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

43 thoughts on “The Ukrainians went Arab-way

  1. Quite so, Elmar. I am, frankly, shocked at how this is being taken at all seriously. My initial reaction was that it was a joke (on the VMs mailing list members), but now it appears that Joachim really believes his translations make sense. Amazing.

  2. I’ve really enjoyed the poetry of Dathe’s contributions, I must say. And since almost everyone who has ever considered the Vms has pretty much first woven a fantasy, and then tried to justify it after the fact, I see no real reason to suggest he stop providing the offerings.

    Also, I cannot agree with you that that “nothing in the VM in the way of illustrations or style points to the Black Sea” and there is little to object to such a connection, since routes to and through that region, in earlier times, include some of our longest-attested routes of migration and trade.

    Not that I agree the written text is in ‘Arabic’ or in Median; I have no particular opinion about it except that a number of the letter forms do occur in a vernacular script used near Nairan and attested as late as the sixth century AD.

    However, on Medians, and simply as a point of interest…
    Writing in the nineteenth century, Richard Burton (a fine ethnologist and Arabist), remarked that pictures of the type which were painted on the larger type of playing-card pack were known in Arabic (as spoken in Egypt of his time) as ‘Tars daylani’ – that is ‘Median figures/shields’ – this according to Burton’s notes). It might be a metaphor, of course, but the Medians themselves remained known. The way that near eastern often had very, very long communal memories also came as a considerable shock to western archaeologists of the earlier and later centuries. It is not within our own habits, but one has to take that into account too.

    I personally doubt, very much, that the text might be written in Arabic – a script more or less invented in the seventh century AD, but I also know how often shows that a wise man becomes a fool when he dismisses a new idea without careful consideration.

  3. I also think that it’s going on too long to be a joke, but I wondered for a while… The process seems largely clear, and the meaningless sequence of words is what you get when this process is fed with noise as input.
    I asked not to show the decoding process, but the encoding process. To show what the auhtor did exactly. I got no answer because I am confident that it cannot be done.


    1. I think Joachim is for real, if a little naive. If it was a hoax, he’d probably come up with better (more coherent) and more spectacular translations.
      What really amazes me is that he managed to draw everyone’s (including my) attention away from the blatant fact that he started out by interpreting EVA literally, which of course renders the whole rest of his approach absolutely and irrevocably moot. (Kudos to Rich for pointing this out again.)

  4. “he who takes a stand….”
    …. has to carry it everywhere”
    … looks foolish in the opera house”
    … may sit at ease while others work”

    I love quotes. :D

  5. “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.)”

    This was tested and criticized at the very start, by two or more testers on the VMS-list… myself included. The use of the Google translator was tried with the input suggested by Dalthe, which then showed no results. I could not “make it” give the results Dalthe claimed, not once in several tries. The lack of repeatability I often refer to relates, in part, to the failure of this Google-method.

  6. Rich
    I can hardly have an opinion about the list, since I don’t subscribe to it, but it seems to me that the numbers are dropping, and it must surely be discouraging to present, or to would-be members, if the list believes – ever – that ‘the bashing should begin’.

    I prefer civility, even if sometimes ascerbic. But as a rule it is tiresome and unfruitful even to have to read flaming, since I’ve never seen anything positive come of it .. except perhaps a certain swelling of the flamer’s self-esteem.

    So many lists first become a ‘king of the castle’ effort to eliminate the few, and then end with only a very, very few left with nothing to say. So let Dathe post. Some people enjoy reading what he writes, even if you feel about this theory (as I do about certain others) that they shed no particular light on the manuscript, its history, codicology, imagery or anything of that sort.

    1. Diane, there was no flaming, and there was civility. What there was was a strong criticism of a flawed method. As it turns out, the heated discussion about this method… both here and on the Voynich Mailing List… has actually been helpful in many ways. I won’t go into those ways, here. Your perception of this last discussion, and the reasons you think it happened at all, clearly shows a misunderstanding of this… even Joachim, the subject of our strong questioning and complaints, seems to understand this… The list is not for everyone, it is true: If you want to propose an idea and control the feedback, you stay on a blog. If you want to get an honest, raw response, you throw it on the list. Until that is understood, then the list is not for you. And nothing wrong with that… it is not for everyone.

