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Special Topics: Transliteration of the text

The main page related to transliteration is here. The present page has the following topics:

Next-generation transliteration of the text

Introduction

The main page related to text transliteration describes the presently available transliteration systems and files, and a bit of history. In order to fully understand the following discussion, the reader should be familiar with its contents. The 'main page' shows that available transliterations are based on concepts of several decades ago. They use simple text files which allow very easy parsing by simple tools, which is convenient, but not in line with modern representation standards. It was already suggested on that page that a new generation of transliteration is due, and a similar feeling was expressed in the page describing my views. In the following this is discussed in more detail.

I should first address one potential misunderstanding: the existing transliterations are not "bad".

Under the simple assumption that the text of the Voynich MS should be a plain text encrypted using some standard method of the 15th century, it would have been solved easily using even the earliest transliterations made by Friedman or by Currier. That this did not happen is not the fault of the transliterations, but of the assumption.

So while the existing tansliterations are not "bad", there is certainly room for significant improvement.

The purpose (in my opinion) of a new transliteration effort is to have the best possible data available in a state-of-the-art manner, and capturing much more necessary and useful information than the present transliteration files do. This is independent of any particular approach for analysing the text.

The source of all transliterations

Our primary source is the physical MS itself. This is, however, not readily accessible. What's more, even if we had some time to study it, we would not be able to do any significant text analysis, since we cannot search the text without leafing through the entire book. We therefore need to use derivatives of the original to work with.

The first derivative

The first level of abstraction is given by pictures of the MS. These may be analog pictures such as, for example, in the recent photo facsimiles (1). With these, we lose something, namely the interaction with the physical object, and everything that we can only observe from the original. We also gain something, namely ease of access. We can have the book at home and browse it anytime. At the same time, searching the MS is still only possible by leafing through the entire book.

Even more useful are digital images of the MS, which we may call the first derivative. With these digital images, we have a few more advantages, namely:

The 'final' derivative

Our target level of abstraction consists of the electronic text transliterations, but I won't call this the second level. As will become clear in the course of this page, I would consider this the fourth level of abstraction.

In this lowest abstraction we both lose and gain enormously. What we gain is the fact that we can search the text, both manually and in automated processes, and we can generate statistics, indexes etc. What we lose may be summarised as follows:

  1. We lose a lot of information that may be collected under the header 'layout'. We no longer see the handwriting characteristics, the spacings of the lines, whether characters or words are far apart, etc., etc.
  2. We lose a lot of distinctions in the written characters that may well be relevant. Every transliterator makes many decisions that are irreversible, typically when deciding that two similar-looking character forms were intended to be one and the same, and are therefore transliterated in the same way.

A third problem inherent to transliterations of the Voynich MS text is a combination of these two points: the uncertain definition of word boundaries or word spaces. The word boundary definitions are based on subjective decisions made by transliterators deriving from the layout of the text.

Some initial considerations

The main transliterations that are available do not all capture the same information. Those that have been collected in the interlinear file have some useful meta-data. This term means any descriptive data about the text, rather than the transliteration itself. These data, among others, identify the location in the MS of each transliterated piece of text, but also additional information. All transliterations in the interlinear file use the Eva transliteration alphabet, but in the 'Basic Eva' form without the special, important extensions.

The v101 transliteration by GC is likely to be the more accurate and consistent one, but this has a less standard location identification and lacks all other meta-data. It is using a different transliteration alphabet, and for both historical and practical reasons it has not been included in the interlinear file.

This last point is worth a small initial discussion. It will be addressed more fully later. In principle, there is no reason that all transliterations in the interlinear file should use the same transliteration alphabet. It should be possible to identify the alphabet used for each entry in one way or another. That Eva was used for all other ones lies in the fact that Eva was defined such that all existing transliterations could be converted to Eva without loss of information, and in a reversible manner. For that reason there was no need to maintain the original alphabets, but these alphabets can still be used. The same is not true for v101, and even a rendition into Eva using the extended characters is not possible without loss of information.

