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.