Is it possible to translate a text written in an unknown language ?
Suppose Greek is an unknown language. You have found an old document with the following script. You want to translate it. What would you do ?
εὐθὺς δὲ παραστάς μοι Πείσανδρος “ἄνδρες” ἔφη “βουλευταί, ἐγὼ τὸν ἄνδρα τοῦτον ἐνδεικνύω ὑμῖν σῖτόν τε εἰς τοὺς πολεμίους εἰσαγαγόντα καὶ κωπέας.” καὶ τὸ πρᾶγμα ἤδη πᾶν διηγεῖτο ὡς ἐπέπρακτο. ἐν δὲ τῶ τότε τὰ ἐναντία φρονοῦντες δῆλοι ἦσαν ἤδη οἱ ἐπὶ στρατιᾶς ὄντες τοῖς τετρακοσίοις. κἀγώ — θόρυβος γὰρ δὴ τοιοῦτος ἐγίγνετο τῶν βουλευτῶν — [καὶ] ἐπειδὴ ἐγίγνωσκον ἀπολούμενος, εὐθὺς προσπηδῶ πρὸς τὴν ἑστίαν καὶ λαμβάνομαι τῶν ἱερῶν. ὅπερ μοι καὶ πλείστου ἄξιον ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ τότε: εἰς γὰρ τοὺς θεοὺς ἔχοντα ὀνείδη οὗτοί με μᾶλλον τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἐοίκασι κατελεῆσαι, βουληθέντων τε αὐτῶν ἀποκτεῖναί με οὗτοι ἦσαν οἱ διασῴσαντες. δεσμά τε ὕστερον καὶ κακὰ ὅσα τε καὶ οἷα τῷ σώματι ἠνεσχόμην, μακρὸν ἂν εἴη μοι λέγειν. οὗ δὴ καὶ μάλιστ᾽ ἐμαυτὸν ἀπωλοφυράμην: ὅστις τοῦτο μὲν ἐν ᾧ ἐδόκει ὁ δῆμος κακοῦσθαι, ἐγὼ ἀντὶ τούτου κακὰ εἶχον, τοῦτο δὲ ἐπειδὴ ἐφαίνετο <εὖ> ὑπ᾽ ἐμοῦ πεπονθώς, πάλιν αὖ καὶ διὰ τοῦτ᾽ ἐγὼ ἀπωλλύμην. ὥστε ὁδόν τε καὶ πόρον μηδαμῇ ἔτι εἶναί μοι εὐθαρσεῖν: ὅποι γὰρ τραποίμην, πάντοθεν κακόν τί μοι ἐφαίνετο ἑτοιμαζόμενον. ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως καὶ ἐκ τούτων τοιούτων ὄντων ἀπαλλαγεὶς οὐκ ἔστιν ὅ τι ἕτερον ἔργον περὶ πλείονος ἐποιούμην ἢ τὴν πόλιν ταύτην ἀγαθόν τι ἐργάσασθαι.
Some precisions :
- No Greek dictionary, no Rosetta Stone…
- Suppose this is the unique document available.
- As the problem to know whether a script is written with phonetic characters or not is already in itself a difficult issue, to simplify things you can suppose to begin that the text you try to translate is actually written with an alphabet. And that’s why I choose a text in Greek.
- I choose this text randomly among the collection of texts of the Perseus Digital Library. A translation is available but please don’t use it. Don’t cheat with Google translate 😉
- All suggestions are welcome. If you have any idea, whether you have the time to explore it or not, please post it here before.
Edit (Nov 21st, 2010)
It can be argued that even if Greek is an unknown language, some European languages are descended from it. We should then find some graphic analogy between Greek and modern languages. I would probably allow us to translate some words from the original text. But I am not interested in this kind of considerations here because I am searching a general method to translate any unknown language. So let’s say this text has no relation with any known language.
This paragraph is just to remember that I am aware that Greek is inherently close to English, as sentence for example have the same structure in both languages. It will therefore facilitate our analysis. But if the analysis is successful we will try to translate other languages.