The need to generate a better transliteration was also discussed by Nick Pelling at >>this blog post with comments from several contributors. (While the name or title "EVA 2.0" is not entirely appropriate in my opinion, I suppose that this was more of a catch phrase rather than a serious proposal.)

Making a new transliteration is a very significant effort, and it is only worth doing if it really improves upon what is available now. It should preserve the advantages we have now, solve as many of the existing problems and shortcomings as possible, and bring additional advantages.

Exemplifying the problem

To judge the effort in making a new transliteration, it would be useful to know how many characters there are in the written text of the MS.

Do we know the answer to this very simple question? No we don't.

After one hundred years of statistical analyses, the answer to this simple question is unknown. What's worse, if four people were asked today to make a count, they would come up with five different answers.

Partly, that is understandable. Which of the transliteration files is complete? (Hint: none of them are). Furthermore, there is no agreed definition of the character set. The number depends on this definition. Even if this number cannot be determined yet, it would be important if two people made a count based on the same assumptions, that they end up with the same answer. They should be able to state their assumptions in such a way that someone else could repeat the count and come up with the same answer. Let me therefore insert an intermezzo related to standards and conventions.

Intermezzo: about standards and conventions

Why are they important?

Standards and conventions facilitate collaboration. They allow people to exchange data and results, and for everybody to 'talk the same language'. They allow verification.

This should be completely obvious, but let me just give a small example. Imagine that two people have made their own transliterations of part of the Voynich MS text. Now imagine that someone wanted to compute the entropy values of these two transliterations. He has a tool to do that. He would need to read and process the two transliterations, which is easy (and reliable) if both use the same file format, following some convention. If they are not following the same convention, the work is more difficult because the tool has to be modified to read one or the other. As a consequence it is also less reliable since there could be a bug that affects one and not the other. Next, a second person also has a tool to compute entropy. This could be used as a cross-check (verification). This only works well if there is a standard format that all developers of tools can rely on.

Do we have any, and if not, why not?

There are numerous examples of conventions related to the Voynich MS. In the days of Friedman, pages of the Voynich MS were identified with the so-called Petersen page numbers. We still find them, e.g., in Currier's paper (Table A). Nowaways, the standard way to refer to the pages in the MS is using the foliation of the MS. The latter is used in many web resources, and in the transliteration files.

Use of the Eva transliteration alphabet in discussions about the Voynich MS is an example of a de facto convention. It was not the result of a committee decision that was enforced through some document, but a personal effort of two people (Gabriel Landini and myself) that was considered useful and was generally adopted.

The naming of the various sections in the Voynich MS ("herbal", "biological", "pharmaceutical") is another example that is useful to illustrate some points. Not all people like all of these terms, and as a result, different people use different names for the same thing. While, fortunately, this is irrelevant for the chances of translating the Voynich MS text, it makes communication cumbersome. The point to be made here is that conventions do not need to represent the most accurate way to name or describe things. What matters is that they are usable and that they are generally accepted.

In 'real-life' international collaboration activities, committees or bodies are set up to discuss and agree on standards and conventions, and a majority decision is made. After that, also those who had a different opinion agree to adopt the standard. This is the process that makes collaboration possible. In the world of the Voynich MS, there are no such committees, and everybody is happy to do their own thing. Progress is made by individuals who are not 'talking' but 'doing'. The Eva alphabet, the interlinear transliteration file and GC's v101 transliteration (2), the Jason Davies Voyager (3) and the text/page browser at voynichese.com (4) are very good examples of this.

Classification of the problems to be solved

I would suggest that all improvements that can be made to the present state of Voynich MS transliteration can be classified largely into two groups:

  1. How to properly describe the transliterated text in the MS
  2. How to properly store and annotate this information for easy and consistent retrieval

(1) How to describe the text in the MS

The most frequently discussed point in this area is the question what the best transliteration alphabet should look like. A large part of the main page is devoted to describing the various historical transliteration alphabets, and some of their pros and cons. It is not certain (at least not to me) that there should be one single 'best' and commonly agreed transliteration alphabet, that should be used by everybody.

