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Noli Timere: Seamus Heaney, Translation, and a Wall in Dublin

Language in the News, Personalization and Design

Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet and playwright, passed away in Dublin on 30 August, 2013, after a short illness.

His last words, sent by text message to his wife, Marie, minutes before he died, were Noli timere (Latin for Do not be afraid). I took the photograph below in Dublin, a short walk from my home, capturing his last words in tribute.

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Don't Be Afraid. Wall tribute to Seamus Heaney, Portobello, Dublin by Maser Art

Don’t Be Afraid. Wall tribute to Seamus Heaney, Portobello, Dublin by Maser Art

This Latin phrase, Noli timere, appears about 70 times in the Vulgate version of the Bible, translated by Saint Jerome in the fourth century. Heaney was also a skilled translator, and he crafted his work with language as deliberately as Saint Jerome did, for example in his prize-winning translation of Beowulf (1999).

The UK newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, in an article on Heaney’s last words (and those of others), tells us:

It is notable that every time the word timere appears in the Bible it is coupled with noli (or nolite, the plural form) – do not be afraid. Often the phrase is uttered by God or his angel, for the very good reason that, if you are suddenly presented with a burning fiery furnace of raw Being, it is frightening (and not just trivially scary in the big-dipper sense).

Even at the end, then, Heaney chose his words deliberately, it seems. We can ponder that they were sent using modern technology, sure, but I don’t think that matters. Only the words themselves, and their context does.

I think about them, every time I walk past that wall.

Tributes to the man came from far and wide, a testament to his greatness, to what he gave us during his life, but also to what he has left us for generations to come.

Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam.

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Ultan Ó Broin (@localization), is an independent UX consultant. With three decades of UX and L10n experience and outreach, he specializes in helping people ensure their global digital transformation makes sense culturally and also reflects how users behave locally.

Any views expressed are his own. Especially the ones you agree with.

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