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Translating Peace

July 29, 202210:50 amSeptember 22, 2023 12:44 pmLeave a Comment

With our Defining Peace exhibition drawing to a close, we wanted to reflect this month not just on the ways that peace looks different in different people’s lives, but also on the different words people have used around the world to mean peace.  

Words can take on many different meanings depending on the environment they are used in, and translating peace from one language to another is even more tricky. Even within our modern-day usage of the word peace, it can mean several different things. For instance, we might talk about peace as an absence of war in a military context, but we might just as commonly use it to mean a sense of inner calm in an emotional or spiritual context. Some of the meanings of words that we translate as ‘peace’, and meanings of the word peace itself, come from roots which reveal more about their intended meaning and how they’ve been understood throughout history.

The word peace itself has fairly complicated origins. In the mid-12th century, the word ‘pes’ came into usage from Anglo-French language, and was understood to mean “freedom from civil disorder” or “internal peace of a nation”. Similar words had existed previously in the French language, coming from the Latin root pacem, or pax, which was used to mean peace as an agreement, peace as an absence of war, and tranquillity more generally. Pax was also the name of the Roman God of Peace and Prosperity, who was celebrated during the reign of Augustus.

Roman coin, 276-282 CE

One image of the goddess Pax can be seen on this Roman coin, which has recently become the oldest item in our collection, and which reveals how differently peace has been understood throughout history. The text on the coin, “PAX AUG”, means peace of Augustus, and the figure of pax is depicted holding an olive branch. Pax was made a deity by Augustus in 9 BCE, long before this coin was made, but the emperor Probus upheld Augustus’s definition of peace during his reign: maintaining peace at home by fighting the empire’s enemies at the borders.

This coin shows that peace has never been a straightforward thing – for the Roman emperors, ‘peace’ only existed because wars were being fought somewhere else. Today, many peace activists argue that having wars anywhere invalidates any ‘peace’ that might be achieved within a country’s borders, and that it has to exist for everybody, not just for a select group of people.

In other languages, the words for peace have different roots, and historically were understood to have slightly different meanings. In Hebrew for example, the word shalom translates to English as peace, but also completeness, welfare and well-being. The meanings behind shalom and the ways in which it is commonly used – as both a greeting and farewell – show how peace can be also understood in relation to individuals and to wellness beyond the absence of conflict. Indeed, in a similar way to the Roman emperors’ use of pax, shalom’s use within the Bible conflicted with the idea of peace being the opposite of war, as peace was something that could be brought to a land through conquering it. In this sense, peace was depicted as a the result of a relationship with God, and the sense of protection that brought, rather than pacifism.

Shalom shares a root with another word for peace: the Arabic word ‘salam’. The root from which both salam and shalom derive (S-L-M), translates most accurately to ‘whole’ or ‘safe’ in English. It connotes wholeness, safety, well-being and good intention, being used as a well-wishing greeting in a similar way to shalom, but it is also tied to the idea of development, and the creation of a society in which people are able to thrive. Within the Arabic language, the words for peace-making and development are interlinked, with an understanding that the former leads to the latter, or at least does so when that peace is not disrupted by events such as natural disasters. In this way, peace is understood as the starting point for creating something better, as well as a moment of reconciliation that ends a conflict.

PAX Sculpture, Leslie Lawley, 1982

When it’s so difficult to translate words directly from one language to another, it may seem like an impossible task to form any common understanding of what peace means. There are however, certainly common threads throughout all these understandings of peace across the world and throughout time. Peace is understood in all the examples given above as a positive state, whether it is achieved through the resolution of a conflict, the development of a well-functioning society, the existence of a spiritual relationship, or through achieving individual wellbeing. At the same time, the complexities of peace can also be reflected within words and their usage – who peace is for, where it comes from, and what barriers exist that might stop people from achieving it. The relationship between peace and war has not always been simple, and this remains the case today.

What peace means will always be subject to the context in which it is talked about, and it is only through continually listening to other people’s perspectives that we’re able to understand it. For our defining peace exhibition, we asked what peace meant to you, and received some amazing responses. Here are some of the themes that came up:

If you didn’t manage to see the exhibition in person, but would still like to have your say, and help to guide the direction of the new museum, you can respond on our website at Defining Peace – Have your say | The Peace Museum


The Etymology of Salam : An insight into the Arabic word for Peace | URI

The True Meaning of Shalom // Defining Shalom — FIRM Israel

peace | Etymology, origin and meaning of peace by etymonline

Written by Ezra Kingston

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