Comparing… the issue of ‘translating’ imagery Pt2

[corrections and additions in green 29/07/2016 AEST]
This post considers the somewhat delicate, but critical issue of the translator in relation to an audience whose reactions may not be purely intellectual, but more human, and the fairly limited set of responses which form the classic model of hostility that inhibits the reception of any translation.
From what I have observed and experienced over the past eight years, and on looking back through the history of this study in an effort to understand why it seems as a whole unable to progress as fields of study normally do, I have come to the opinion that responses which are recognised in other contexts are here again the  principle cause –  most noticeable in this study since  c.2002, after which a shift began to occur, from study by independent scholars in loose association which had been seen earlier to the present situation in which the field is dominated by ‘theory-groups’ among whom certain members consciously exert overt and indirect pressure for the wider ‘community’ to conform.  The “I” of conversation has quietly shifted to a “we” versus “you”.
This post, I know, is very long.  I see no purpose in dividing it, but add a numbered line every so often, as a sort of book-mark.
Whether the ‘translator’ of imagery is a gallery guide, or is working for a private collector or institution, the pattern of negative response, and the reasons for it, need to be understood.  The action of that stock-pattern within Voynich studies is illustrated by instances between the seventeenth century and present day.  It can be predicted that, in a number of readers, the pattern of response to this information will also accord with the model described.
It is not true that information is as good as the source from which we get it; it is as good as the evidence on which it is founded. The person presenting that evidence may be of any social status, any nationality and any personal religious or philosophical group, but history shows that when a person brings to notice information about anything, including a set of images, which runs counter to established and comfortable ideas, the evidence too often becomes irrelevant – because reason is not the first or even third response for a majority of people.
Translating imagery is not mechanical and rarely error-free but it is also not without  risk –  though a professional is aware from the first of the fairly limited set of negative reactions which form the classic negative-response model likely to lead to some form of harm to the translator.  Within the context of Voynich studies, this pattern of response to ‘alien’ ideas and imagery has had a clear and increasing impact on possibilities for genuine advance, particularly after the rise of ‘theory-groups’ since c.2002.
Athanasius Kircher

Confronted with a text whose script, language and imagery he could not immediately understand as he expected to be able to do, Athanasius Kircher responded in the classic, reflexive, way   – displaying hostility without any logical reason for it, making efforts to denigrate the object sent him and to demean the social and intellectual standing of whoever was  responsible for having introduced the disturbing and ‘alien’ item into his  ‘comfort zone’.

Hugh O’Neill

It is seen again in relation to Hugh O’Neill’s supposedly identifying a sunflower among the botanical images.  That identification is usually discounted among Voynich researchers, but remains in circulation on the net and elsewhere. The reason, unacknowledged, is that the period post-1493 and the ‘new world’ constitutes the ‘comfort-zone’ and only area of interest for many.  By contrast, the fact that O’Neill was neither the first to refer to a ‘sunflower’ nor unaware before he published that the identification was untenable is scarcely known.


It is pertinent that Fr. Petersen, who  informed O’Neill of the contrary evidence, was a member of the religious whereas O’Neill was a university-trained botanist: perceptions or assertions of a superior status are inextricable from the set of stock reactions against discomforting information.

Rene Zandbergen’s 20-year collection of past and present researchers’ works recently permitted him to share snippets from two letters that were written to Anne Nill about O’Neill’s ‘sunflower’.

He repeats these sentences:
(From Fr.Petersen – date given as July 27, 1942).
Dear Miss Nill,
I was very much mortified when I saw in yesterday’s “Sunday Star” …. a gabled [read ‘garbled’ -D] report of the short article which Dr. O Neill wrote for the “Speculum” and which has not yet appeared in print. …. Dr. O’Neill has not partially translated the cipher manuscript; nor was he the first to notice that two of the drawings resembled the sunflower and the red pepper. Moreover, if his guesses were to prove correct he would have no right to argue that the MS should be dated at least a century later than Roger Bacon, but he would have to maintain that the MS was 2 ½ centuries later than R. Bacon in which claim no paleographer can support him. ..
The important point is the last phase: “in which claim no palaeographer can support him”.  On learning that, O’Neill was reading an assertion about objective evidence.  Apparently O’Neill didn’t trouble to ask that question which is the touch-stone of the scholar as rational man:  “Is it true?”.  It was, and is, true: a date of 1492 or later is untenable on palaeographic grounds.
Rene quoted part of a second letter, dated December 1st., 1944  including:
I personally am sorry that he wrote that note for the “Speculum”, for I am certain that he is wrong in his conclusion. I have told him many times that he is wrong, that the MS is certainly older [i.e. earlier -D] than 1493. He did not show me his manuscript before he sent it to the “Speculum” …
The second letter has less value.  Anyone can tell another person they are “wrong” – it means nothing of itself.  Given that  O’Neill held formal qualifications in the relevant discipline  and Fr.Petersen did not, that the first would ignore the second could be predicted, unless self-image meant less than academic rigor.
In O’Neill’s case, there is evident a notable lack of intellectual rigor: he is indifferent to the fact that he should acknowledge precedence; indifferent to Fr. Petersen’s information; indifferent to the question of palaeography, and indeed indifferent to anything else about the manuscript except his theory.