The main problem is the subjectiveness that should be removed, or at least minimised, from the transliteration. This is a very complex issue, and in a way it comes down to the definition of the transliteration alphabet. This is not the question whether the shape:

should be transcribed as "d" or "8". This is completely irrelevant. The real problem to be solved is how to group similar-looking characters into a single transliterated character.

Looking at this problem in a very abstract manner, one could argue that in principle all characters in the MS are different, since they have been written by hand. This would of course be a completely useless way to transliterate the text, but it defines the starting point for the definition of any transliteration alphabet:

In principle, every character in the MS could be described by a small graphics file extracted from the digital images. Whether this is a good solution in practice may be seriously doubted, but at least this presents a (hypothetical) additional level of abstraction in between the digital scans and the transliterated text. It may be called the second level of abstraction.

Since automated transliteration from digital images (e.g. in an OCR process) is not yet practically possible for the Voynich MS and other handwritten documents (5), another intermediate level of abstraction could be introduced, namely that of a transliteration 'super alphabet'. This would be one that captured all subtle differences between characters, resulting in a very large 'alphabet'. How should this be defined or organised?

Superset of all alphabets (Super Transliteration Alphabet)

Without claiming that this is the only or even the best solution, I imagine such a super alphabet to be organised into 'character families'. This may be explained using Eva just for illustration purposes: there could be a family of all y-like characters, a family of all r-like characters, one of all sh-like characters etc. etc. It could consist of two identifiers for each character: the family identifier and the 'family member' identifier.

Such an alphabet would not be suited for practical statistical analyses, but it would allow researchers to define, use and experiment with their own alphabets. How one would arrive at this alphabet from the digital images is of course not yet clear. At least theoretically, this rendition of the text using a 'super alphabet' can be the third level of abstraction.

While a definitive Super Translitation Alphabet (STA) would be defined after a renewed transliteration effort, undoubtedly including numerous new characters, it is already possible to define such an alphabet as a superset of all existing transliteration alphabets. This effort has been done, and after an iterative procedure, I have defined such an alphabet, which is either referred to as "STA" or as "ISTA-16", where the "I" again refers to its intermetiate state. It was achieved after 16 iterations. It has 293 different characters. More information about this will gradually appear at this site.

The following graphic shows the dependencies of all main transliteration alphabets that are discussed at this site. The arrows both mean: "is based on" and "fully includes", in the sense that the 'higher' alphabet can fully represent texts expressed in the 'lower' alphabet. In the opposite direction this is generally not the case.

This shows that it is sufficient to make a superset of Extended Eva and v101, as this automatically captures all other alphabets. This is not trivial, because v101 is a synthetic alphabet (capturing all combined and/or ligatured) characters, while Eva is analytical, defining the individual elements. As a first step it was therefore necessary to identify all combinations in Eva, such as, for example: {c@182;h}, which is a ligature of c, the rare character @182; and h. In total, 235 such characters and combinations exist.

The definition of STA families is provided here.

(2) How to store the transliteration data

The issues related to data storage / formats that should be resolved may be developed from the points raised above:

  1. There is a need for a standardised format for representing all past and future transliterations
  2. Layout information needs to be added, namely the precise location of each text element in the MS, and the handwriting characteristics: character size, writing direction, slant angle (if possible).

Eventually, and ideally, all information should be contained in an on-line database, with query tools to extract what one would need, in well-defined formats. Thus, when I wrote near the top of this page, that standards like 'TEI' should be supported, I see this as an output from a query to this database.

