A few days ago, I tried using Fiverr.com‘s translation marketplace to enfrenchify the 598 words of my Kickstarter documentary pitch video. The required 10USD will only barely get you a round of drinks in a London pub: and yet given that this seemed to be the going rate for this size of work, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to get me some sous-titres.

fiverr-logo-new-green

All of which is a great theory, but how did it work out in practice?

The Mechanism

Fiverr.com does make it remarkably easy to order a translation: the person I chose turned out (according to his/her blurb) to be a native French speaker living in Morocco, which is absolutely fine by me.

However, I have to say that I found it hard to believe any of the brief biogs the fiverr.com translators put to their names / aliases. There was an air of polished nonsense to all of them, as though peeling back the virtual curtain would reveal a community of Nigerian scammer kiddies feeding your text into Google Translate and laughing at your compliant gullibility.

Of course, I know that’s not actually true or even remotely likely: but that was very much how it felt to me overall. So even though fiverr.com is technically quite sweet, I think it still struggles to make its vendors look credible. Doubtless others will disagree, but… I’m jus’ sayin’, is all. 😐

The Problems

Putting the core translation issue (i.e. of whether or not it’s any good) aside, the biggest problem turned out to be ‘sense reversal’. By which I mean: for the pitifully small amount of money involved, these online translators simply can’t afford to spend time deeply parsing your text, so there is a good chance that they will misread a given sentence and, as a result, accidentally flip its sense into the opposite of what you intended. This occurred three or four times (though these were all fairly easy to pick up), and I fixed them up by hand.

And so I’ve ended up with manually-fixed French subtitles based largely on the translation I bought.

Of course, what you are supposed to do when you find things wrong like that is to send them back for review, i.e. for you to flag such issues so that the translator can fix these problems for you (as part of the price). But I simply couldn’t bring myself to do that, for the simple reason that the amount of money involved was just too small: I felt too bad, if that makes sense.

Other people might possibly get around this feeling of guilt by asking for revisions and then giving a 10USD tip at the end (I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how it tends to work in practice). The only thing I did actually ask for was a single sentence early on that the translator had obviously translated but had accidentally cut-and-pasted over when putting the text together to send back, which I didn’t think was too big a request.

I don’t know: for all the good things about fiverr.com, I think that it is also a strange kind of low-end marketplace that can’t possibly give you technically tight text at the kind of prices quoted, simply because people can’t read text for the prices quoted, let alone translate it. And so I suspect that any kind of non-straightforward or strongly-logically-structured text may well end up being somewhat butchered, not out of intent but simply out of necessarily scant attention.

Perhaps all I can reasonably conclude about Fiverr is: Caveat Emptorr. 😐

Those French Subtitles In Full

As to whether it was worth it or not, here’s the translation.