Another fine illustration of what the ‘translator’ of unwelcome information and imagery may expect is less likely to stir up the emotions of any reader.


I once sat in on a translation class working through an old religious text. The students were translating a sentence in turn, but one, when his turn came, showed signs of distress, refused to do the translation, picked up his bag and headed for the door.  The lecturer called to ask why he was leaving so early – thinking the boy might be ill – and  the student replied, “that text you gave us – God wouldn’t have said that!”
The moral isn’t that the student was silly; his distress was real. Something had appeared before him which not only offended his idea of “what ‘we’ all know” but his previously secure sense that within that environment he should encounter nothing ‘alien’ had been shattered.
His reaction was, essentially, one of fear, and his responses were made at the primal and emotional level, though expressed in the form of logic (if not reason).
As some readers here may have noted, the student’s outburst carries a sub-text.  It carries a tacit accusation that in bringing the disturbing item to the class, the lecturer had in some sense committed a “wrong” act.   Thus it was not any reasoned critique of the document which the student offered but he impugned the bearer – the ‘translator’ in that sense – and the student’s confident assertion that he knew what the deity would say and not say is another expression of the same assertion of moral, social and/or intellectual superiority as we see in these other cases; it serves to obscure the person’s recognition of their own bias. The same set reactions are observable in Kircher’s responses, and will be see again in Sprague’s.
In some parts of the world today, and certainly within medieval Europe, the student’s reaction to that document might have ended very unhappily for the lecturer.  A person’s being incapable of reasoning does not make them incapable of creating a seemingly logical, or “commonsense”  attack, one appealing to group-think and defining the translator (rather than the object) as ‘alien-and-inferior’.
T.A. Sprague
T.A. Sprague was shown photostat copies of some among the Voynich botanical images by  John Tiltman, who later reported:
 In 1957 I paid visits to a few specialists in early herbals in England. Among them I saw the late Dr.T.A. Sprague in Cheltenham and showed him a few specimen photostats of herbal drawings from the Voynich manuscript, of which he had been previously unaware. As he looked at them he became more and more agitated and eventually said, “Do you know what you are asking me to do? I have spent the last twenty years of my life trying to identify the plant drawings in the Juliana Anicia codex when the names of the plants are given in Greek, Latin and usually Arabic and you are asking me to identify these awful pictures.”

The set, and the order, of reactions is the same as that student’s, and indeed Kircher’s and others.  A combined assertion of social or intellectual superiority; an attack without reference to evidence upon the image and the person responsible for bringing it to notice.  Sprague’s first focus of attack was Tiltman: “Do you know what you are asking me to do?”

The answer he plainly expects would have Tiltman instantly accepting an inferior stance and status –  by reason of supposed ignorance, poor manners or insensitivity – and saying some such thing as “No I had no idea…  You are important… I am ignorant..foolish.. I apologise for disturbing you..”

In reality, of course, Tiltman had no reason to apologise.  Sprague had been asked if he would assist and had agreed to do so.

In each case – Kircher, the student, and Sprague – we find that a person expecting to have his self-image and his confidence in a given field  enhanced and ratified by a given document or image, instead found himself confronted with something alien to his experience  – so ‘alien’ that he became visibly distressed.  Reasoned comment did not occur. The distress at confronting “the entirely other” was alleviated in the reflexive, emotion-based way, absolutely refusing any objective comment on the script, format, or forms, but only attacking the object and the person who had introduced it.  Like O’Neill,  Sprague had fair reason to feel confident and ‘at home’ when the subject was botany.  Like Kircher, Sprague had reason to feel himself an important person in his chosen field

Sprague did not comment on the quality of the copy; he did not enquire if it might be fake.  He did not suggest that a photograph might be more informative.  Comments of that kind would be reasonable as response to an illegible text or image –  and if the aim were no more than to identify a plant.

Sprague’s responses are of the other sort entirely – first being focused on Tiltman, then shifting (as one might expect) to the person who might have foisted such images on the world: the imagined ‘artist’.   Because Sprague cannot admit his own inability to identify plants, the sense of inability is instantly, and instinctively transferred to that imagined figure, making “awful drawings” ( not an “awful photostat”).   We have seen already how convenient this malleable and mythical individual is, the “incompetent artist” and how its use has enabled decades of Voynich research to avoid any true translation of the imagery in favour of one which will not disturb the prevalent theory: anything and everything beyond their ability to explain might now be attributed (‘Dolly-did-it) to that figment of the imagination, the ‘artist’.  In that way, the plainly ‘alien’ imagery in the Voynich manuscript could continue to be deemed  (to quote “characteristically European”.  Attitudes to the month-roundels is another classic case in point.

