Egyptian hieroglyphics have always been seen as a mysterious and exotic area that has captured the interest of society from the Roman occupation of Egypt, right down to the present day. Though they have always been a subject of interest, people’s understandings of this ancient script have been forever influenced by aspects that limited their understanding for hundreds of years. This postlooks into those influences passed down from generation to generation of scholars and within normal society, from the days of the Roman tourists in Egypt, where Egyptian guides purposely gave the Romans misinformation and the interpretation of hieroglyphs was mistaken by the Roman views. Through the renaissance and classical periods, scholars were still influenced by early writings and the society, in which they themselves lived, right down to the eighteen hundreds, until one man, Champollion, decided to take a different view after being introduced to other ideas. But before this sudden change, he, like hundreds of others was unable to accept any other possibilities. These early influences included the effects of Hor-Apollo’s writings, Kircher and Young, plus many others. There are however some historians who don’t believe these writings were major influence.
The understanding of hieroglyphs, has like the majority of areas in society, been partial to the past writings on the subject. Writers and in this case translators, can not help but be influenced by their own beliefs and understandings of the past. J.B Bury assesses that writings are influences by the writer’s background. R.M Crawford agrees, evaluating that there are always influences from training, from teacher to student, to teacher to student, down the generations. It is evident that the translations of hieroglyphs have been effected by this transition of beliefs down the ages. Therefore, the misinterpretations were also passed on, creating an obstacle that future generations were unable to avoid in their own interpretations.
The writings associated with the translations of hieroglyphs have greatly influenced the general interpretation of their meanings even in the Roman times. Hilary Wilson demonstrates in her book ‘Understanding Hieroglyphs’ that the writings of early translators influenced the understanding of the script until the nineteenth century AD. Robinson, author of ‘The Story of Writing’, evaluates that the understanding of the Romans was misguided by an Egyptian priest by the name of Hor-Apollo. Wilson asserts that Hor-Apollo wrote a book in Coptic which had a dramatic effect on the study of Hieroglyphs for many hundreds of years. Hor-Apollo’s work insisted that each sign had a single pictorial or symbolic meaning, this makes it clear that he completely misunderstood the writing system used by his ancestors. Unfortunately, because it was considered to have been written by someone informed, Hor-Apollo’s work was used as a guide for all future students of hieroglyphs.
Though the translations of Hor-Apollo were meant to be correct and did not intentionally lead people into thinking incorrectly, there were other influences on the Roman understanding of hieroglyphs that were purposely trying to lead them astray. Pierre Montet asserts that under the Greek and Roman occupations, it gave the Egyptian community great satisfaction to mislead their foreign masters. They did this by concocting unintelligible documents, of which the foreigners could make nothing. Perrottet explains that because of this misinformation; it was misguidedly thought that hieroglyphs were only magical riddles, enchantments and spells. Perrottet however disagrees with Hor-Apollo being the original major source of the misinterpretation. He assesses that the Roman tourists were misled by spell books supposedly written ten thousand years earlier by Hermes Trismegistus. These writings however were nothing more than items to entice tourist.
Hoijer is one of a group of historians who believe differently. Hoijer evaluates that the Romans were not influenced by the writings and misinterpretations of others, but by the fact that like the majority of historians and society, they viewed the land and its culture through the distorted prism of their own culture. Due to this, we can evaluate that as a result they misinterpreted almost everything. Parkinson agrees with the point relating to culture, but also attributes the misinterpretation to the before-mentioned points concerning historians in the ancient world fueling the beliefs of the Romans, mentioning that the Egyptians also contributed to this, by fueling the disinformation. The majority of translations supplied to the Roman tourists in the occupation of Egypt were catering for the tourist industry, showing that the first explanations of hieroglyphs were made to cater for needs of the ‘writers’.
This is an element of historical writing that can not be avoided, as assessed by J.B. Bury. With the Roman’s great depth of superstition and with nobody to contradict the Egyptian guides’ explanations; they had no reason to doubt what they were being told. This concept is explained by Carl L Becker, that we write history according to own present purposes, desires, prepossessions and prejudices. These influences corrupted the understanding of the Romans and the future understandings of the hieroglyphic script.