The definition of such a database is a task that requires preparation. It is not even clear exactly what should be contained in it. Generally speaking, all tools and products that are available now should be able to work on the basis of it, for example any transliteration file should be an extract of it, but also tools like the Jason Davies voyager (see note 3) or the tool known as 'voynichese.com' (see note 4). One important aspect that is presently not clearly defined is the way to identify the exact location on a page of any text item. The Jason Davies voyager has implemented one method, and 'voynichese.com' must also have implemented a solution for this.

Presently, the information that should go into this database is collected in several different files of similar, yet not consistent formats. A first step that is needed is to consolidate all existing information into a common format based on consistent definitions, and without loss of information. For this purpose, the "Intermediate Voynich Transcription File Format" has been defined, which is described in the next part of this page.

Summary

The following table summarises the abstraction levels and their relative usefulness.

Level Data Useful? Comment
0 The original MS Limited Accessible to, and useful for specialists only
1a Original MS scans Yes General purpose use, not ideal for OCR
1b Processed MS scans Yes Text-only, but same dimensions as original, for OCR
2 Image clips of characters Hardly Possibly for visual comparison only
3 Database using 'super alphabet' Yes Should be the source for all work. Will require iterative procedure to achieve
4 Transliteration files Yes Ascii text files for numerical analysis, based on database query

The following bullet list includes my suggestions on what could be done on the short and intermediate term to arrive at a better transliteration database:

Of all bullet points above, only one still appears obscure and may require considerable further thought, and is clearly a longer-term objective. This is the point related to iterative improvement of the database and 'super alphabet'.

It should be noted that the above database is not only useful for text analysis, but also for some aspects of handwriting analysis, e.g. text size, slant angle, line distance, maintenance of margins, etc. For these aspects, no numerical data is presently avaible.

Text that has not (yet) been transliterated

Introduction

Several more-or-less complete transliterations of the Voynich MS text have been made, and are presented in a table on the main page. However, some text in the MS is missing in all of them. It is either not represented at all, or represented by the sequence "???" meaning: an unknown number of illegible characters.

Here, we are not concerned with text on pages that have been lost (such as e.g. folio 12 or folio 74), but with text that is on the extant folios. We are also not concerned with text that we can see clearly, but we can't figure out which characters are there. An example of that is part of the text around the sun face at the bottom of folio f68r2, see lower left quadrant in the following figure. Here, we can't even decide which part of the text is in the unknown script, and which part is 'cleartext'.

What we are concerned with here is text that we know is there or should be there, but it hasn't been transliterated (yet) because we can't see it properly. The text may not have been photographed, for example, or it may be behind layers of paint, or it may have been damaged.

To assess this, it is useful to first present the list of sources from which the transliterations may be made:

CodeSourceComment
A The original MS The original MS has limited accessibility, but could be consulted in principle to provide the "final answer". Some illegible parts will also be irrecoverable from the original.
B The Siloé facsimile This has been produced on the basis of new photographs which may be more complete than the Beinecke 2014 digital scans, but some parts remain equally invisible in the final product.
C The 2014 scans at the Beinecke digital library This is the 'default' source but parts of the text are invisible for several reasons.
D The 2004 digitial scans The earlier scan is still available. In some parts it is worse, and in other parts better than the 2014 scans. Some zodiac pages are not visible at all.
E The B/W copyflo from the 1970's This is of generally lower quality, but the zodiac pages were flattened in this copy.
F The Friedman copy Probably the oldest available copy made from original photostats, but the quality of these 'copies of copies' is even lower than the copyflo.
G The Petersen hand transcript This is not a true source, but includes his interpretation of the writing. Its usefulness is that he has verified the original MS in the 1930's, for difficult parts.

The 'best' source to start from is "C", the set of digital scans at the Beinecke digital library, because it is easily acessible and nearly complete. The list of badly readable parts may be made starting from this source, and is presented below. In the table, "Locus" refers to the identification of the item in the IVTFF transliteration. "Problem description" is usually based on what we see in source "C".

This is work that is still very much in progress....

