Thursday, September 5, 2013

Lost in Translation

Hugh Nibley liked to point out that historical texts cannot be adequately analyzed in translation. Here is an interesting example of that phenomenon, a unique document, part of whose uniqueness is lost in translation.

To date, only one letter survives from the Old Hittite empire. It is from the Hittite king Hattusili I (the famous one is Hattusili III) to his vassal Tunip-Teshub, the ruler of Tikunani. Letters from Hittite kings to their vassals are standard fair. We have dozens of Hittite letters from kings to their vassals. The letter starts in a common enough way:
Say to Tuniya, my servant: Thus speaks Labarna, the Great King (translation from Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., Letters from the Hittite Kingdom [Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009], 77).
This is all pretty standard. Nothing in the translation betrays how strange this document is. Hattusili requests his vassal's assistance in the war that he is fighting. Again, nothing seems particularly unusual about the request.

If I reproduced the entire letter here, nothing in the translation would tell how strange this document is. The reader might be struck by Hattusili's vivid animal metaphors, but they are common in Hattusili's other surviving records. War accounts from the ancient world are fairly standard fair.

What is so unusual is apparent to anyone who reads the original. This letter, the earliest Hittite letter known, the only one to survive from the Hittite Old Kingdom, is not in Hittite at all; it is in Akkadian.