The understanding of the Romans set groundwork for classical writers, along with the influence of ancient writers. Robinson outlines that with the renaissance, the revival of classical learning, came with a revival of the Roman belief in Egyptian hieroglyphic wisdom. Due to this revival, renaissance writers continued to write and translate hieroglyphs to the standards set out by the Roman beliefs. This led to the first book, written in the sixteenth century by Pierius Valerianus, on hieroglyphs, being basically fictitious. This is because Valerianus took a narrow-minded view in his translations, taking his cue directly from Hor-Apollo’s incorrect translations and not even attempting to look at them in any other way. Though, I must add even in the sixteenth century, they could be seen as obviously flawed as they accounted for little in the actual translations of texts. Valerianus’ writings are in direct contradiction to Hoijer’s idea that the writers are influenced only by their beliefs. This is evident because it was Roman influence that renaissance writers based their works on, if Hoijer was correct then Valerianus’ work would not have taken much, if any cue from Hor-Apollo, but more from his own culture and teachings. This point is also conveyed by Sacks, who demonstrates the limitations of the sixteenth century interpretations. Sacks assesses that because the translations of text were flawed and made no logical sense, classical scholars continued to believe long after the time of the Romans, that hieroglyphs were nothing more than riddles and enchantments.
Scholars and philosophers continued to attempt to translate the hieroglyphs as they believed they would find ancient wisdom and long-forgotten truths. Wilson assesses that spiritual and religious scholars wished to find confirmation of biblical stories and some proof of the existence of figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses. This is another example of how the writing of history affected the understandings of hieroglyphs. In this case, the religious scholars were taking their experience of the Bible and religious areas, and trying to link it to the translation of the hieroglyphs. This was mainly because of the writings in the Bible illustrating the land and culture of the Egyptians, so they alleged that the Bible would be confirmed by the ancient script. Wilson is therefore acknowledging that the understandings were based on both ideas of influence: the writers and the cultures and experiences of society and individuals.
In the late seventeenth century, the Coptic language was revived and would later be essential in the deciphering of the hieroglyphs. But scholars were still under the impression that the writing of Hor-Apollo and Valerianus held the key to translating the hieroglyphs. In the renaissance, scholars were interested in Egypt and were anxious to discover the meaning of the hieroglyphic writing. The Jesuit, Kircher, was the best known of these pioneers. Kircher outlined that Egyptian hieroglyphics for the most part, only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas. Due to this misinterpretation, Champollion was still possessed by this idea in the nineteenth century. In the mid seventeenth century, Athanasius translated a cartouche for a priest and came out with a long rambling paragraph, however the cartouche really only read the name ‘Psamtik’ spelt phonetically. This mistake is an example of how the ideas and experiences of others have caused a distortion in finding the truth and what is thought of as the truth.
Robinson evaluates that it was only later that the enlightenment made by the revival of the Coptic language brought about questions of the classical views of the hieroglyphs. Though the views did start to be questioned by the few, the original views were still held by the majority. It was the few who made progress towards the actual deciphering of the hieroglyphics. This shows progress could only be made by those who took a more impartial view over their work. As in the writing of history, scholars cannot create a reasonable view of the truth without looking at all the evidence; the academics on the path to decipherment had to do the same to find progress to a true understanding. For instance, Barthélemy discovered that the cartouches contained the names of pharaohs only by looking outside society’s understandings and beliefs drawn from Hor-Apollo’s writings. However it was Zoëga who finally commented that some hieroglyphs might be phonetic signs. This was only because, unlike other academics, Zoëga thought more on his own terms, rather than further illustrating the writings of others, this independence of thought further contradicts the idea that it was only culture and experience that led to a misguided understanding.
Napoleon Bonaparte played a large role leading up to decipherment. When he traveled to Egypt he took with him a large number of scholars. These scholars studied and measured every site and every visible monument, finally publishing their findings in ‘La Description de l’Egypt’. However the influence of past work in the decipherment of hieroglyphs prevented them from deciphering the elements they studied. Scholars in the case of the Rosetta stone immediately concluded that the inscription was wholly non-phonetic, its symbols expressing ideas in the manner of Hor-Apollo. This demonstrates that even in the early eighteen hundreds, scholars were bound by the words of Hor-Apollo.
