Monday, February 18, 2013

The Weird Side of Translation - The Voynich Manuscript

Part I – The Voynich Manuscript To kickoff this series, I’ve decided to introduce my own personal favorite of the genre: the Voynich manuscript.

The Voynich manuscript is one of the most famous and controversial “mystery texts” in the world, and to this day linguists, historians, and cryptographers have yet to find any solid proof of – or even real hint toward - its origins, meaning, cultural or religious significance, or purpose. In fact, it is widely debated whether or not this 240-page document actually even carries any meaning at all: many scholars dismiss it totally as a complete and utter hoax, created by an attention-monger or prankster, and some offer the theory that it is actually what was known as an “alchemical herbal” – a meaningless text, seemingly encoded or of archaic or mystical origin, that doctors would use to fool and impress gullible patients and clients. On the other hand, some claim that it is not only meaningful, but that it contains all sorts of important wisdom, magicks, and secrets of the ages. Personally, I dig the font.

Before I get into the content of the Voynich manuscript, I’d like to discuss the history of the thing. The origins of not only the writing system but the manuscript itself are still a mystery, and there are several theories as to where, when, and from whom it may have originated, but the name of the document was taken from one Wilfrid M. Voynich (1865-1930, born Michal Habdank-Wojnicz), a Polish revolutionary who owned and ran bookshops in London and later in New York. Voynich was said to have come into possession of the manuscript in 1912 via the Jesuits at the Villa Mondragone, which contained the Jesuits’ Ghislieri College, in what is now known as the territory of Monte Porzio Catone in Italy. The manuscript was thought to have been part of the large collection of books and other writings owned by Petrus Beckx, rector of the Collegio Romano, which was brought to the Villa Mondragone in 1870. There are virtually no records whatsoever of the manuscript during its tenure in the Collegio Romano library, and so it is generally believed that the book was filed away at random and most likely forgotten after Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher brought it there in 1666. Kirchner had received the manuscript from his friend Jan Marek Marci (Johannes Marcus Marci, rector of Charles University in Prague), who in turn had inherited it upon the death of his close friend, a little-known alchemist named Georg Baresch, sometime before 1662. Little is known about Baresch, and the history of the manuscript before this point becomes fuzzy, but it was thought to have been possessed by a man named Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenec. Horcicky was personal physician to and director of the botanical gardens of Emperor Rudolph II of Bohemia, and probably owned the book sometime between 1608 and 1622. Although there are several theories and speculations, the history of the Voynich manuscript prior to this point is a complete mystery.

Now, for the most puzzling part of all: the contents of the manuscript.

The Voynich manuscript is thought to have originally consisted of 272 vellum pages, divided into 17 quires; each quire containing 16 pages. Today, only about 240 pages are officially counted for, and it is not clear what happened to the rest of the document. The pages were apparently numbered sometime after the manuscript’s creation, and it is probable that the pages were previously arranged in a different order and put into their current order by persons unknown, for reasons unknown.
The manuscript contains a mix of text and illustrations, with most of the pages (save the final portion of the document) containing at least one illustration; usually several. The text consists of more than 170,000 “letters”, or “glyphs”, which can be seen to have been written from left to right and are divided into approximately 35,000 words (or at least what appear to be “words”). Assuming that the text actually carries some sort of meaning, and is an actual language – or some sort of variation or code representing an actual language – the letter-glyphs can be broken down into an “alphabet” of between 20 and 30 characters, with a few dozen special characters which only appear once or twice throughout the manuscript. While the text is completely devoid of any sort of clear punctuation, most of the lengthier sections appear to be divided into paragraphs.

According to statistical analysis of the document, there are some aspects that back up the assumption that the text actually carries meaning, such as linguistic patterns similar to Romance and Germanic languages. For example: some characters must always be contained in a “word”, much like English vowels; some characters are never doubled; and some characters never follow others. In addition, there are many words which appear numerous times throughout the document, while some words only appear once or twice, usually within the same section, which I’ll explain next. The entire document can basically be divided into six sections. These are known as the Herbal, Astronomical, Biological, Cosmological, Pharmaceutical, and Recipes sections. To borrow from the Wikipedia page on the Voynich manuscript, the contents of the sections are as follows:

1. Herbal: Each page displays one plant (sometimes two) and a few paragraphs of text—a format typical of European herbals of the time. Some parts of these drawings are larger and cleaner copies of sketches seen in the \"pharmaceutical\" section (below). None of the plants depicted is unambiguously identifiable.

