Translators: From the Rosetta Stone to Now

Posted on July 28, 2016 · Posted in Linguistics, Translation History

While you may know that the Rosetta Stone is perhaps the most famous translation device in the world, there are probably other facts about this stone that you may not already know.

The Discovery

The Rosetta Stone was discovered by French forces in July 1799 in Rosetta, about 35 miles north of Alexandria, Egypt. Pierre-François Bouchard, a French army engineer, is credited with the discovery. The stone was reportedly sticking out the ground and was dug up. The Rosetta Stone weighs about 1,676 pounds, so extracting the stone would not have been an easy task.

The Translation

Early on, it was discovered that the stone was composed of three versions of the same passage. The passage was written in Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. When the passage was written, Greek was the language of the court, Demotic was the common script of Egypt, and hieroglyphics was used for important documents of the day.

While hieroglyphics was important in ancient times, it had died out around the 4th century. Fortunately, the more recognizable Greek text could be used to help translate the hieroglyphics, thereby bringing back to life, at least in a part, hieroglyphics.

Both the Greek and Demotic texts were translated fairly quickly, but the hieroglyphics text took over twenty years to translate. Two things really eventually aided in the translation of the Rosetta Stone’s hieroglyphic text. First, translators discovered the writing system was largely based upon phonetics. Previously, they had thought the writing system was symbolic. The second discovery concerned the importance of the cartouches, circles around specific words. These words with circles around them were all proper nouns, generally the names of royalty. By understanding that the language was largely phonetic and that specific words were names, those translating the document could use this knowledge to translate the hieroglyphic text.

The International Controversies

The Rosetta Stone has caused an assortment of international controversies. First, there is controversy over who really contributed the most to the translation. Some people, particularly the British, say that Englishman Thomas Young, who discovered the importance of cartouches, and who worked on the early translation, should be given more credit for his important contributions to the text. Others argue Frenchman Jean-Francois Champollion, who delivered the final full hieroglyphics translation, contributed more.

Ultimately, the final translation took the combined efforts of Young, Champollion, and many other scholars. For some people, though, arguing for their own countryman’s contribution is about their nation’s pride.

The Rosetta Stone has been in London’s British Museum continuously since 1802 with two exceptions. It spent two years underground to avoid bombings toward the end of World War I, and it spent a month in the Louvre in 1972. Egyptian officials feel they should get the opportunity to have the Rosetta Stone back in its original country. They have argued for the permanent return of what they feel is an important cultural artifact. They have also attempted to negotiate for at least a short loan of the stone. In 2005, the British Museum gave Egyptian officials a life-size replica of the Rosetta Stone, but that is the closest Egyptian officials have gotten to getting back the Rosetta Stone.

We understand that quality translation work is even more important now than it was when the Rosetta Stone was found. If you need translation services done, contact us. While we cannot bring back to life dead languages, like the Rosetta Stone was able to do, our native speakers can translate your documents a lot faster than the Rosetta Stone was translated. One translator can generally translate 2,500 to 4,000 words a day with an additional day required for quality checks and other organizational tasks. Under special circumstances, we can even have shorter texts translated and back to you in only one day.