In the mid-seventeenth century, certain European scholars theorized that Egyptian hieroglyphs were the source of inspiration for the ancient Hebrew letters. This was because of their need to find a source for their own studies and a desire to inflate the importance of these studies by linking them to the ever mysterious hieroglyphs. The wants and needs of these scholars show that in research and writing of history and historical elements, writers write for their own needs and desires, rather than looking at the full picture. This reiterates Crawford’s explanation for writing history. There was no real evidence that backed up their theory, but only small insignificant links that could have applied to a large number of scripts. Therefore, the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1823 didn’t agree with their theory, for the two scripts were shown to work on completely different principles. None the less, the scholars were convinced for some time that their theory was correct because they were influenced by the mysterious and fantastic mystery behind the hieroglyphs, again showing that ideas of understanding are influenced by both writings and experiences.
Parkinson outlines that, in the decipherment efforts in the early nineteenth century, it was seen that there was a difference between the hieroglyphic and the Egyptian Demotic writings found on the Rosetta stone. With the weight of the renaissance tradition concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, scholars were convinced that the invisible principles of operation of the two scripts were completely different. This, however, was later proven untrue, but the scholars could not see past the understandings of yesteryear. It was Thomas Young who first noted what he called a ‘striking resemblance’ between some demotic symbols and the ‘corresponding hieroglyphs’, he noted that ‘none of these characters could be reconciled, without inconceivable violence, to the forms of any imaginable alphabet’. Young put a step forward in right direction but came unstuck as the spell of Hor-Apollo’s writings was too strong. The influence of the early work of Hor-Apollo and Young’s experience and teachings, made Young unable to accept anything but that all hieroglyphs (apart from foreign names) were non-phonetic.
Even Jean-Francois Champollion, the final decipherer of the hieroglyphic script, at first continued to believe that the hieroglyphs were entirely non-phonetic. Champollion was not only influenced by Hor-Apollo and other past historians and translators, but also by the scholars of his own time. He was mostly influenced by Young’s work. Unlike Young, Champollion had an originality and rigour, which was based on a knowledge of Egypt and its languages far superior to his predecessors. This was a key component in translating the hieroglyphs, as it allowed Champollion to look at a far bigger picture, yet he was still caught in the webs of disinformation from the past. Robinson outlines that the early efforts of Champollion in 1822 were based on the premise that non-Egyptian names and words in both demotic and hieroglyphic were spelt alphabetically.
Champollion did not expect that this decipherment would apply to the entire hieroglyphic system. The idea dating back from the classical times, that hieroglyphics for the most part only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas, still possessed Champollion’s mind. Champollion was also greatly possessed by the work of Kircher, therefore his progress was impaired because he did not want to even think of challenging the work of these writers who were said to be educated in the true values of the hieroglyphs, though this was not true.
Adkins evaluates that Champollion, though for unknown reasons, later changed his mind about the phonetic issues with hieroglyphs, this was most likely due to yet another outside influence. A French scholar of the Chinese language suggested that there were phonetic elements even in the indigenous spellings of the Chinese script with its thousands of characters. This outside influence, though not directed at hieroglyphics, could have made Champollion wonder whether the same philosophy could be assumed for deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
Champollion also realized that among the one thousand four hundred and nineteen signs in hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone it contained only sixty-six different signs. Through his understanding of languages and his experience and teachings of them, Champollion grasped an understanding of hieroglyphs never before realized. His experience told him that if the signs were truly and only semantic symbols, there would logically expected to be more than sixty six signs on the Rosetta stone, each one representing a different word as they would have been logograms. It was only through Champollion’s change of mind that we today understand the true nature of hieroglyphics, that the writing system is a mixture of semantic symbols, phonetic signs, phonograms and pictograms.
The understanding of the Egyptian hieroglyphs has been influenced greatly by misguided writings and explanations. It is only through evaluation of these influences that we can grasp an idea of how the writings have influenced and changed that understanding. Though scholars have varying views on these influences, whether they believe that understanding was based on writings, culture and experiences, or solely on culture and distorted views, we see that understanding has indeed changed throughout time. It has evolved from a misguided, narrow-minded view, to one only achieved by people thinking outside society’s understandings.