Folio Locus Item Problem description
f67v2 21 Cosmological page. Vertical label near the four coloured faces in the lower left corner of the page It is under the paint and not visible in "C" or "D". It is barely visible in "B". "G" has part of it.
f71v 1 First "Taurus" zodiac page. Some words in the outer circle near 03:00 The words are hidden in the fold
f72r3 1 "Cancer" zodiac page. 1-2 words in the outer circle near 01:00 The words seem obliterated in the fold
f72r3 14 "Cancer" zodiac page. Part of a word in the second circle near 02:00 The part is hidden in the fold
f72r3 20 "Cancer" zodiac page. Part of a label near 03:30 The part is hidden in the fold
f72v3 1 "Leo" zodiac page. Several different parts of the outer circle Several parts are hidden by folds. The boundary with the next page (showing Virgo) is actually not hidden, but there is an interruption in the text as the circles did not fully fit on the pages.
f72v3 20 "Leo" zodiac page. Several words around 10:00 in the second circle They are hidden by the fold.
f72v2 1 "Virgo" zodiac page. Numerous words around 03:00 in the outer circle They are beyond the folded edge of the page. The boundary with the previous page (showing Leo) is actually not hidden, but there is an interruption in the text as the circles did not fully fit on the pages
fRos 1 Rosettes page. Label in upper left corner. It is barely visble. It has been recorded in source "H".
fRos 47 Rosettes page. Left centre circle. There are two bad parts due to the horizontal fold. Can be largely recovered from "B" and "D".
fRos 133 Rosettes page. Bottom right circle around 09:00. There are major parts of the text missing due to the badly damaged fold.
f86v4 1, 2 Cosmological page. Two outer circles near 10:00. Both very minor issues, due to crease in page.
f101v 19 and ff. Pharmaceutical page. Central parts of all horizontal lines of text. Most significant issue in the entire MS. Large parts of the horizontal text have become obliterated due to wear of the fold.
f102r2 15. Pharmaceutical page. Bottom word in the bottom jar. Word is under the paint and almost impossible to read. (Other words are somewhat less affected).
f103r 5-9 Text page with marginal stars. Numerous words near the upper right corner. Words are covered by a significant stain.
f116r 43,44 Text page with marginal stars. Some characters near start of lines. Characters have been eaten away by insects.

Transliteration File processing Tools

(See also the descriptions in the ReadMe file.)

ivtt: (Intermediate) Voynich Transliteration Tool

In the course of the transliteration collaboration with Gabriel Landini, I developed a tool to pre-process transliteration files. At the time, I made very extensive use of this tool, among others to do the analyses presented here, here and here, but since our transliteration was never published, this tool was never used by anyone else. It has been converted in order to process files in the IVTFF format.

The new version of this tool has been named (prosaically) IVTT (Intermediate Voynich Transliteration Tool). Its user guide is provided here, and the latest source code in C is provided here. Users also need to be familiar with the IVTFF format definition.

Please note that the latest version of the source code is 1.1, dated 10 April 2020. All known bugs and issues have been resolved in this version.

Rather than explaining the usefulness of this tool by duplicating information from its user guide and the IVTFF format definition, I prefer to show this by giving a few simple examples.

Examples

One of many uses of the tool is to select specific parts of a transliteration file. For example, the command:

ivtt +QO +@Lc ZL.txt

Can be used to extract all container labels in quire 15 from the ZL transliteration file. The result is:

