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Our hardest, noblest work is to believe the best. - Steve Marshall

Ancient-Literature Translation
Last Updated: 05/28/2021

The average person has no good feeling for the enormity of translation issues and problems inherent in bringing into a modern language a fairly good  representation of what the ancient writer was trying to convey. Something is ALWAYS lost: sometimes that is inconsequential, but many times it is not.

What HAS to be lost is part of what the author is feeling, his purpose and intention, and part of his personal context and the general context. There is no way to recover all the innuendos of either an ancient language or the context of the specific time in which the literature was written. Often we don't know when, and just have to take a poor guess.

What MAY be lost is even more of the author's purpose and intention, the color, flavor, tone, and what some of the various constructs of the language imply. For instance, some questions always imply a negative answer, but this is not always picked up. The following passage will probably give us a better appreciation of the difficulties, and the multiplicity of ways to stray off the mark in translation.


Regarding classical literature, the following was taken from the book The Norton Book of Classical Literature, Introduction, edited by Bernard Knox, pp.23-26.

The word "literature" has many meanings. When scholars, for example, speak of the literature of a subject, what they are referring to is the vast bibliography of criticism, and interpretation, and polemic that has attached itself over the years to every field of study, humanistic and scientific. Such material rarely has any claim to literary distinction;….When, however, we use such phrases as "American literature" or "French literature," we have something quite different in mind: a written tradition, available to a large literate public, preserving a canon of great works that define the identity of a civilization, proclaim its ideals but also brewed over its problems and defects, and set a standard against which later writers measure their own achievement as they strive to adapt, reject, or surpassed them. The first such literature in the history of the West is that of Greece.

This is not to claim that other ancient civilizations had no written literary works. Ancient Egyptian papyri contained stories and love poems in addition to a large corpus of religious texts, but ancient Egyptian culture, to quote an Egyptologist, "was not expressed in epic or drama, nor did it produce authors to rival Homer or Virgil, Easchylus, Sophocles and Euripides, thinkers to match Plato and Aristotle or lyric poets on a level with Sappho or Cutullus."1 The clay tablets of the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates River basin have preserved for us religious poems of great interest – a creation myth, for example – as well as a genuine epic poem, the tale of the hero Gilgamesh. And of course the sacred books of the Hebrews, the biblical Old Testament, contained masterly narratives of a mythical religious nature, historical historical accounts of the triumphs and defeats of the Israelites and of the greatness and the wickedness of their kings, as well as love poetry and, in the book of Job, a powerful exploration of the problem of undeserved human suffering, framed, after a narrative prologue entirely in dialogue – a sort of embryonic drama.

But all these written traditions lacked one element essential to the definition proposed above: a large literate public that could read them. The scripts in which they were recorded could be employed and read only by professional scribes, whose competence came from many years of training. The Egyptian hieroglyphs were extremely complicated medium of communication, consisting of logograms, which pictured the   object denoted; phonograms, which represented sounds; and determinatives, which help the reader decide on the precise meaning intended. The cuneiform scripts of the Middle East were simpler – there were no logograms – but they were syllabaries: different combinations of wedge shaped incisions in the wet clay stood for syllables – consonant plus vowel – each one represented by a different character. Obviously such a system placed on the user the onus of learning many different signs, but this was not the only thing that made reading and writing difficult. Here, for example, is what an expert offers as a simplified explanation for the layperson of the way the Sumerian script works.

In Sumerian the word for barley is $ (pronounced "she" as in Shepherd), so the sign for barley also became the sign for the syllable as se. The Sumerian for ox is gu; but the word for thread is also gu, so already you have two possible ways of writing the sound gu. There are, in fact, some fourteen ways of writing gu, so for convenience we (but not the Sumerians) mark thread as gu and ox as gu4. The word for arrow is ti, But so is the word for life, so to write "life" you need only write the sign for arrow. The word for mouth is ka, (represented as a head with the teeth clearly marked), but the sign is also used for the idea of shouting, which is again gu (gu3 or gù); so the sign KA already has two values, ka and gu3 (and in fact it can also be used for zù "tooth", du "speak" and inim "word". The principle of using several signs to represent the same sound (gu) is called homophony, and giving one sign several values (like KA) is called polyphony. Both principles are fundamental features of cuneiform writing throughout its 3,000 year history. 2

The Greeks too, in the second millennium BC, had a syllabic script that resembled those of the civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley, though it was much simpler. It appears on clay tablets discovered on Greek Bronze Age sites…

Of all these early scripts, the North Semitic, a group that included Hebrew and Phoenician, was the simplest. These writing systems were a radical departure from the pictographic style of Egyptian hieroglyphics, as well as from this syllabaries of the cuneiform tablets which had impose such heavy burdens on the memory of the scribes…

This was a giant step toward clarity and easy readability. "Write  the vision," says the Lord to the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk," and make it plain upon tables, that he may run who readeth it...."

In Israel, the distance between the sacred books in the lay reader widened considerably after the Israelites returned from exile in Babylonia, where they had been deported by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II… Few of the returning exiles still spoke Hebrew. Their language was now Aramaic, the predominant Semitic language of the Middle East. The sacred texts had to be translated in the Aramaic for use in the synagogues, and first-hand contact with the great literature of the past became the pride and privilege of scholars.

1.  William Kelly Simpson, ed., The Literature of Ancient Egypt (New Haven: Yale University press, 1972). p. 2
2.  C.B.F. Walker, Reading the Past,  Cuneiform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 12.


Just think about how all of the above could affect our understanding of what the ancient writer was trying to convey about ultimate issues. And, of course, we have no leave to imbue that writer with infallibility in the first place.

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