Adkins, L and R. (2001), The Keys of Egypt, Harper Collins, London, pp. 1-12, 34-35, 37-43, 63, 82
Baines, J., Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society, in Man, New Series, Vol.18, No.3 (September 1983), pp.572-599
Bloomfield, L. (1933), Language History, Holt Publishers, California, USA, pp. 288 – 291
Davis, C.S.H., The Ancient Egyptian Language, in Science, Vol.21, No.542 (June 23, 1893), p.345
Edgerton, W.F., Egyptian Phonetic Writing from It’s Invention to the Close of the Nineteenth Dynasty, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol.60, No.4 (December, 1940), pp.473-506
Faulkner, R.O., Wente, E.F. and Simpson, W.K., The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions and Poetry, New Edition (London, 1973)
Flinders Petrie, W.M., Egyptian Tales Translated from the Papyri (London, 1895)
Gardiner, A., Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (Cambridge, 2005)
Gardiner, A.H., The Nature and Development of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic Writing, in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol.2, No.2 (April, 1915), pp.61-75
Griffith, F.L., On the Writing in Ancient Egypt, in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol.30. (1900), pp.12-13
Lichtheim, M., Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume One: The Old and Middle Kingdoms (London, 1975)
Lichtheim, M., Ancient Egyptian Literature: Volume Two: The New Kingdom (London, 1976)
Ockinga, B.G., A Concise Grammar of Middle Egyptian (2005)
Parkinson, R., Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (London, 1999)
Parkinson, R.B., The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640BC (New York, 1998)
Parkinson, R.B., Voices From Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings (London, 1991)
Ray, J.D., The Emergence of Writing in Egypt, in World Archaeology, Vol.17, No.3, Early Writing Systems (February, 1986), pp.307-316
Shaw, I., and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003)
Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (New York, 2003)
- Text: the Evolution of Written Language. (robynglendinning.wordpress.com)
- Know : When did Languages Start? A time line… (propelsteps.wordpress.com)
- Evolution of Nabataean Alphabet. By Francisco del Río (medinaproject.wordpress.com)
When you first enter an ancient history or archaeology degree you are introduced to several sets of material evidence. Notably, the archaeology, material evidence, and philological evidence. But the philological side is more often than not rarely mentioned again. This is quite a shame considering some of the most interesting and revealing information comes from the ancient written sources. People generally fall into the trap of ignoring the writing in favour of the archaeology and artefacts and frankly you can’t really blame them because humans are naturally attracted to pretty visual things. I see this every day with the likes and shares on my Facebook page. But philology is all important too and if students can learn even a little about ancient writing and textual criticism, a whole new side to history and analysis opens up to them as it should.
Philology is derived from the Greek terms φίλος (love) and λόγος (word, reason) and literally means a ‘love of words’. It is the study of language in literary sources and is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics. Philology is generally associated with Greek and Classical Latin, in which it is termed philologia. The study of philology originated in European Renaissance Humanism in regards to Classical Philology but this has since been combined to include in its definition the study of both European and non-European languages. The idea of philology has been carried through the Greek and Latin literature into the English language around the sixteenth century through the French term philologie meaning also a ‘love of literature’ from the same word roots.
Generally philology has a focus on historical development. It helps establish the authenticity of literary texts and their original form and with this the determination of their meaning. It is a branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development and relationships of a language or languages. This makes it all the more significant to study as language is one of the main building blocks of civilisation.
There are several branches of philological studies that can also be undertaken:
Comparative philology is a branch of philology which analyses the relationship or correspondences between languages. For instance, the commonalities between Latin and Etruscan or further flung languages of Asian or African provinces. It uses pre-determined techniques to discover whether languages hold common ancestors or influences. It uses comparison of grammar and spelling which was first deemed useful in the 19th century and has developed ever since. The study of comparative philology was originally defined by Sir William Jones‘ discovery in 1786 that Sanskrit was related to Greek and German as well as Latin.
Decipherment is another branch of philology which looks at resurrecting dead languages and previously unread texts such as done and achieved by Jean-Francois Champollion in the decipherment of Hieroglyphs with the use of the Rosetta Stone. And more recently by Michael Ventris in the decipherment of Linear B. Decipherment would be key to the understanding of still little understood languages such as Linear A. Decipherment uses known languages, grammatical tools and vocabulary to find and apply comparisons within an unread text. By doing so more of the text can be read gradually as similarities and grammatical forms become better understood. The remaining text can then be filled in through further comparison, analysis, and elimination of incorrect solutions.
