Is ambiguity in ancient texts a problem for the translator?

At work today one of my colleagues had received a particularly hasty email from a customer.  The sentence was somewhat difficult to parse, and could be read in two ways.  But we worked out what it meant.  And then — for, unusually, my current colleagues know who I am — he asked me this:

When you’re translating an ancient text, how do you deal with ambiguity?

It’s a very good question, isn’t it? 

The first point that struck me is that mostly ancient authors wanted to be read, and to be understood, and consequently wrote in order to avoid ambiguity.  A word might have two meanings, but the rest of the sentence would be so phrased as to rule out all but one choice.

I think that here is rather less ambiguity in ancient texts than we might suppose, as we translate them.  Isn’t it the case that, in the majority of the situations where we find ourselves with ambiguity, it is because we can’t work out what the thought is, that the author is trying to express? 

I remember wrestling with a translation of the 6th century Syriac scientific author, Severus Sebokht, On the Constellations.  The subject matter — “climates” and stars and so on — was unfamiliar, and I found myself in the dark, sometimes, where a sentence could have more than one meaning, word for word.  But the real problem was that I simply didn’t know enough about the subject to choose the right possible word meaning.

When we find a word that could be translated several ways, we usually find that the context decides which word that should be.  By “context” we mean that the word is part of a sentence, and the sentence part of a paragraph, and the paragraph is devoted to putting forward a train of thought.  All this naturally tends to reduce the possible multiple meanings of a word, or a set of words.  The author probably did not intend to be ambiguous, after all, although, with some of the more allusive Byzantine writers, you do wonder!

When we do find a word which is clearly ambiguous in the original, how do we handle it?  In this case we must consider the possibility that the ambiguity is deliberate, and therefore needs to be conveyed to the reader in English.  The best solution is to use an English word that has the same dual sense.  Habeo in Latin has a considerable range of meanings beyond have, own; and have itself can carry more than one meaning in English.  But in most cases we will not find a convenient equivalent.  In that case we must resort to footnotes; translate the meaning that is most important, and indicate the overloading in a footnote.  Indeed even when a single ambiguous English word can be found, it is probably best to indicate in a footnote that the ambiguity is in the Latin or Greek. 

For footnotes, of course, exist primarily to allow the translator to anticipate the criticisms of the reviewer — “surely any schoolboy would have known that blah blah…” — and prevent such captiousness.  Whether such preventative footnotes are of use to the general reader may sometimes be doubted.

A further element reducing ambiguity in ancient sentences is the language itself.  English is a weakly-typed language, to borrow a computer idiom.  A word may be a noun or a verb, and little or nothing in the form of the word itself indicates its grammatical purpose or position in the sentence.  But Latin and Greek were more strongly typed. 

In English you can reverse the position of words, and it alters the meaning.  “Sextus killed Marcus” and “Marcus killed Sextus” are not equivalent statements, not least from the point of view of Marcus and Sextus. 

But in Latin this is an impossible problem.  “Sextus Marcum occidit” and “Marcum Sextus occidit” are of near identical meaning, differing only in emphasis.   Consequently the scope for ambiguity is reduced. 

But of course ambiguity does not disappear simply because of grammar!  The second word anyone learns in Latin, amas, has two different meanings — the second person singular indicative active of the verb amo meaning “you love”, as in amo, amas, amat; but it is also the accusative plural of the noun ama, the fireman’s buckets.  “amas amas” is a perfectly legal Latin sentence — “you love the fireman’s buckets”.  It is not clear, perhaps, which amas is which!  But even so, the meaning is unambiguous.

In short, translation does not have a special problem with ambiguity.  The author may be ambiguous; the language he writes in may assist or obstruct him; but surely the real cause of ambiguity is between the ears of the author, not in the mind of the translator?

6 Responses to “Is ambiguity in ancient texts a problem for the translator?”


  1. Duane

    Roger,

    Thanks for this interesting discussion.

    One of the three Akkadian bird dropping snake omens I used in my forthcoming paper on the origins of Homeric bird divination uses an ideogram, ÚŠ, in its protasis that in context can have two readings, kabtu, “heavy, powerful, . . .” or mītu, “dying.” Both are best understood here as adjectives modifying “snake.” Interesting, for somewhat differing reasons, both readings seem to work as a kind of word play against either the concept of being an important person (bēl bīti, “lord/owner of (that) house”, i.e. important person, in other contexts also a kabtu) or dying (now as a verb) in the apodosis. My translation of the omen reads, “If a dangerous (or dying) snake which is eating a bird is lifted up in the mouth of a falcon and it falls into a man’s house, the owner of that [hou]se will die, that house will be dispersed; its defeat [. . .]; that house, the palace will confiscate its holdings.” I didn’t know what else to do but provide my readers the option and explain the problem. Sally Freedman who published the most recent and best critical edition of the tablet series, Šumma Ālu, in which this omen is found uses a footnote to highlight the ambiguity. I am completely sure that the learned practitioners who wrote down this omen and those who used it knew both of these understandings of the ideogram and thought the seeming ambiguity important in some way that is hard for me to grasp. In fact I think the seeming ambiguity may have been purposeful.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Thank you for this useful example of the problem. It highlights that there are forms of literature in which dual meanings may be intentional.

  3. Jim Davila

    Good post, Roger. I have some additional observations on the question here: http://paleojudaica.blogspot.com/2011_09_25_archive.html#2833932675637019298

  4. Roger Pearse

    A great post, Jim – thank you!

  5. Maureen

    In divination, ambiguity is very helpful indeed. Look at the I Ching, or your average monthly astrology column. If you’re not cheering with one hand and warning with the other, you can be ambiguous and do both.

  6. Roger Pearse

    Yes, that kind of ambiguity or obscurity is intentional.



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