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Five books I cannot read

OK this is silly but since Athena invited me to show my book shelves I try to figure out fun ways to do so, and, well, I do what I can. So today, the theme is "books I cannot read", for the very simple reason that they are written in a language I cannot decipher. Why they clutter my shelves if this is the case, well, that's the big question (actually you'll see that there is a good deal of cheating here).

The Batrachomyomachia by "Homer"

The Batrachomyomachia or "The Battle of the Frogs and Mice" is an epic, that is, a versified poem telling the feats of warriors, exactly in the vein of the Iliad that this book is meant to parody. I stumbled on this little gem while doing my work on textual data from French literary works: looking at some query result, I encountered a (rather delightful) French translation from the sixteenth century.

I had mostly forgotten about it when I found this edition of the original text.

So, as you can see, there is actually a modern French translation opposite to the Greek text... This book is not utter waste. Close to though, because the French translation is dull and uninspired; the 1540 one was much wittier! I'm mostly keeping the book because it's small, and to have the Greek text I cannot read.


The Gospel of Barnabas

As I already hinted at, I have a weird fascination for the biblical text and Early Christianity. This was a time where lots of apocrypha were written everywhere, and it was a widespread mess of theological gaieties. The canonical New Testament selection of texts is actually quite sensible, but it's fun to see that there were Gospels of pretty much every one (included Pilates!) coexisting alongside the ones that have been kept. I particularly like the Gospel of James, that tells Jesus' childhood (as he performs miracles to do tricks in school), which had considerable influence on the later tradition, and the Gospel of Nicodemus, which tells Jesus' adventures in Hell, and adds very interesting scenes as the Romans investigate in the Christ resurrection (pretty much like in the recent movie!).

Now the Gospel of Barnabas is not so ancient. It dates from the Renaissance. Its specificity is twofold. First, it denies that Jesus is the Messiah, and actually states that Mahomet is. Second, it tells that Judas died on the cross, not Jesus who was saved by Jesus. So Jesus never resurrected according to this Gospel...

Things get spicier when you discover that there are traces of this Gospel in Antique texts, so that it predates 622... But of course, we have no clue whether the Renaissance text bears any relationship, save the title, with the antique Gospel of Barnabas. Yet, as it's very much political, "fake" versions of the Gospel of Barnabas surface here and there: in 2012, Turkey has claimed to have retrieved it... Because that would prove Islam superiority over Christianity.


The text itself is written in sixteenth century Italian. Not shown in the pictures, there are also annotations in Arabic here and there. The story of this manuscript is itself a mystery... I like to realize that there are so many intriguing and unresolved story threads that are tied to a simple book. There also exists a Spanish version from the same time, in which the author pretends to be a former Inquisitor that has stolen the book from the Pope's library itself!

Here again, the French translation can be found beside the facsimile of the original manuscript. Cheating everywhere.


Bear and Tanuki (I guess?)

In a completely different vein... This is a manga I brought back from Japan, because it was on sale, and I like cute animals. I really cannot read anything about it, but I can look at the pretty pictures, which is great! It tells the story of a Bear and a Tanuki, as far as I can understand.

And it has owls!


The Dresden Codex

For this one, I'm not cheating. Although this codex has been translated to English (it can be found online), my edition just offers the reproduction of the codex "as is" (well, with lots of color enhancement). This Mayan codex dates apparently from the thirteenth century. It consists mostly of calendars and astrological tables. So, looking at the pretty pictures is actually more fun than reading the translation.

I find these glyphs truly fascinating. That they correspond to string of syllables is all the more surprising! (I am able, though, to decipher Mayan numbers: a bar means '5' and a dot is 'one', and when you reach '20', instead of drawing a fifth bar, you put one more dot in the invisible "square" on top of the base one. So in the upper panel, first number depicted, you would have (5+5+2) * 20 + 5 + 3 = 248 and then (5+1) * 20 + 5 + 2 = 127, etc.)


The Voynich Manuscript

Here I'm cheating again, as no one can read it!


This is a truly fascinating thing. No one has deciphered it so far, even though many have tried. Is it an unknown language? Is there a cipher? Is it all bogus? Apparently, it shows the same statistical signatures as actual texts so researchers are inclined to think that it means something.

It has all sorts of pictures and astrological diagrams. Some are clearly zodiacal. There is also a part featuring plants (but I saw all sorts of conflicting identifications: some pretend those are plants from the New World and the manuscript is written in a weird transliteration of a American Language dialect, some say that this is an obscure Italian dialect and that the plants are from Persia...). And an additional part with naked women taking baths in weird tubular structures (I have yet to see a convincing explanation of this).

My edition is a high-quality facsimile in which pages unfold like the original manuscript. It is absolutely great, and it might just be the most beautiful book in my collection.

As you see, all these drawings are pretty mysterious... The whole book can be freely browsed through online. Enjoy!

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frankd9009
frankd9009
Jun 04, 2021

I've almost got the Voynich translated. Just a few more turns of my decoder ring.


B...E...S...U...R...E...T...O


D...R...I...N...K...Y...O...U...R


O...V...A...L...T...I...N...E..

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Athena
Athena
Jun 03, 2021

Sure, seeing the pages online isn't the same as holding the book in your hands. Here is a flip-through of the Yale facsimile, by the way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ufsh06ucYYI

But even though it's cheaper than a game, I have to calculate my monthly expenses and set priorities. So between buying a book I can read and one that is just to be looked at, I tend to go for the first. Ah, one day it will be mine. ☺️

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Zerbique
Zerbique
Jun 04, 2021
Replying to

Wow this facsimile is crazy! I don't know how much it can cost though... That you have to "Request Info" to know the price is not reassuring!


Yeah, sure, I would also favor books I can read (despite the post!). But some make good candidates for gifts (and indeed I got the Voynich for Christmas). When I want to read a book, I usually look for a second-hand copy!

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Athena
Athena
Jun 03, 2021

If it's any consolation, I cannot read Homeric Greek either. Too ancient. 😊 I have been going back and forth about purchasing the Voynich. I keep skipping it exactly because it's unreadable. 😄 Thank you for the article, Zerbique, I enjoy these very much!

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Zerbique
Zerbique
Jun 03, 2021
Replying to

Since the Voynich is fully available online, there is really no need to get the book. But if you fancy collecting weird books, I highly recommend this edition (by Raymond Clemens and Deborah Harkness). Not only it is superb, with all the pages that unfold as the real one, it is also published by Yale, where the Voynich is conserved, and there is an excellent critical apparatus that remains very accessible for the layman. It's a bit expensive for a book, but it's peanuts compared to a KS board game (and it takes less space on a shelf). This is really a book I'm happy to have.


These days I'm reading a XIIIth century "chanson de geste" with both the…

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