From forbidden translations to impossible translations

When you work in the professional translation sector, your daily routine can range from fabulously exciting to rather humdrum, depending on the text you’re working on at the time. If you’re currently in the middle of a rather monotonous translation, why not take a minute to reflect on just how exciting – and even dangerous – the craft can be?

Forbidden languages

Language can be hugely political. Since time immemorial, invading oppressors have sought to use language to their own ends, often looking to stamp out local languages and impose their own tongue as part of their despotic regime. It’s a practice that continues to this day, with those who oppose the new rule refusing the enforced linguistic adoption and sticking with their native tongue as an act of defiance and subversion.

The Catalan language is an excellent example of this. Originating from Vulgar Latin in north-eastern Spain and southern France, around the eastern Pyrenees, Catalan dates back to the Middle Ages. The language flourished for centuries, but its fate in France was sealed when the French First Republic banned official use of Catalan (along with other languages such as Basque and Breton) shortly after the French Revolution in 1789.

Catalan’s use declined in Spain too, with the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 imposing the use of Spanish for all legal paperwork. Despite this, the liberal literary world embraced Catalan, with a number of renowned literary works being published in the language during the 19th century.

However, it was during the 20th century that Catalan faced its greatest threat to date, when its use was banned in the public administration and in schools under Francisco Franco’s rule for more than 35 years. That meant a whole generation of Catalonians growing up while being forced to use Spanish in public contexts. Despite the enforced linguistic suppression, Catalonians remained fiercely loyal to their language, promoting its use at home and ensuring that their children grew up appreciating (and understanding) their linguistic heritage. The result is that Catalan survived Franco and now has 4.1 million speakers, making it the 16th most spoken language in Europe.

Forbidden translations

It’s not just languages that are forbidden. The translation of individual documents can also be incredibly politically charged. One example is the Talmud.

The Talmud has served as one of the central texts of Rabbinic Judaism for over 1,500 years. It contains the teachings and views of thousands of rabbis and runs to more than 6,200 pages in standard print. The teachings cover everything from law, ethics and philosophy to history, customs and lore.

During the 70 years of the Soviet Union’s existence, the printing of the Talmud was entirely forbidden. Not one of the Talmud’s 63 tractates was permitted to be translated into Russian and printed. The same law applied to all Jewish religious texts. The Bolsheviks’ efforts to stamp out Talmudic learning were very successful – to date, no Russian translation of the whole Talmud has ever been produced.

However, a new project led by the Knizhniki publishing house is seeking to put that right. One of the most respected book publishers in Moscow, Knizhniki announced plans in 2016 to undertake the translation and publication of the entire Talmud in Russian. It is not a task to be undertaken lightly – Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Boruch Gorin, Knizhniki’s chief editor, comments,

“We hope to release about four volumes a year. If all goes well, the entire Talmud will be published in Russian within 10 to 12 years.”

Impossible translations

While some translations have been ruled out by law, others have left translation services stumped for other reasons. The Voynich manuscript is one such example.

Written by an unknown author at some point between 1404 and 1438, the Voynich manuscript is an illustrated medieval codex that has left translators lost and confused for more than six centuries. The mysterious text is accompanied by over 200 illustrations, covering herbal, astronomical, biological and pharmaceutical topics. While this led scholars to conclude that the text probably related to a form of medieval medicine, the bizarre language remained indecipherable.

The impossibility of translating the Voynich manuscript has attracted attention from around the world. Even the CIA and NSA have tried and failed to understand it. However, mathematicians at the RAS Institute of Applied Mathematics believe they have discovered why the manuscript has remained such a mystery – it was encrypted.

A statistical analysis has concluded that the manuscript was written in two languages, with vowels and spaces removed. While full understanding has still not been achieved, the researchers believe that the manuscript was written in either English or German (accounting for around 60% of the text), along with a Romance language (Italian, Spanish and Latin are all possibilities).

Without the inclusion of the vowels, it is impossible to understand the manuscript at present, as different vowels could lead to different meanings throughout the text. Nevertheless, it’s possible that with the advancement of time and technology, the completion of this ‘impossible’ translation will finally be achieved. We look forward to that day!

Author bio

Louise Taylor is a freelance writer who writes for the Tomedes Blog.

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