The Ukrainians went Arab-way

As you have noted, throughout the last months I’ve only followed the VM with half-closed eyes. Thus I have to admit that I missed the better part of a drama which is currently unfolding on the VM list.

It started with Joachim Dathe coming up with a new idea on how to solve the VM several weeks ago, and while history in general doesn’t repeat itself, VM research apparently does, and Dathe’s story has “John Stojko” written in capital letters all over it.

In 1978, John Stojko published a book, Letters to God’s eye: The Voynich manuscript for the first time deciphered and translated into English, claming nothing less than having deciphered the VM completely. According to Stojko, the VM was written in “vowelless Ukrainian” using an invented alphabet, with not much further encipherment going on. In this universe, the VM is essentially a set of diplomatic notes exchanged in the early middle ages (or earlier) between rulers of the Ukraine and the Medians.

Stojko admits that he has really no idea why the nymphs and the rest of the illustration should have been included in a folder of diplomatic letters. It also dates the contents of the VM to up to 2000 years before the current copy was written, it leaves the question open why this particular alphabet was invented, why nothing in the VM in the way of illustrations or style points to the Black Sea, and I also wonder whether Ukrainian of 500 BC resembled modern Ukrainian at all in any way — I know that the German people spoke only one millenium ago is a far cry from modern German.

But Stojko is history, and Joachim Dathe enters the scene.

Act I: “It’s not really enciphered, it’s simply a transliteration…”, is what his primary find is. In other words, it doesn’t require a lot of calculation or brainworks or previous knowledge, but simply one bright person who takes a close look, because the truth is out there, not unlike Stojko’s approach. In Dathe’s case, he simply fed a suggested plaintext to the Google Arab-to-English translator. (On any serious list, this alone should abruptly and irrevocably have ended any serious discussion, and the bashing should have begun.)

Act II: “… in Arabic.” Here, Dathe follows Stojko’s tracks again in two regards: First, Arabic is an abjad, ie a language where vowels are dropped or at least ambiguously used in written language — compare this to the “vowelless Ukrainian” of Stojko. Secondly, everything in the VM, from the illustrations to the fact that it’s written left-to-write screams “Central European” in your face. Arab provenance is a far cry.

Act III: Dathe is having trouble translating his finds and to this end has a native speaker come to his aid who helps him with the texts. (Up to now, this speaker hasn’t officially entered the scene.) Since Dathe isn’t a fluent speaker of Arab (far less an expert in the history of Arab languages), it is surprising that he actually did recognize medieval Arab for what it is, despite the disguise of the invented alphabet. One could even say — it’s impossible.

Act IV: No idea about the connection between images and text. Hm.

Act V: The actual translation. Since there are few people on the list who speak Arab with any proficiency, we have to take Joachim’s word for it. Apparently, his method isn’t 100% perfect yet, since in his own words it required a “syntactic-symantic approximation” from his translator. In other words, frobbing with the plaintext.

And what is the result?

“His salute is to say Have mercy on he who was driven faultlessly.
Two thirds of the fortune you want to seize and that’s the second time you commit such a thing.
Umaymah is their lighting moon, it disappears and immerges. I see my perplexity. My death prevents me from entering darkness. Upon which you’re satisfied. And perhaps wash away his illness.
Billowing until I entered its space. To safeguard Your Majesty. I have been changed,
mystified and attenuated. I resurrected my soul. His salute was full of his pride and my disarray.

Now, while these seem to be grammatically correct sentences, it is difficult to fathom what the author supposedly wanted to say, when he talks about “his salute … full of my disarray”. The sentences have no meaning, no context, no coherence, no thoughts, they’re just strings of words, arranged in grammatical order, but with random vocabulary. “Billowing until I entered its space” — what is “it”? About whose salute are we talking?

Again, the similarity to the Stojko case are striking:

We renewed the information (news) and told to the world. He wrote and I am writing. You broke this slanted eye of God. Oko Bozia (Baby God) answered.
In believe she is holy and you should believe and welcome our religion and Miss. The holy told in slanted way. Is that the evil that will be victorious?
In religion we decide for Ora and Ora will welcome the renovation. What a news you and Bozia told.
That in religion I will believe in god’s emptiness. Empty (vain) is your calling, we caught (snatched) and carted away.

Stream of consciousness, but meaningless. A topic is only established through the repetition of certain words (here is much talk about “Oko” and “slanted” things), which is probably simply an artefact of word repetitions on the VM ciphertext.

I don’t mean to say that Joachim is dishonest. But his approach is flagrantly naive, and, frankly, I’m much surprised that anybody, especially among those who’ve been working for a long time on the VM, is taking him seriously.

Joachim has re-applied Sotjko’s (and others) technique — or error, if you wish — to invent a “bottleneck” in his proposed deciphering mechanism. In this case it’s the claimed abjad, in other cases it’s anagrammings etc., which open the way to a multitude of plaintext words from the same ciphertext. Add to that a proposed plaintext language with little inflection on its words, then it’s not too difficult to model the results into somewhat grammatically correct sentences, especially if you allow for random alternations of statements, questions, orders and interjections in the plaintext and mark sentence boundaries at will.

But this superficial grammatical correctness comes at the cost of a loss of content. Since the method is wrong, the translator is forced to abandon whatever coherence he may have projected into the translated words to at least keep up the appearance of superficial grammar — it’s the price he has to pay.

The proof is in the pudding, and the VM’s proof is in the meaning. It was never difficult, with no method whatsoever, to produce meaningless plaintext from the VM, or Vogon poetry:

Oh flundered gruntbuggly,Donallitude
Thy micturations are to me
As plurdled donally
On a lurgid bee
That mordiously hath bitled out