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Ancient literature: Have they been falsified by translations?

Whether or not ancient texts have been changed by translations is a hot topic. This article discusses how translations may have falsified literature.


What is ancient literature?

First of all, it is important to know what ancient literature is. It is a very broad term that can refer to anything from Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieroglyphs, to the Iliad and Odyssey, to the Hindu Vedas, or even the Bible. There are many different definitions of ancient literature, but for this article, we will define it as any piece of literature that was written before the year 1000 AD.

Ancient literature was also not written on paper as we know it today. Instead, it was written on materials like stone, clay, metal, and even human skin. And because of this, much of ancient literature has been lost over time. For example, it is estimated that only one per cent of all ancient Greek literature has survived to the present day.

artistic_image_of_stone_tables (1)Image: Artistic interpretation of ancient stone and clay tablets

One of the reasons why so much ancient literature has been lost is because it was simply not copied down. In ancient times, there was no way to mass-produce copies of texts like there is today. So, if a text was not copied by hand, it would be lost forever. This is why many ancient texts are only known to us through later copies that were made by medieval scribes.

Another reason why ancient literature has been lost is because of the ravages of time. Many texts were simply not preserved properly and have deteriorated over the centuries. And even if a text was preserved, it could still be destroyed by wars, natural disasters, or even accidental fires. For example, the famous Library of Alexandria was destroyed by a fire that was started by Julius Caesar during a siege in 48 BC.

Burning_library_of_alexandria_aeab4ba9-a2a7-49d2-8033-966e1ceb7172 (1)Image: Artistic interpretation of the burning Library of Alexandria

So, given all of these obstacles, it is amazing that any ancient literature has survived to the present day. And much of what has survived is thanks to the work of translators.

How have translations affected ancient literature?

So now we can ask the question, how have translations affected ancient literature? The answer to this question is not a simple one. It depends on who you ask. Some people believe that translations have completely changed the meaning of ancient texts and that the originals are now lost forever. Others believe that translations have simply made ancient literature more accessible to a wider audience and that the meaning of the texts has not been significantly changed.

One of the most common sources of mistranslations is changing the meaning of certain words or concepts when translating from one language to another. This can often happen with words that have multiple meanings or with concepts that don't exist in the target language.

For example, the Greek word "daimōn" was often translated as "demon" in early English versions of the Bible. However, the word "daimōn" simply means "spirit" or "ghost" in Greek. It can be used to refer to good or evil spirits, and it is not necessarily a negative word. So, when the word "daimōn" was translated as "demon", it gave a negative connotation to words and concepts that may not have been originally intended to be negative.

Another way that translations can affect ancient literature is by changing the order of words or sentences. This might not seem like a big deal, but it can change the whole meaning of a text. For example, in the sentence "I saw the man with a telescope", the word "telescope" is telling us more about the man than the word "saw". But if we change the order of the words to "I saw a man with a telescope", suddenly the man becomes more important than the telescope.

What are the consequences of falsified ancient literature?

While it is impossible to know for sure how many ancient texts have been lost or changed due to translation errors, it is clear that the consequences can be significant. If the meaning of a text has been changed, it can alter our understanding of history. For example, if we read a text and think that it is saying one thing when it means something else, we might come to the wrong conclusion about what happened in the past.

In addition, if certain words or concepts have been mistranslated, it can lead to misunderstanding and even hatred between different groups of people. For example, as we mentioned before, the word "daimōn" was often translated as "demon" in early English versions of the Bible. This led to a lot of fear and misunderstanding about demons, which are just spirits or ghosts.

devil_in_the_desert_23fdd84e-579f-4d61-b054-16e8d4d198f9 (2)Image: Artistic interpretation of a biblical demon

So, it is clear that translations can have a big impact on our understanding of ancient literature. It is important to be aware of these issues when reading translations of ancient texts. And if you are interested in a particular text, it is always worth looking at multiple translations to get a better understanding of what it might say.

Is it possible to restore the original meaning of the text?

Now that we have seen some of the ways that translations can change the meaning of ancient texts, you might be wondering if it is possible to ever restore the original meaning of the text. Unfortunately, this is often not possible. Once a text has been translated, the original is usually lost or destroyed. And even if we had the original, it would be very difficult to know what it said. This is because the meaning of words can change over time, and we might not understand the context in which the text was written.

So, while some ancient texts may have been falsified by translations, we will likely never know for sure. And even if we could restore the original meaning of a text, it would be very difficult to do so.

What can be done to prevent further falsification of ancient literature?

There is not much that can be done to prevent further falsification of ancient literature, since translations will always be susceptible to errors.

However, one way to help minimize the impact of these errors in the future is to encourage people to translate texts themselves, rather than relying on translations done by other people years after they died. Modern tools such as Dilingual can help with translating your websites and documents.

By translating texts themselves, people can ensure that they are getting the most accurate translation possible. And if there are any errors in the translation, they can easily be corrected. This helps to prevent the kind of misunderstandings and misrepresentations that often occur when relying on translations done by other people.

So, while translations will always be vulnerable to mistakes, we can help reduce the impact of these mistakes by encouraging people to translate texts themselves.

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