Textual philology editing is yet another branch of philology with includes the study of texts and their history in a sense including textual criticism. This branch was created in relation to the long traditions of Biblical studies; in particular with the variations of manuscripts. It looks at the authorship, date and provenance of the text to place it in its historical context and to produce ‘critical editions’ of the texts.
The importance of philology is exhibited in its use and achievements. Without philology the bible translation would be even more wrong, trust me read it in the original Greek. We would not be able to translate hieroglyphs, Linear B, Linear A, Sanskrit, any ancient language. Our entire written past would be blank, we would not have the information we have now on mathematics, social structure, philosophy, science, medicine, civilisation, transport, engineering, marketing, accounting, well anything really, knowledge would not have been rediscovered or passed on without the ability to study texts and language. Understand the love of words.
- The unsung heroine who helped decode Crete’s ancient script (bbc.co.uk)
- Rediscovering Philology (sites.tufts.edu)
- The Open Philology Project and Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities at Leipzig (sites.tufts.edu)
- Genes and Languages: Not So Strange Bedfellows? (23andme.com)
- Bavinck on Comparative Religion and Comparative Philology (calvinistinternational.com)
- How to Teach yourself Ancient (and Modern) Languages (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Welcome to GraecoMuse (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
- Alice Kober: Unsung heroine who helped decode Linear B (adafruit.com)
- The Unsolved Mysteries of the World (secretsofthefed.com)
- Macquarie Ancient Languages School – Winter Session (graecomuse.wordpress.com)
Hello Followers, The Macquarie Ancient Languages School Winter Session is now enrolling for 1-5 July 2013. These intensive courses are open to anyone and everyone, public and students, of all ages and backgrounds. I usually teach the Greek courses but will be in Turkey this year. They are still running though in other capable hands while I am away.
For the Winter school program you can download it here. Along with the application details. Travel subsidies are available for those coming from further away, we help cater for both national and international attendees.
For all enquiries you can contact:
The Macquarie Ancient Languages School, an initiative of the Ancient History Documentary Research Centre, has been running since 1981, offering courses in a wide variety of languages associated with Ancient History and Biblical Studies. Held over two weeks in January and one week in July, the School has branched out from its beginnings in Classical Greek to include classes in Koine Greek, Latin, Egyptian Hieroglyphs, Classical Hebrew, Coptic, Akkadian, Sanskrit and a range of other ancient languages. Some are offered at each school, others on a rotational basis, for example, Aramaic, Hieratic and Old Norse.
There are also opportunities to participate in hands-on courses, working with papyri, inscriptions and coins from the collections in the Museum of Ancient Cultures. New courses are incorporated into the programme on a regular basis. Recent additions include the Linear B Tablets, Latin Inscriptions, the Vindolanda Tablets, and Latin Vulgate Psalms. There are also introductory courses on various topics – for example, Etruscan, Cuneiform and Celtic Languages.
- Are you looking for a challenge in 2013?
- Perhaps you are considering enrolling in a degree programme and would like to include an ancient language?
- Taking part in a Macquarie Ancient Languages School is a great way to ‘test the water’, prior to enrolling in an accredited unit.
Classes in Classical Greek, Koine/New Testament Greek, Classical Hebrew and Egyptian Hieroglyphs are offered at three levels, ranging from Beginners (requiring no prior knowledge) to Advanced level, reading from selected texts.
Classes in other ancient languages are conducted at the Beginners level in January, with follow-on classes in July, subject to student demand. Examples of languages offered in the past include Coptic, Akkadian, Aramaic, Sanskrit, Syriac, Hittite and Sumerian, and more recently, Demotic and Hieratic.
Classes are open to people of all ages (from 16 years) and are suitable for:
- intending students of Greek and other ancient languages in tertiary institutions and theological colleges, and those interested in learning to read the New Testament in Greek
- secondary teachers and students of Ancient History
- those interested in learning more about their heritage, for example, those with Celtic, Greek or Italian ancestry
- those with a general interest in language
- those interested in English literature, in European civilisation, in drama, philosophy, theology, in the ancient world generally, and in the many fields in which ancient literature and thought have been for centuries a powerful influence.