  7. Diane, It’s not about bashing for bashing’s sake or about flaming. But if it’s impossible to call a spade a spade, then a mailing list is pointless as a research tool.
    The list is there to publish ideas, to evaluate them and to examine them. And if someone tells flagrant nonsense, I feel it ought to be pointed out to him to give him a chance to explain himself, because at the very least he has made himself not properly understood. Or he was indeed completely on the wrong track, in which case the criticism might help him to see the errors in his ways.

  8. And if the ‘bashing’ is not for the joy of bashing, then in whose interests is it? Certainly not the writer’s, nor the readers who must be either bored, irritated, offended or unhealthily stimulated by it, and bashing hardly conducive to higher intellectual standards. In ay case, the aim of any member ism surely, to try to explain the Voynich, not himself.
    And since we are talking about tools (whether spades or hammers is not established), then it appears the Vms list is now less a research tool than a small utilitarian fraternity, to enter which one has to ‘pass the test’. Might I suggest the fraternity’s motto? ‘Credere aut mori’?

    1. Diane, please don’t get too focussed on the term “bashing” — I used it in the loose sense of “strong criticism.”
      If the list is supposed to be a tool to come closer to the truth, it is necessary not only to present ideas, but also to examine, evaluate, and possibly reject them: If you present a thesis, you should be ready to defend it. The rest is idle chit-chat.
      How you get the idea of the list as a “fraternity”, I don’t know. Most of the members there I’ve found to be inviting, helpful, and patient.

      1. ideally, one would also like to add ‘receptive’ – as the remaining members are, of course, towards each other.
        I can think of no-one’s ideas that have gained universal acceptance, so on that score, everyone’s pretty much equal. And yet only one (remaining) person is being… what was your phrase…”strongly criticised”. I’m sure after that pack-attack, he will cease to post, and universal harmony will reign among the handful who remain. So long.

  9. My development is still at an early stage.
    Who can presume to pass judgment now ?

    Yes, there are some findings concerning the author, which will be published at appropriate time.

    Some people might not want to understand how simple the process is, therefore, again and again, very briefly:

    1. Google Translate is used to translate single words the first time and/or to verify them(word level).
    Almost all of the words from VM result into a meaningful Arabic translation.

    2. Google Translate is used to generate the chain of transliterated words to a sequence in Arabic script (record level).
    This is not a translation!

    3. The above string is passed to the human translator to produce a correct syntactic and semantic translation.

    Step 1 I can prove.

    To verify the transformation step 2 to step 3, *you* will need a sound knowledge of Arabic.

    Now I am waiting for your rebuttal or your objections, in detail, please.

    For more information about my solution see:

    الناس الأذكياء لا يجب أن يكونوا جهلاء

    1. Joachim,
      I’m really willing to understand your procedure, unfortunately the link on your blog which is supposed to supply more detail leads to a page in Hebrew which I don’t read.
      Right now my main question is where you get the material for step 1 from.
      My first understanding was that you took the EVA transcription at face value, ie that the EVA-transcribed word “qocheedy” was supposed to begin with the sound “q” (or “k”), and end with the sound “y” (or “i” or “e” or similar). It seems I was wrong and there is a different “correspondence table” which denotes which EVA letters represent which sounds, but I don’t know what this table looks like and how you arrived at it. These would be crucial steps for anyone wishing to reproduce your results. (If there is such a correspondence table, I’m also a bit at a loss how anybody is supposed to be able to “see for themselves” what happens if you put a VM word into the Google translator to evaluate the results.)
      The fact that you arrive at some recognizable words doesn’t guarantee the correctness of your method. You might want to read up on the works of Stojko, Levitov, Friedman and others (as Rene Zandbergen has pointed out), who also produced individual words, but in the long run were unable to create a coherent “narrative” with their method.

      1. Elmar,

        thank you for pointing out the wrong link.
        It should work now. Nevertheless, a note: Some information there is outdated.
        Regarding the translation method, I refer to my last posting in VMs on 3vP1. EVA is not an issue for me, was only meant for people who want to see results immediately. Check out my latest “correspondence table” :

        and you know what I mean.

      2. Elmar, sorry for inconvenience, the address is:


      3. Joachim, so, do I understand correctly that what you propose is that the VM is a phonetic transcription of Arabic, and that some letters used in the transcription scheme happen to have the same phonetic value as the EVA characters used to describe them, while others have not?
        And that those characters whch exhibit this identity are predominantely those which resemble latin characters (as in “a”, “o”, “c”, “i”)?
        (I’m really trying to understand your method!)