<f88r>         <! $I=P $Q=O $P=C $L=A $H=4>                                     
<f88r.1,@Lc>     otorchety
<f88r.12,@Lc>    otaldy
<f88r.23,@Lc>    ofyskydal
<f88v>         <! $I=P $Q=O $P=D $L=A $H=4>                                     
<f88v.1,@Lc>     okalyd
<f88v.11,@Lc>    otoram
<f88v.27,@Lc>    daramdal
<f89r1>        <! $I=P $Q=O $P=F $L=A>                                          
<f89r1.1,@Lc>    okchshy
<f89r1.11,@Lc>   ykyd
<f89r1.24,@Lc>   ykocfhy
<f89r2>        <! $I=P $Q=O $P=G $L=A>                                          
<f89r2.1,@Lc>    odory
<f89r2.9,@Lc>    otold[:y]
<f89r2.16,@Lc>   korainy
<f89r2.29,@Lc>   okain
<f89r2.30,+Lc>   yorainopaloiiry
<f89v1>        <! $I=P $Q=O $P=J $L=A>                                          
<f89v1.1,@Lc>    okoraldy
<f89v1.21,@Lc>   <!container>koeeorain

To remove the 'dressing' and leave only the transliterated text, the command issued above can be changed (for example) as follows:

ivtt -f1 -c5 +QO +@Lc ZL.txt

The same can be done reading the GC file:

ivtt -f1 -c5 +QO +@Lc GC.txt

or for Takeshi's transliteration as included in the LSI file:

ivtt -f1 -c5 +QO +@Lc -tH LSI.txt

The results of the three commands are shown below, next to each other:

From ZL file   From GC file   From LSI file  
otorchety
otaldy
ofyskydal
okalyd
otoram
daramdal
okchshy
ykyd
ykocfhy
odory
otold[:y]
korainy
okain
yorain
choeesy
otory
opaloiiry
okoraldy
koeeorain
okoy1ck9
okae89
of9sh98ae
ohAe98
okoyap
8ayap7ae
oh159
9h98
9hoF9
o8oy9
okoe89
hoyan,9
ohan
9oyan
1oCs9
okay9
ogaeoZ9
ohayae79
hoCoy,an
otorchety 
otaldy 
ofyskydal 
okolyd 
otoram 
daramdal 
okchshy 
ykyd 
ykocfhy 
odory 
otoldy 
korain.y 
okain
yorain 
choeesy 
okory 
opaloiiry 
okoraldy 
koeeorain 

As another example, one may quickly see that centred lines in normal paragraph text occur equally in pages written in Currier language A and in Currier language B:

ivtt -x7 +@Pc +LA ZL.txt
>>
ytchas oraiin chkor
dainod ychealod
ychekch y kchaiin
saiinchy daldalol
sam chorly
otchodeey
dorain ihar
okar sheey shekealy
teol cheol otchey ???cheor cheol ctheol cholaiin chol qkar

and

ivtt -x7 +@Pc +LB ZL.txt
>>
oteor aiicthy
oteol cholkal qokal dar ykdy
pchedy chetar ofair arody
yteched ar olkey okeoam
s ar chedar olpchdy otol otchedy
dar oleey ol yy
otar chdy dytchdy
otoiir chedaiin otair otaly

bitrans: Bi-directional Translation / Substitution Tool

Bitrans is a tool that can perform text substitutions to any plain text file. In addition, it provides specific support for files in the IVTFF format. It is a convenient tool to change the transliteration alphabet of any transliteration file (whether IVTFF-formatted or not) from one to another. The user achieves this by providing a table of equivalences, a so-called "rules file". The tool can apply this table in both directions. Rules files for the common transliteration alphabets are provided with the tool. The user can also define his own transliteration alphabet, and convert any of the existing transliterations into it. A very simple example of that was given here.

The user guide of bitrans is provided here, and the latest source code in C (version 1.3 of 26/07/2021) is provided here.

Please Note that bitrans v.1.2 had a bug and should not be used. For the tme being, the user manual is still at version 1.2, but this remains valid.

See also the ReadMe file.

Notes

1
See Clemens (2016) and Skinner (2017).
2
See here.
3
See here.
4
See here.
5
I am aware of some efforts in this area in the DECODE database of cipher texts and encryption keys ( >>introduction to the database). These are not yet fully successful (source: B. Megyesi).

 

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Copyright René Zandbergen, 2021
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Latest update: 26/07/2021