Scientists Believe Machine Translation Could Help Crack The Text Written On Ancient Cuneiform Tablets

With 90 percent of cuneiform texts still untranslated, scientists are hopeful that machine translation could help to crack the many ancient texts written in extinct languages such as Sumerian.

Lines of cuneiform writing on a sand colored mud brick.
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With 90 percent of cuneiform texts still untranslated, scientists are hopeful that machine translation could help to crack the many ancient texts written in extinct languages such as Sumerian.

With around 90 percent of ancient cuneiform texts still untranslated, scientists are hopeful that new research into machine translation may finally help crack the code of obscure and, in many cases, extinct languages inscribed upon these clay tablets. The ingenious writing system of cuneiform was first created in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago, and there is a wealth of information and history that is contained within the texts of these burned clay tablets.

As the BBC notes, the swift rise and eventual demise of civilizations in places like Assyria, Babylonia, and Akkad have all been faithfully recorded on cuneiform and this is hugely important as these civilizations were the first genuine empires to spring up in the world.

The texts inscribed into these clay tablets were first translated around 150 years ago. However, very few people today can read the ancient languages contained in cuneiform. This, according to Assyriology researcher Émilie Pagé-Perron, is where the cutting edge science of machine translation may come in.

“The influence that Mesopotamia has on our own culture is something that people don’t know much about. We have information about so many different aspects of the lives of Mesopotamian people, and we can’t really profit from the expertise of people in different fields like economics or politics, who if they had access to the sources, could help us tremendously to understand those societies better.”

Pagé-Perron is currently working on a new project which will be taking a whopping 69,000 cuneiform tablets from Mesopotamia, most of which are administrative in nature and date back to the 21st century BC, and attempting to translate these with the use of a machine.

This is an important field of research as aside from the numerous clay tablets, there are at least 50,000 clay seals that are known of that have been distributed around the world in different collections that could also be translated. And of all the clay seals that have been found, just 10 percent of these have been put into catalogs so far.

Jacob Dahl, a professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford, has noted that when it comes to ancient texts, there are more of these from Mesopotamia than all the rest of the other ancient civilizations put together.

“We have more sources from Mesopotamia than we have from Greece, Rome and ancient Egypt together.”

While individual cuneiform texts may not sound terribly exciting by themselves, once they have all been translated and placed into a wider context they open up the door to past civilizations and allow us to explore these ancient societies in much greater detail, as Pagé-Perron has stated.

“The texts we’re working on are not very interesting individually, but they’re extremely interesting if you take them as groups of texts. These people are so different and so remote from us, but at the same time, they have the same basic problems. Understanding Mesopotamia is a way of understanding what it means to be human.”

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Machine analysis of Sumerian texts on these clay tablets should prove helpful with this extinct language, especially as Sumerian has no modern-day equivalent, nor is it related to any languages in existence today.

Irving Finkel, who is the legendary individual and curator that is currently responsible for looking after 130,000 cuneiform tablets at the British Museum, explained that if it wouldn’t have been for the invention of cuneiform, Sumerian would have disappeared forever.

“Sumerian is probably the last member of what must have been a large family of languages that goes back thousands and thousands of years. Writing appeared in the world just in time to rescue Sumerian. We’re just lucky that we had some microphone that picked it up before it went away with all the others.”

Finkel has likened the translation of Sumerian texts as being similar to conducting a telephone conversation where two human minds scattered thousands of years apart can finally meet with each other and share ideas.

It is this sharing of ideas and stories which makes the translation of these precious ancient cuneiform texts so very important, and machine translation could help scientists in the future to finally extract the many hidden cultural gems found within these clay tablets from Mesopotamia.