At this point, I might remind my readers that the point of this post is to show how such re-actions have adversely affected this study, and positively inhibited advances, as well as to show their effect on particular items interpretation, on researchers and on the field as a whole. The focus, however, is one particular set of human reactions exhibited when faced with unexpected matter and the manuscript, not the individuals referenced. 

The habit was communicated to Jens Sensfelder and affected his conclusions about the Voynich ‘archer’ figure, permitting a Spanish bow to be described as suiting the ‘central European’ theory when in fact and with evidence, the bow plainly opposes it.  Since a colleague allowed that detail to be correctly explained (though involvement in Voynich studies is now so inglorious a pursuit that he refuses to be named in connection with it), the information continues to be ignored and Sensfelder’s more comfortable and theory-suited account is retained.  Pelling responded by trying to represent the evidence and obvious correction to Sensfelder’s account as being in some way hypothetical;  members of the former ‘central European’ (very recently morphed to the ‘Italo-central-European’) theory’  said nothing and ignored the evidence altogether, while not failing in their obligation to express personal hostility towards the bearer. (perhaps we may call this the ‘Sprague reaction’).


The next example, I can only recount, since I made no log entry of the details.

In some non-Voynich forum where the subject of the manuscript was raised, I referred to Sprague’s reaction, saying that it seems to imply that he recognised nothing  – not even a general indication of species. I asked what others might think. One response came within a couple of minutes. Its tone was matter-of-fact and sensible, though a  *sigh* appeared as prelude – a signal to other readers not to take the question seriously, or any further. He then said, as if it were what “we” all know:

Of course Sprague couldn’t recognise the herbal images; he had only looked at the pretty images in the Anicia Juliana codex.

Whether anyone else ever asked, “Is that true?” I don’t know, but of course I did, and here’s the thing:

Sprague (1877-1958) had travelled in the Americas as a botanist and as a taxonomist. He also spent time in northern India. He spent forty-five years as a member of staff at  Kew gardens, and fifteen of them as Deputy Keeper of the Herbarium. He had retired in 1945, only two years before meeting Tiltman, and had by then spent (literally) decades of his working life classifying and labelling plants  from Europe,  Asia, and the Americas, live specimens, pressed specimens, drawings and paintings both technical and ‘realist’. In addition to that immensely practical and wide-ranging work, his academic research and commentaries on the Dioscoridan corpus  was one area among many explorations of classical and later works that had influenced the Latin herbal tradition.  The research and his regular work had required him to read and compare imagery and labels in Latin, Greek and Arabic and in more than one modern language, over forty years.

So that seemingly well-informed and ‘sensible’ comment was surely by a seasoned ‘Voynichero’ and no more than an invention, prefaced by an expression of hostility and denigration (the *sigh*).  To some it might seem no more than a ‘plausible’ explanation, but being based on no evidence and uttered in such a way, it is a rationalization, the aim of which was to dispel some perceived threat in the question and (of course) to diminish any notice which might be paid the bearer of that ‘alien’ idea which might disturb the comfort of his established beliefs.


One can appreciate his agitation,   for by the time Tiltman spoke with Sprague in 1957, Sprague could be reasonably expected to identify any plant from the European herbal corpus, whether he saw it as a living plant or as a pressed specimen, as a photograph, a photostat or a European-style ‘plant-portrait’.   What stumped him, I’d suggest,  could have been the poor quality of the photo-stats but more than that – that the makers of these pictures did not approach their subject in the way expected by persons who assumed that the Latin herbals were the default.   The implication, then, as I’d argue, is that the plant images looked ‘alien’ to Sprague.. because they are, in content, conception and form. They are ‘alien’ not only to the Latin European tradition, but to all those ‘herbals’ and botanical texts whose images accord with a Dioscoridan principle: viz. the single-plant ‘portrait’.
The fact is that at least seventy years of research-time has been wasted in the endless, circular and always fruitless search through Latin European herbals for ‘similar’ imagery to that in the botanical folios of Beinecke MS 408.  The hunt had to continue within that very limited range of manuscripts (not even extending to other media) for one simple reason: the ‘herbal’ was the only form of plant-book in medieval Europe, and if the images were not a ‘herbal’ they could not be from the European corpus.  That these images’ origin and transmission might not have occurred under the direction of a Latin (i.e. Christian) European was an idea absolutely unacceptable to many, and simply never considered by the majority.  And so that endless and fruitless search continued, through the same few illustrated herbals, for imagery similar to the Voynich imagery – even though such similarities were known not to exist.

