7 Mysterious Coded Texts that Defy Translation

What could be more annoying than picking up a manuscript that is written in a language you cannot translate? Even in the age of the internet, where instant translations are available on demand, there remain examples of written language that continue to defy the efforts of the best code-breakers – despite years of intense dedication to the task. The truth may well be out there, but will we really ever know it?

7. The Emerald Tablet of Hermes emerald TabletPhoto: Heinrich Khunrath

The Emerald Tablet of Hermes, which contains one of the most baffling and mysterious texts in the world, is considered by experts to be one of the oldest examples of alchemical writing to have survived to the present day. Hermes Trimegistus was the founder of alchemy. He created the famous ‘Corpus Hermeticum’, as well as The Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus, said to be the bottom line historically when considering writings about alchemy and the occult. Alchemy was the vain attempt to turn more base metals into gold, or to discover the elixir of life, and is known as the “hermetic art” after its founder. Ancient legend tells that the Emerald Tablet was produced by an Egyptian sage, and proclaims 13 things that explain not only the nature and origin of the universe, but also man’s role as the catalyst for all natural reactions in time and space. The tablet has never been satisfactorily translated.

6. The Rohonc Codex
rohonc codexPhoto: Editura Alcor

One of the most baffling of the hidden texts is without doubt the Rohonc Codex. This most peculiar script is written from right to left, and seems to mix up runes, straight and rounded characters in the style of Old Hungarian – but it defies all attempts at translation. This bamboozling manuscript was given to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences by Count Battyany in 1852, and is is believed to have been written in medieval times. Appearing to be hand-scripted, and illustrated with crude black and white sketches, the writing is simply not decipherable in any way. However, code-breakers have managed to at least ascertain that the language involved consists of 42 letters and over 200 different symbols, some non-alphabetic, as well as other symbols which see only occasional use. The paper on which this maddening text was written carries a watermark from Venice of 1529-1540, though the writing itself is thought to be several centuries older than that. This utterly mysterious manuscript may never be translated.

5. The Copper Scroll Codex
Copper scrollPhoto: Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman

In 1952, what was believed to be the most important religious find in history came to pass in Qumran. The Copper Scroll was discovered in a cave on the shores of the Dead Sea by archaeologists. At that time the metal was very corroded and tightly wrapped, so it took many years to unroll it. When this finally happened, the ancient text was found, incised on thin sheets of copper that were joined together. Attempts to translate the text revealed that it gave clues to the location of treasure worth billions by today’s standards, but some of the words were completely unknown to scholars, and thus indecipherable. It was also found that many of the places mentioned simply no longer existed in modern times. Many now think that the Copper Scroll is an ancient flight of fancy, because no treasure has ever been found; nor, according to some, is it ever likely to be while so much of the Copper Scroll remains a mystery.

4. The Voynich Manuscript voynichPhoto: Unknown via Yale University

History has it that Emperor Rudolf II of Bohemia bought an extraordinary document, at the beginning of the 17th century, for 600 gold ducets. Why he paid so much for something he could not possibly read is a mystery, but it is undoubtedly the only manuscript of its type in existence, the language used in it having been found nowhere else in the world. This is the Voynich, long dubbed the ‘Most mysterious Manuscript in the World’. Experts now feel that the style of calligraphy and drawing, as well as the parchment type and ink pigments, suggest strongly that this document was initially produced in the 13th century. The book is 235 pages long, full of colored images of strange astrological charts, prancing nude women, unknown plants, and even live cells that look as if they have observed through a microscopic lens. It is also written in an encoded script that nobody has ever managed to decipher. The alphabet used is thought to comprise either 19 or 28 letters, but has nothing whatever in common with any known language on Earth. With the strange zodiacal signs and the obvious recipes for herbal preparations, some think the Voynich could well be the definitive textbook of alchemy – but still, 800 years after it was written, not one person actually knows.

3. The Codex Seraphinianus
codex sephPhoto: Luigi Serafini

When Luigi Serafini composed and wrote down his astonishingly detailed account of a world that existed only in his imagination, he did it in an entirely contrived language of his own making. Nobody has ever been able to make sense of The Codex Seraphinianus since it arrived on the scene in the 1970s, though it is certainly a lavishly produced book – apparently an encyclopedia for an imaginary world in a parallel universe. This rich volume is filled with comments in that incomprehensible language – which is entirely invented and completely illegible – as well as being illustrated with watercolor paintings. Subjects covered in this infuriating tome include panoramic scenes of the strangest of festivals, plumbing diagrams, plants, animals, clothing, architecture, numbers, cards, chemical analyses, labyrinths, Babel, foods and so on. Nothing appears to have been left out, though it is very hard to be sure! Cryptologists will be having a field day trying to make sense of this for many years to come.

2. The Vinca Symbols Codex
Vinca symbolsPhoto: Vlassa

People have been aware of the three Tărtăria tablets since excavations at the Neolithic sites of Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. The tablets seem to date to around 5000 years BC. They carry incised symbols, on one side only, that have led to many arguments among scholars about the authenticity of the find. Perhaps the symbols were simply a form of carved communication conceived prior to actual writing, able to get a message across but not as a true written language would – though the mystery has fascinated historians since they were found in Hungary in 1875. Thought at one time to have originated from 4500 to 4000 BC, carbon dating actually places them at 5500 BC. If, Romanian History and Culture points out, the symbols are in fact a form of written text, they would far predate the earliest known Sumerian script or Egyptian hieroglyphs – making these tablets the world’s earliest known example of writing.

1. The Liber Linteus Linen Codex liberlinteusPhoto: Speedy Gonsales

The Liber Linteus, also known as the Linen Book of Zagreb, is the only surviving book of its kind in the world and the longest known example of Etruscan writing ever found. It survives only because the Roman Empire, which came into being years after the Etruscans had vanished, had a great affection for linen cloth. This arose through their conquest of Egypt, after which many Romans took to the idea of mummifying people after death. Though very little survives of Etruscan art or culture, a quirk of fate later caused a wealthy Egyptian tailor to use the linen of this extraordinary book when mummifying his wife. Yet another happenstance was the buying of that very same mummy by a Croatian businessman, who intended to augment a wall by using the mummy as decoration, centuries later. After this man died in the late 19th century, the mummy was given to a museum, where it was first realized just how significant this linen book was. Consisting of 230 lines of text and 1200 words, it remains a mystery to this day, because so little is known about the Etruscan language.

All these texts and codes are mouth-watering mysteries that the world has yet to solve, and no doubt if we look hard enough we could find many more. It seems strange in some ways, but is nonetheless true. The more we think we know, the more we discover we still have yet to learn.

Sources: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11