Teaching is in small tutorial groups meeting either in the mornings or afternoons. The timetable is planned to allow students to enrol in more than one subject – for example, a morning class in Classical Hebrew might be followed by a practical session on Greek Papyri in the afternoon. The timing of both Summer and Winter Schools is designed around the Macquarie University calendar, making it possible for currently enrolled students to attend. For those considering an ancient language as part of their degree, such a course is an ideal introduction to the subject, prior to enrolling in an accredited unit. Similarly, both Schools take place in NSW school holidays, so that secondary school students and teachers may attend.
Many of our students come back year after year, not only to enjoy the contact with other like-minded students, but also to brush up on their Greek or other ancient languages, and to continue their fascination with the worlds opened up by the language and literature of these ancient cultures. Their continued attendance is testimony to the enthusiasm generated by the Macquarie Ancient Languages School over the past three decades.
Translation: a rendering of something written in one language into another which does not misinterpret the meaning or sacrifice the feeling of the original. So what makes a good translation? It is difficult to know where to begin in answering this question due to the multiple theories throughout the centuries, so it is important to provide a base. Definitions of a good translation include that a translation ‘Must neither be ‘free’ nor ‘literal’…faithful…a faithful imitation (not adaptation or approximation) of the original. It must be faithful both to the language of the original text and to the idiom into which it is being translated. It must be faithful both to the letter and to the spirit.’ Rees provides a definition which is quoted above but also adds that faithfulness is significant as ‘he is the best translator whose work is nearest the original.’ Knox highlights three simple rules for when creating a translation; be accurate, be intelligible and be readable, but this in some ways is too simplistic. Peyser contributes one of the more comprehensive arguments concerning what makes a good translation by stating that ‘Comparative naturalness of expression should be the first aim in a translation, and whatever mars that should be discarded. Sometimes it may be achieved by the retention of literalness, by rhyme, by metrical forms; sometimes it can be obtained only at the price of one or more of these. How best to compass it is for the translator to decide’
By looking at such definitions it becomes evident that there are many ideas of what makes a satisfactory end-product. So, is it really possible to define what makes a good translation? Through the study of different translations and theories, we see that different purposes involved in translating mean that different sets of criteria have to be issued. Many aspects are considered when exploring the idea of correct translation: content, use, the nature of the translator, cultural production, text survival and the recognisation of limitations. When looking at these aspects, we see that there is no single set definition of what makes a good translation.
When looking at theorists, Schleiermacher comes into the foreground. He highlights many of the problems faced in translation and outlines what he considers makes a satisfactory translation. Schleiermacher asserts that all translators are under the sway of the language they speak and in many cases there is little difference between better and worse renditions. The translator cannot fully understand concepts beyond the boundaries of the language he was educated in. Schleiermacher is a strong advocate of the idea that the translator, while endeavouring to keep his language sounding foreign, often fails to observe the fine line between undesirable extremes. Schleiermacher’s discussions highlight that with people understanding the concepts in what is to be translated, a satisfactory rendition can indeed be created. The idea of a good translation is fully dependent on the ideals of the individuals viewing it.
One must also consider Schopenhauer’s theories. Schopenhauer points out the difficulty in rendering an accurate translation as it is not always possible to find an exact equivalent in one language for a word in another. He states that it is almost never possible to transpose a sentence pregnant with meaning and character from one language to another so as to make precisely the same impression on a speaker of the second. The equivalence of words issue in translation can be seen even in the translation of Schopenhauer, as seen in the two examples in your handout:
It is not always possible to find an exact equivalent in one language for a word in another. Thus concepts signified by words in one language are likewise never exactly the same as those signified by words in another.
Not every word in one language has an exact equivalent in another. Thus, not all concepts that are expressed through the words of one language are exactly the same as the ones that are expressed through the words of another
Couldn’t both of these translations be seen as good, as they maintain the essence of the original? Yet there are obvious differences in the choice of words and phrase. As Schopenhauer himself says, this is the necessary inadequacy of all translations. Schopenhauer, like Schleiermacher, also explains that in many cases concepts cannot be so easily transmitted. Addressing that words and concepts cannot be transferred, it is easy to fall into the trap of accepting that there is no such thing as a good translation.