      4. …most systems for romanizing Arabic are actually transcription systems, which represent the sound of the language.

        From the link you provided.

        But you’re saying that the VM exhibits a 1:1 correspondence between a presumed arabic original plaintext and the VM “ciphertext”, ie each VM letter corresponds to what was one letter in the original plaintext, written originally in Arabic sript? That is to say, the VM letters match (or represent) the written letters of the plaintext, not so much the original sounds?

      5. 1. As I said before a lot of these doc contents is outdated, don’t cling on it.
        2. This development is in an early stage, more important than old docs are new translations.
        3. Newest insights are always published within the list.
        4. Did you have had a look on the translation I named?

  10. Diane et all.
    I find that most of the persons on the list are fairly “receptive” to new ideas. Oh, I’ve seen a couple of incidents pop up where someone hasn’t bothered to look at ideas themselves and merely parroted what they perceived as the prevailing response, but for the most part the people here tend to give new ideas a fair shake.
    More often — I see where someone presents a new idea and the responders indicate that it’s interesting but needs to do “X” before it can gain any more credibility. The job is then for the new idea’s originator to provide what is being asked for — be it a repeatable method or an example of how the system works to encipher new material. In this case, I see the originator providing still more of the same translation — fueled by a whole lot of poetic license with the result. In this case they even give as one of their translation steps:

    “Then I study word / thought coherence by conducting several drafts, until I come up with something meaningful. ”

    I believe there are several word games that feature this — where the player takes a list of seemingly unrelated words and tries to turn it into a meaningful sentence or even poem.
    So far, I don’t see much else happening in this case.

  11. Ernest, the idea that the underlying language might be Arabic means as much – or as little as any other proposition. My point was not that it was credible, or not, but that if an idea is interesting, by all means ask more information, but if it strikes one as completely nonsensical, is there really any point in joining in a general attack on it? As far as theories in general go, I doubt that there are three people together who agree with each other, but the usual thing is to allow the person to post, and simply to ignore them.

    At the moment, we have theories about heraldry, geographic mapping, telescopes, and ladies clubs being offered as the manuscript’s raison d’etre. All may seem as nonsensical to some, but another post from those persons doesn’t see the same massed attack that we’re getting here, or which on numerous other occasions have seen perfectly sensible people effectively hounded from the list.

    My argument is not that the translations are accurate, but that the response to them is unnecessary, and likely to lead only to a general feeling that this supposedly scholarly list is now mostly amiable only if one is a white, preferably atheist or protestant male, interested in cryptography and adopting the view that the manuscript was made by someone formed in their own image.

    Believe it or not, that is not a rare view of the list even now. Consider the roll-call of those who have departed!

    1. Just for the record, though I’d be surprised if the VM contained Arabic text, I wouldn’t rule it out.
      I also think that you have a somewhat biassed view on what is going on on the VM list. Joachim is by far not the only person to have received more or less hefty criticism; ask Richard SantaColoma, Richard Sale, Robert Teague, etc.; virtually everyone who proposes a solution — You have it scrutinized, examined and — ususally — rejected. The reason that Joachim currently receives more flak than anybody else is that his approach is new, and that he fairly boldly claims huge successes.
      A more modest approach will usually attract more subtle criticism.

  12. “…most systems for romanizing Arabic are actually transcription systems, which represent the sound of the language.”

    That doesn’t matter regarding my transliteration.
    I choose a presentation Google-Translate accepts as input, you have the code and you can try it yourself.
    And see:

    “From the link you provided. I find your explanations sometime hard to comprehend.”

    Then read my ” Complete translation process on f3v, 1st paragr.” posting and everything should be cleared up. (If not, you may ask with details).

    1. My quote regarding sound came from the very Wikipedia article your link pointed me to (and point me to again), so the link seems not to say what you wanted to say.
      I also read your page painstakingly, but your wording is sometimes confusing and hard to follow in detail. Apparently I’m not the only one with this problem, since IIUC nobody was yet able to retrace your steps. You might want to consider to more carefully edit your documents before publishing them.

