Errare humanum est, darlings!

Posted: November 12, 2009 in dead languages, elamite, languages
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

You know you’re a terrible terrible geek, when you’re laughing hysterically at something, and then immediately realise none of your friends would laugh hysterically with you. They would, maybe, snort contemptuously, shrug, and have one moar coffee to cleanse the dead language aftertaste from the delicate palate.


It is a law of humanities that every philologist ever  will at some point in their career have a terrible  moment of epic fail. This usually starts even before grad school, when you get a classical Japanese poem, which you then proceed to translate thus:

The lost ark of madness

Underwater emu murmurs


The languages especially susceptible to that sort of fail unfair treatment are those in which you don’t have spaces between words in the original notation, because then you have to know where which word ends, and sometimes, you just won’t know.

Until it’s too late!

Another type of  languages in which critical translation failures are likely to occur are the most ancient ones, where you sometimes seriously just won’t know period, or the text is partially damaged, so you’re left to make stuff up as you go theorize make educated guesses about what could fill in the lacunae.


In one corner, we have a Russian team of philologists, I. Diakonoff and N.B. Jankowska(2). In the other, the three cuneiform tablets that they analysed. The tablets were found during a campaign at an Armenian site that is called Argishtihenele. What was found at Argishtihenele apart from the three tablets was the remains of an Urartean fortress, but this is not very relevant to the topic at hand(3).

Now, the three tablets that were found in Argishtihenele were written in Elamite, a language that had been used in Iran a very long time ago(4). This made them terribly remarkable, because it might have actually been the first time tablets in  were found so far up north.

Anyway, D(iakonoff)& J(ankowska) were totally excited and high on coffee and cuneiform(5), and this is most likely the reason why they identified the tablets as little pieces of the Gilgamesh  epos in Elamite(6).

Granted, the tablets were sort of hard to read. As in, partially destroyed, and the cuneiform signs weren’t too easy on the eyes, either. And, to be frank, it may very well be that every philologist ever wants to find a fragment of the Gilgamesh epos in the language they study. Alas! D&J were caught red-handed in their momentaneous incompetence by Heidemarie Koch in the same journal (ZA = Zetschrift für Assyriologie) three years later:

In ZA 80 (1990) haben I.M. Diakonoff und N.B. Jankowska Fragmente dreier elamitischer Tontäfelchen publiziert, die bei Grabungen in der urartäischen Festung Argištihenele gefunden worden sind. Sie deuteten diese als elamische Variante des Gilgameš-Epos aus 8.-7. Jh. vor Chr. Eine genaue Untersuchung der Texte kann indessen zeigen, dass es sich um achämenidische Verwaltungstäfelchen handelt, die von Steuerabgaben und Korndeponierungen sprechen.

(In ZA 80 (1990) I.M. Diakonoff and N.B. Jankowska published fragments of three Elamite clay tablets that were found during the excavations in the Urartean fortress Argishtihenele. They interpreted the tablets as belonging to an Elamite version of the Gilgamesh epos from 8-7 century BCE. However, a careful study of the texts shows that they are in fact  administrative tablets about grain storage and taxes from the Achaemenid period.)

(Mah translation, all mistakes are belong to me. Emphasis also are belong to me)

(Of course, Skitt’s law sometimes also works IRL too, and H. Koch was later corrected by F. Vallat in NABU 1995/46, as duly noted by George in his awesome treatment/translation of the Gilgamesh epic(s))

So, are you laughing yet?

I thought not :(

(1)I made it up. But it’s pretty close to what some of us would sometimes get as the final result of their arduous toils.

(2)They’re actually good philologists, especially Diakonoff whose articles about something I distinctly remember reading. *Cough*. I forget about what, though.

(3) But nonetheless very interesting.

(4) I could tell you when in excruciating detail, but you probably wouldn’t be interested. Meh.

(5) I have to rationalize it away, somehow.

(6) This, I didn’t make up.

  1. Ausir says:

    but you probably wouldn’t be interested

    What does it say about me if I would?

  2. Ausir :

    (Well, I already read the Wikipedia article about Elamite, but it’s pretty short)

    It is, indeed, short! Well, in the ANE, we usually divide history in EDI, EDII, EDIII (early dynastic), OAk (old Akkadian), oB/oA/oE (old Babylonian/Assyrian/Elamite, more or less 2000-1500 BCE), mB/mA/mE (middle Babylonian/Assyrian/Elamite, about 1500-1000 BCE) and nB/nA/nE (neo Babylonian/Assyrian/Elamite, about 1000-500 BCE). It’s an artificial divide, based on the stages of the dialects, although it might make much less sense for Elam.

    Normally, Elam isn’t mention that often anyway, because in the case of Assyrian/Babylonian dialects we have seriously hundreds of thousands of tablets, in Elamite we only have hundreds.

    The first Elamite script is the Proto-Elamite one, which is totally old, and might not even really be a script at all in the linguistic sense. I mean, we normally tend to think that awriting system is something in what you can (ideally) write down everything you say. This seems not be the case in Proto-E; as it seemed to have served only administrative purposes. Paradoxically, it had much more signs than the later version of the script.
    Some tentative attempts at decipherment have been made, but so far without conclusive results. What is really interesting, at least in my opinion, is how the Proto-E tablets are totally similar to the oldest tablets from Uruk (which haven’t been really deciphered, either. Some scholars actually even argue that they might not be in Sumerian at all – this is the language in which we expect all the oldest ANE tablets to be) – and Uruk is sort of pretty far from Susa.
    There is a photo in the Wiki of a proto-E tablet, which you can immediately recognize, because all archaic tablets are written with the dull ends of the styluses.
    (Oh, and Uruk, btw, is where the writing started. Around layer IV)
    Anyway, those tablets are really most likely about administration stuff, which means they’re totally borrrriiiiiing.
    But I digress. The biggest problem with Elamite is that even as the Elamite kings from all sorts of dynasties borrowed cuneiform, they also borrowed a lot of cultural stuff, imported Babylonian/Assyrian literary texts, and as a result, most of the texts we have from Elam is actually in Akkadian (Babylonian and Assyrian are just two dialects thereof).
    So, there’s very little data from which we can gather useful stuff. Also, the is the problem of lack of bilingual/trilingual inscriptions, which could also help greatly in identifying the meanings of words.
    (Some of the most interesting multilingual inscriptions are the so-called lexical lists – but only of certain types :) They’ve got a couple of columns, which explain words, arranged thematically or acrographically, usually in Akkadian and Sumerian, but sometimes in other languages, too)

  3. Reading mistranslations never gets old, Chinese English, or Chinglish, has some of the best examples.

  4. […] Also, I’d like to remind everybody about the blunders that are in fact sometimes made when it comes to interpreting ancient texts, such as these, where a private letter was suggested to be a part of an epic poem. […]

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