols may also help point you in the right direction.

Google Translate is also pretty good at detecting languages, so try typing in the tombstone text directly, although this option doesn't work as well with the non-Latin alphabets such as Cyrillic or Hebrew (technically an abjad, not an alphabet). In this case, certain characters can help you identify the base alphabet (such as the backwards Cyrillic N = И) and a Google search (Tip: search for images!) will help you find charts to transliterate the characters into their Latin alphabet equivalents. Once you've done this, Google Translate does allow phonetic typing.

Once you have identified the alphabet and/or language, a number of good Web sites exist which specifically focus on tombstone translation, including lists of words commonly found on tombstones in a wide variety of languages along with their English translations. For Jewish tombstones with Hebrew inscriptions, begin with "How to Read a Hebrew Tombstone" by Warren Blatt on JewishGen.org which covers not only common words and phrases, but also includes sections on Hebrew abbreviations (online translators have trouble with these) and symbols, and explains how to correctly interpret dates written in Hebrew. The Pennsylvania Tombstone Transcription Project also has a great site titled Tombstone Inscription Translations which lists words and phrases commonly found on tombstones (born, died, here lies, months, days, etc.) in various languages, including Albanian, Croatian, Czech, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian/Latin, Lithuanian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Ukranian and Welsh.

A combination of the above helped my husband and I identify our intriguing tombstones as Serbian - the Овде почива at the top of most of the tombstone inscriptions transliterates as Ovde poc'iva, translating in Serbian as "Here rests..." The Serbian Cross on many of them would have made it much easier, however, if I had previously been familiar with it. There is also a marker at the entrance to the cemetery for the St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church in Monroeville...another important clue.

Of course it might not be long before a neat app called Google Goggles takes all of the work and mystery out of tombstone transcriptions! I haven't tried it myself as it is not yet available for iPhone (expected to be in the Apps Store by the end of the year), but for anyone with a Android capable phone, the Google Goggles app lets you send an image from your phone's camera and then runs a search on it - identifying everything from books to famous works of art. It will also run photos of printed text through Google Translate - currently available in only a few languages such as French, Italian, English and German - and provide you with the translation. Eventually the hope is to enhance the app to the point that you can send in a photo of a leaf, and have it identify the plant. If it can do that, I think it should be able to identify and translate tombstone text. Don't you?

More Fun with Tombstone Translation: Tombstone Cryptogram in Rushes Cemetery

September 29, 2010 at 12:53 pm
(1) Francis Lalonde says:

I’m fortunate, in that (for the time being), I haven’t had to deal with this problem too much. A local cemetery (St. Stanislaus Kostka) does contain several markers apparently carved in Polish, and apparently from the same time frame (about 1918, so either many are from WWI or possibly the influenza epidemic). They are very interesting markers as well. I didn’t want to start ‘digging’ too much, but many appear to be an elongated slab, flush with the ground, and about 2-3 feet wide and only about 6 inches long…Maybe at some point I or someone from the area (Bay City, Bay, Michigan), may get around to transcribing/translating these markers (and it should be soon, since several are showing signs of wear, they appear to have been made from cement…).

September 29, 2010 at 5:17 pm
(2) Patti Gavin says:

I was wondering if you would please send me the date your article 10 steps to finding your family tree online was publised.Im using it as a resource

October 25, 2010 at 12:31 pm
(3) Dawn says:

I have been working on some old local cemeteries around Ogden lately and I keep coming across markers written in Chinese. I dont have a clue what they say, but they are so beautiful. I am just starting out in my quest of tombstone readings, each tombstone is intriguing to me.

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