Humboldt, also presents a comprehensive analysis of translation in his work entitled ‘The More Faithful, The More Divergent,’ a title which clearly illustrates one of the more prevalent of Humbolt’s views. Like his contemporaries, Humbolt asserts that no word in one language is ever entirely like its counterpart in another, outlining a particular issue when one considers the idea of literal translation. According to Humboldt, a good translation is one which is not a commentary and contains no obscurities resulting from ‘wishy-washy’ choice, with which the translator would do violence to the text by arbitrarily clarifying and so distorting. Humboldt attempts to avoid these inadequacies himself by trying with every new revision to eliminate what was not stated equally plainly in the original text; recognising that the translator is tempted to add ‘alien trinkets.’
Nietzsche focused on the translator in relation to the historian and what makes a good translation. He states that ‘The degree of the historical sense of any age may be inferred from the manner in which this age makes translations and tries to absorb former ages and texts.’ Translations influence historians. Nietzsche pays particular attention to the idea that a good translation is one that fulfils the purpose and use set out by the translator. ‘Should we not make new for ourselves what is old and find ourselves in it?’ This was the idea of the Romans, and it remains a focus of theorists. Differences in purpose and material will affect the character of, and the process of making a translation; it is no wonder that it is difficult to define what is ‘good’. These theorists show explicitly that the question of what makes a good translation, and the act of translation itself, is subject to the opinions and interpretations of the individual and the period in which it is created and studied.
Discussion in relation to Examples
A good translation is in some ways like the concept of myth, you will know it when you see it but it is not easy to define. To better understand the theories that we encounter, we must look at various translations and forewords. Let us look at the translation of Ammianus Marcellinus by Walter Hamilton. Wallace-Hadrill comments that cuts have occurred throughout to better fit the volume of the penguin edition and to remove tedious aspects, such as Ammianus’ digressions, to better accommodate the modern reader. This embodies the idea set out as early as Jerome, who asserted that a good translation fits its purpose. Venuti makes a particularly relevant study of ‘translation to fit purpose’, explaining that it is fundamentally determined by a cultural political agenda in the present and asymmetrical relations, such as the economy. Hamilton’s translation also demonstrates the difficulty in accessibility of original texts, as Hamilton relies on a single 9th Century corrupted manuscript, which would be unreadable if a close rendering to modern English was attempted.
Literalness, Equivalence and Use
What is particularly enlightening is the comparison of two renditions of the same text. From these we can isolate the differences in style, choice and purpose set out by the translator. Beowulf, translated in 1979 and in 1995 by Michael Alexander, highlights problems and how a good translation cannot be given one definite definition. Both translations keep the content and essence of the text and attempt to maintain the concepts set out by the original author; however the 1979 version takes a non-literal approach in an attempt to maintain the epic composition. In comparison, the 1995 rendition alludes to the difficulty in cultural accessibility for the modern reader and instead gives a word by word rendition devised for those who wish to study Beowulf in old English, and to work out the meaning for themselves. Each version is translated to best suit its purpose and use. Does the difference in translation mean that one is particularly better than the other? These translations also provide an interesting case between literal and non-literal translation; and yet Alexander himself asks scholars to consider whether a literal prose version of a verse epic, is properly, a translation.
Carson and Shaw’s translation of Sophocles’ Electra provides an excellent example of what theorists may consider to be a good translation as well as illustrating many of the problems. This translation demonstrates the issues of finding English equivalents, such in the case of the verb λυπειν, as well as issues of context and diction. When translating one is frequently confronted with analogous terms; perfect equivalence after all presupposes an identity of cultural or socially shared experience between two separate ‘speech communities.’ Carson and Shaw also demonstrate that in order to make a satisfactory translation, one must know the subject explicitly; they know for instance, that it is typical of Sophoclean heroes to set themselves cosmic parameters of moral action. With such knowledge and understanding of the subject, they have better transferred concepts between languages.
Preservation of concepts and values of the original text
Prevalent theorists such as Schleiermacher assert that what truly makes a translation accurate is not so much the words that are preserved, but rather the virtues, thoughts and ideas. Bruni says that it is in understanding these that translators can reproduce accordingly. While various scholars have come to accept this idea, it is also related to several problems of translation. This is supposedly due to significant fault in the nature of the translator as seen as early as Cicero who explains that every composition is subject to one’s own individuality. Most translators want to, or unconsciously add to, the original translation, even when attempting to preserve the thoughts and graces of the original composer. As Tytler says ‘a translator uses not the same colours of the original, but is required to give his picture the same force and effect.’ With this in mind we see that the nature of the translator is significant to the colours he chooses to use.