  13. More to the point: Joachim, have you considered dialects other than formal (i.e. classical Qur’anic) Arabic? I’d suggest medieval Omani for a start, or perhaps the Persian dialect spoken in the tenth-early 15thC. Just a thought.

    1. Dear Diane,
      my translator is asking how you came to medieval Omani language. She is a little excited about. Can you share your knowledge, please.

      1. Oh crumbs! Where to begin?
        Has to do with resemblances between Voynich script and South Arabian minuscule (zabur script), but with piled up indications such as plants in the botanical section only known in the Indian Ocean (Arabian sea), some most useful for the ship and its provisions. Also the historical links between Oman (or early Siraf etc), that same part of the Yemen, and the patterns of the Azdi diasporas. Plus plain historical considerations – such as the region around Oman being the centre of that diaspora, the port used by the Chinese ships from the second century AD, the use of that port and presumably its ships by the Radhanites i the 8th-9th centuries, and of course – later – the role of Majid and other mu’allim kanakas within the eastern trade routes. Same range of allusion, but probably from pre- or non-Muslim foundation-texts, is offered by the manuscript overall, including its astronomical section. Majid had studied both the classical Mediterranean’s and the other systems of astronomy. The combination of repetitious and ‘poetic’ structures in the written text also points that way (pilot poems). Not actually arguing that it’s a mariner’s handbook, but all in all in all I’d expect a vernacular over classical Arabic. Could prove a wild goose chase, but I wondered if it wasn’t worth considering.

      2. Joachim – I’d better add to the previous (following) comment that I’d be considering the earlier, rather than the later medieval period: perhaps 9th-10thC AD

      3. Diane,
        we are extremely grateful for your previous comments.
        My (professional) translator who lives in the Middle East, writes:
        “what Diane is suggesting might be true, in this case in the last translation oman & yman, could easily refer to the country of Yemen and the city of Oman. hence i should make some amendments to the translation, it will not change the meaning drastically though, it’ll make it more specified.”

  14. Diane.

    I agree with your comment that “the idea that the underlying language might be Arabic means as much – or as little as any other proposition”, but what I meant was that the originator of the idea ( Joachim ) needs to be able to address any questions that come up from respondents ( in this case the members of the Vms list ) to the best of his ability if he wishes to be taken seriously.
    Arabic is certainly a possibility for a source language for the Vms code — but one that asks for Joachim to also explain the transition of the material from the Arabic “right-to-left” script and page order to the “left-to-right” script/page order of the translation.

    Whether the “Translations” are nonsensical or not doesn’t matter if Joachim can come up with a consistent method of generating them without huge levels of guesswork on the resulting transcription. Anyone can string a series of random words together and squeeze text out of it with a little practice.

    The list responses that Joachim is getting seem, to me, to be attempts to get him to “tighten up” his method.

    As for the “feeling that this supposedly scholarly list is now mostly amiable only if one is a white, preferably atheist or protestant male, interested in cryptography and adopting the view that the manuscript was made by someone formed in their own image.”

    1 — this “scholarly list” is made up of interested people who have had to develop most of the required skills on their own. We’re all learning as we go.

    2 — for all anyone knows I’m a 3 foot, 8 inch black, female circus performer and Scientologist. Who “I” am doesn’t effect my amiability towards the ideas being presented.

    3 — I’m confident that there are no other people “formed in my own image”

    Best, Ernest

    1. Ernest – didn’t mean you. It was just an image, with hyperbole on top.

      Joachim – suits me. I was thinking more about why the grammar and vocab doesn’t seem to suit a straight translation from Arabic to ..whatever. Is there a problem with the grammar? And how about tenses and that sort of thing? How much re-arrangement do the words need to form a sentence? I suppose I should ask you these things on a list, not clog Elmar’s blog. Must say, though, I’ve recently found what I believe is a motif, repeated on some folios, that refers to the reed-pen as the norm for scribes. Interesting – will be in a post I’ll put up in a couple of days. Got a comment coming up on a blog-post that is due to publish in a couple of days.

      1. Diane,
        think about sufism and its special shaping.

  15. Hmm – I say Uleg Beg or Majid before al Sufi. But that’s only by reference to the imagery – which is not Islamic in my view.

    1. I only can comment on language, and Sufi Arabic has a special “shaping”.

  16. For everything about the VM-Arabic relation see here:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s