2. Astronomical: Contains circular diagrams, some of them with suns, moons, and stars, suggestive of astronomy or astrology. One series of 12 diagrams depicts conventional symbols for the zodiacal constellations (two fish for Pisces, a bull for Taurus, a hunter with crossbow for Sagittarius, etc.). Each of these has 30 women figures arranged in two or more concentring bands. Most of the females are at least partly naked, and each holds what appears to be a labeled star or is shown with the star attached by what could be a tether or cord of some kind to either arm. The last two pages of this section (Aquarius and Capricornus, roughly January and February) were lost, while Aries and Taurus are split into four paired diagrams with 15 women and 15 stars each. Some of these diagrams are on fold-out pages.

3. Biological: A dense continuous text interspersed with figures, mostly showing small naked women bathing in pools or tubs connected by an elaborate network of pipes, some of them clearly shaped like body organs. Some of the women wear crowns. Cosmological: More circular diagrams, but of obscure nature. This section also has foldouts; one of them spans six pages and contains a map or diagram, with nine \"islands\" connected by \"causeways\", castles, and what may be a volcano.

4. Pharmaceutical: Many labeled drawings of isolated plant parts (roots, leaves, etc.); objects resembling apothecary jars drawn along the margins; and a few text paragraphs.

5. Recipes: Many short paragraphs, each marked with a flower- or star-like \"bullet\". (Note: The “Recipes” section is the only section which does not contain any illustrations.)

As mentioned above, each section has – for the most part - a relatively distinct set of illustrations, which were the main factor in the contemporary naming of the manuscript’s parts. Actually, if it weren’t for these illustrations, no one would have had any idea what to call these sections at all, seeing as how to this day not a single character of the manuscript has been decrypted. Over the past four centuries, many cryptographers, linguists, and scholars of all sorts have made attempts not only to translate the manuscript, but to find the answers to two major questions: WHO wrote it? And just as importantly, WHY?

Some names that have been thrown around over the centuries include Roger Bacon, Franciscan friar and renowned “Renaissance man”; John Dee, mathematician and astrologer; Edward Kelley, alchemist and probable pathological liar; and even Wilfrid Voynich himself. It should be noted, however, that most of these men – especially Bacon and Voynich – have been all but disproven to be the authors of the manuscript for various and extremely convincing reasons. The author/illustrator of this document remains just as much a mystery as its contents, purpose, and origin.

I could go on forever about this manuscript, from the different dating and analysis techniques used over the years to try to unlock the secrets of its origin, to the dozens of famous cryptographers and historians who have tried – and failed, every last one – to translate it, and from the theories put forth that the document is a complete hoax to the hundreds of tiny pieces of compelling evidence that act to either back up or disprove these theories, but I would need my own website - or probably my own server, actually - in order to make any sort of complete record of these. As stated earlier, this is one of the most mysterious and confounding pieces of (possible) literature ever discovered, and it has captivated me for years.

It’s a saddening fact that we will probably never get to know what is actually written in this manuscript, but then again, I must admit that I would be quite disappointed to know for certain that it was a fake, or, even worse, that the content was boring and mundane. I hope that I’ve managed to spark interest in this manuscript and its mysteries in at least a few people, and if not, well - this sort of field of study isn’t exactly for everyone. Much more information regarding the Voynich manuscript can be found online and in libraries around the world, and the original itself is currently being stored in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University as item "MS 408" (to which it was donated by antique book dealer Hans P. Kraus in 1969, after being inherited by Voynich’s wife Ethel after his death in 1930, and subsequently inherited by her acquaintance Anne Nill, who later sold it to Kraus), where it will most likely remain for a long time, periodically being examined and studied by various modern day scholars, who will no doubt leave just as confused and empty-handed as their predecessors. One can only hope – especially because one probably doesn’t have the time, resources, or motivation necessary to actually stand a chance at decoding this crazy thing.