Of his own studies and those done by the Friedman group with the aid of experts, John Tiltman had concluded and repeated to the Baltimore Bibliophiles in 1967 before publishing an expanded paper the following year:

I have to admit that to the best of my knowledge no one has been able to find any point of connection with any other mediaeval
[European] manuscript or early printed book. This is all the stranger because the range of writing and illustration on the subject of the plant world from the early middle ages right through into the 16th and even 17th centuries is very limited indeed. (p.11)
His omission of the ‘default’ European removes the initial shock from that statement, making it seem more universal a truth than it is.  What he was saying was that no similar imagery existed in the corpus of European plant-books, not even in ones produced as late as the seventeenth century – a fact that the endless and relentless circular seeking has, at least, served to confirm beyond reasonable doubt.
Why did the parameters of research not widen? To widen, they would have had to widen beyond the environment of Latin Europe, and that would have been uncomfortable for a majority and for many reasons, including nationalistic sentiment and attachment to a given theory to which a researcher had devoted time, energy and their self-esteem.
So the problem in Voynich studies – or rather in study apart from technical discussions of the written text –   is that the aim in embarking on this study shifted over time, from a desire to rightly translate the intention of the original, to that of impressing as many others as possible by finding sufficient support for a personal ‘hunch’ (termed ‘theory’) that it might be termed ‘plausible’ and generally adopted, with kudos galore accruing to the ‘master’ cryptanalyst or quasi-historian.
 The primary source’s offering an opposite testimony could be ignored, for the evidence used in support of the theory was chosen at discretion – and to the extent that it could be interpreted as supporting the theory.  At the same time, any item produced or explained as plainly opposing the theory became unwelcome, and no matter how much or how clear that evidence, the ‘Sprague reaction’ met any disturbance of the theory-field.

That any true translation of the botanical imagery will demonstrate the whole content in the manuscript “characteristically European” is impossible; at the same time, the theory that its content is “characteristically European” is so widely espoused and advocated, that it is presently impossible for a majority to abandon it.  The situation threatens to devolve so far that the meaning, purpose, origins and content in this manuscript may well be decided as if by a show of hands –  and the majority of hands remain those within the ‘Italo-central-European theory’ party. Truth by consensus is a not valid principle when a systematic neutralisation of any opposition precedes it.  Even when silent, the dead cannot consent.


I will not tire my readers emotions by listing the way in which dissent is actively pursued and discouraged in this field of endeavour.  Any newcomer will soon notice the use of silence, of memes, of unrelenting attacks when the dissenter offers a comment online, constant assertions that new insights or research are to be deemed ‘not new’; the meme against an interesting new voice that it is ‘just popularist’ and so forth.
I do note that the selective application of acknowledgements is another  ‘weapon’ in this situation, but that is also what one might expect when dispassionate or even intellectual approaches are increasingly less common.   Kircher would never acknowledged Baresch, nor thank him for bringing the manuscript to his notice; Sprague seems not to have thanked Tiltman for doing the same.  That student would have considered it an act of something close to lèse-majesté to have thanked his lecturer. Refusing thanks and acknowledgements is another item forming the ‘Sprague reaction’ – it signals the ‘alien-is-inferior’ thing.
Apart from a handful who display integrity as individuals and as scholars,  and a majority of whom are relatively new to this field and unlikely to stay long if past experience tells us anything, the field has become a sort of sand-pit in which the members act out, singly of in groups, their preferred story-narrative.  The most basic questions are not established but presumed; there is little solid foundation to any of the things that have been repeated generation after generation.  There are some among the amateur theorists, today, who are flicking through medieval herbals, still looking for ‘similar’ images.

Knowing well that already, by the early days of 2011, become subject to the ‘Sprague reaction’, I hesitated to publish my results from analysing a number of the botanical folios, for I had concluded that each image was formed as a composite, showing a perceived ‘plant-group’ as western herbal and botanical imagery never did – nor indeed did the Arabic texts, nor the Byzantine.

I confided this hesitation to Nick Pelling, who then kindly directed me to John Tiltman’s paper of which I’d heard but which I had not read, believing it would be wholly concerned with the written text and its decryption.  But it was then that  I first had the pleasure of reading the comment attached to his “Plate 8” (folio 35r), in which a single line  provided me with that delightful thing, a precedent (albeit discovered afterwards).  The caption reads in part…

This is an example of the many drawings which appear to be composite and cannot be identified as anyone plant.
Concern about one’s own well-being is not unreasonable for the translator of ‘alien’ material, but fear of the material, or of predictable responses to its translation, can waste too much of one’s own time, and undoubtedly has wasted decades of everybody’s time in this study.  The antidote, if I might suggest, is that lovely question, “Is it true?”
In the next post, mainly as light relief,  I’ll show how two persons have treated that folio,  each of them confident of their own qualifications and experience.
(Check your blood-pressure …).

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