Understanding and standing of the translator
Theorists often make the hypothesis that a good translator understands and attempts to deal with the limitations of translation. Like with the historian, the translator cannot simply create anything near an accurate account without first understanding the task ahead of them. For instance, the ideal translator should be equally proficient in the languages concerned; be bicultural as well as bilingual. Von Herder remarks that the best translator is in fact the best critic. Unfortunately, the projection of the translator into the translation can hardly be avoided. It seems that the question must be asked of where the meeting ground is between the ‘personal’ and the ‘other’ text? Batteux put it thus; languages are like men, who have one common nature which unites, and peculiarities which separate them. It is hardly likely that one can reproduce perfectly a text considering this idea; but with the limitations in mind, the translator may be able to produce the next best thing.
Much of what is translated is of cultural production; made in light of present circumstances, cultural moralities and ideologies. These determine the translation of chosen texts. Burian addresses the question ‘What possible excuse is there for new versions of texts?’ An approved answer for this is that translation is an ‘activity as fully implicated in its own world as any other form of cultural production.’ Anderson provides a valuable look into translation related to cultural production, asserting that the choices made by the translator are determined by changing goals and stylistic preferences within a cultural period. This cultural influence is seen in the many interpretations of Vergil and his views on heroism. Not only is a translation almost forced to conform with the culture for aesthetic reasons, but also for reasons of survival; no doubt that in a few generations, current translations could be considered obsolete. For further study into this area it is useful to examine the works of Anderson and Eliot.
Among the theories of what makes a good translation is the prevalent debate between non-literal and literal translation seen throughout the examples discussed. The Beowulf translations demonstrate that literal and non-literal can both be considered good based on purpose; modern scholarship though tends to sway towards the non-literal side. D’Ablancourt states that at times it is necessary to retrench one part to give birth to all the rest. Denham asserts that translations should fit the foreign text naturally and easily as fluency is impossible to achieve with close or verbal translation. No word in one language has an exact equivalent in another. It appears that what, in the minds of most theorists, makes a good translation is transference of ideas and concepts rather than literal word for word, despite earlier scholars such as Horace implying that word-for-word translation is the faithfulness of a translator.
But while these two theories of what makes a good translation are prevalent, we must also consider whether this opposition is in itself a problematic simplification. Literal and non-Literal are indeed simplistic in definition and yet are valid definitions which relate to basically all theories of translation. Unfortunately, theorists and translators often focus more on the literal/non-literal debate in general opposed to looking into why and/or how a translator has produced a rendition. In saying this, we see that that the habit of defining a translation based solely on its literalness is too simplistic because it often ignores the more integral reasons for the form of a translation.
How do the choices we make in answering this question relate to our idea of what a historian should be?
We have discussed what theorists and translators believe make a good translation, and the problems that arise, which often make constructing a faithful translation difficult. But how do the choices we make in answering this question relate to our idea of what a historian should be? In answering this question we must look back at what we have accepted as our idea of what a translator should be and ask how this relates to the historian. In this case it seems that our idea of what a historian should be relates significantly to the ideas that are confronted when one studies what makes a good translator.
The Historian, like the translator, sets out to create an account based on events, while being physically, culturally and emotionally removed from the events in question. What makes a good history and what makes a good translation are in many aspects similar. Readers and scholars deem that both should be faithful and accurate to the original. We choose to look at translations in relation to the problems that may or may not be overcome; the influence and bias of the translator, the difference of interpretation and creation based on the period, purpose and use of the rendition. The same can be said of how we approach the historian.
In choosing to look at specific theorists and translations we see various ideas of what a translation should be; the preservation of virtues, thoughts and ideas from the period, that which suits the purpose and period, faithful and accurate, literal or non-literal; and what the translator should be; understanding of limitations, extensively knowledgeable and yet still subject to the issues that face the translator. In identifying these factors it is easy to relate them to the historian who is often subject to the same factors. But much like with the question of what makes a good translation, what makes a good historian is based purely on interpretation. Here is one interpretation: What a historian should be is as faithful and accurate as possible, while recognising the limitations and influences that affect their work. A historian should attempt to avoid these issues but not to the extreme as to do more damage. Isn’t it interesting that the same can be said for the translator?