Salut, mon nom est Nick Pelling.
Je dirige Cipher Mysteries, un blog des recherches historiques.
Ce que je tiens à couvrir sont les mystères historiques, quoi que ce soit avec des preuves douteuses à partir du manuscrit de Voynich jusqu’aux cartes aux trésors des pirates.
Et depuis des années, j’essayais de comprendre l’histoire d’un pirate de l’océan Indien qui porte le nom Bernardin Nagéon de l’Estang.
Il avait naufragé prétendument dans la côte Sud-Ouest de l’île Maurice, et il avait récupéré le trésor de son bateau ; il a repris un ruisseau par une falaise ; et puis il l’enterré dans une caverne souterraine qui avait été cachée par des pirates.
C’est une histoire incroyable, bien sûr, mais il faut être très prudent sur ce que vous croyez de ces mystères chiffrés.
D’une part, il n’y a aucune preuve que “Bernardin Nagéon de l’Estang” a jamais existé ; et ses lettres ?
Il n’y a encore aucune preuve que ce qui est mentionné dans ces lettres est vrai.
Tout ce que nous avons sont les différentes versions de ces lettres contradictoires qui confondent les uns des autres.
Pourtant, malgré ces problèmes profondément enracinés, ces documents ont aidé à alimenter une ruée vers l’or du pirate sur l’île Maurice.
Pendant des années – voire des décennies – les mauriciens arpentaient autour de l’île, avec impatience la recherche de tout signe de trésor des pirates, les marques secrètes de pirate – plus précisément les lettres « BN », les initiales du pirate – creusées dans les rochers qui pourraient les conduire à ce cache fabuleux trésor, à l’or au-delà de vos rêves.
En fait, ce qui s’est apparemment passé est qu’aucun de ces chasseurs de trésor ait trouvé des choses comme une boucle d’oreille en laiton du trésor de Nageon de l’Estang… mais la question se pose encore – est-il encore là-bas ?
Ou sinon, pourrions-nous être en mesure de découvrir son histoire secrète, pour savoir ce qui lui est arrivé ?
Depuis quelques années, je l’ai lu et relu tout ce que je pouvais trouver sur Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang: et je pense que je peux enfin comprendre la plupart de ce qui est arrivé.
Mais je cherche maintenant à soulever mes recherches au niveau suivant, et aller à l’île Maurice elle-même, pour parvenir finalement en profondeur ce mystère.
Mais j’ai besoin de l’aide de Kickstarter … J’ai besoin de votre aide pour le faire.
Votre soutien ouvrira beaucoup de portes qui sont restées fermées pour moi.
En discutant avec les historiens et les chasseurs de trésor, en regardant les archives et les musées, en foulant le sol que Nagéon de l’Estang prétend qu’il a sous enterré son Trésor, je pense que nous pouvons enfin aller au fond de ce mystère.
Mais il y a une touche Hi-Tech.
Si Nagéon de l’Estang a enterré son trésor dans une caverne qui a existé pour toujours, la science va surement nous aider à trouver quelque chose.
Ainsi, une partie du plan du projet est de prendre un GPR loué (radar à pénétration de sol) à l’île Maurice,
pour pénetrer ce sol, et voir si nous pouvons voir ce qui est là-dessous, voir s’il y a une grotte à trouver.
L’objectif ultime du projet est de ne pas trouver un trésor physique (même si ça va être génial), mais plutôt de faire des recherches historiques difficiles en plein air, à la caméra, complètement transparent.
Je ne sais pas ce que je vais trouver ; je ne sais pas quelle histoire sera racontée ; mais je sais que c’est un voyage que quelqu’un doit faire, et une histoire que quelqu’un doit raconter- et je pense que c’est le moment d’agir.
À la fin, nous devrions avoir un documentaire qui raconte l’histoire d’un rêve partagé de l’or d’un pirate qui a repris tout un pays.
Mais que sera-t-il en fait cette histoire, les secrets d’elle, je ne sais pas – mais je veux savoir, et avec votre aide, nous pouvons tous le trouver. Merci beaucoup !

“Capital” issue 132, 5th June 2013 has an article on page 15 entitled “Jean Giraud et ses Précieuses Pierres”, which discusses the death of Jean Giraud (who founded Mauritian company United Basalt in July 1953) on May 14th 2013 at the age of 94:

Jean Giraud

The article continues:

Grand chasseur devant l’éternel, il est aussi chercheur de trésors à ses heures. Persuadé comme beaucoup de passionnés de la catégorie, il est persuade que des pirates ont enfoui des trésors dans les îles de sud-ouest de l’océan Indien. Il decide de s’intéresser à celui du fameux Oliver Le Vasseur, dir La Buse, qu’il croit enfoui quelque part à Saint-Antoine et à celui de Nageon de l’Estang, qui, just avant d’être pendu aux Seychelles, a jeté à la foule des curieux un prétendu plan de trésor. En compagnie de son frère Lucien, de Philippe de Rosnay et de Raymond Chevreau, il va ainsi se dépenser sans compter dans la recherche de ces précieux butins qu’il ne trouvera jamais.
Mais on dit des chercheurs de trésors qu’ils ne vivent que de l’espoir d’en trouver un et que c’est uniquement cette quête, souvent vaine, qui les fait vivre…

My free translation of the above – and native French speakers, please step forward to correct me, because I might easily have gone completely wrong here – is as follows:

Ever the eternal opportunity hunter in business, in his spare time he was also a treasure hunter. He was, as are so many others of that particular ilk, firmly convinced that pirate treasure lies buried in the southwestern islands of the Indian Ocean. For many years, his focus was on Nageon de l’Estang (whose booty he believed was buried somewhere in Saint-Antoine) and on the well-known pirate Olivier Levasseur (AKA “La Buse”) who, just before being hanged in the Seychelles, allegedly threw a treasure map into the crowd. Now reunited with his brother Lucien and fellow treasure hunters Philippe de Rosnay and Raymond Chevreau, Girard is free to spend forever searching lavishly for the precious spoils he will never find.
But it has been said that treasure hunters live only for the search and that it is by their quest, often in vain, that they live…

Of course, Cipher Mysteries readers will know that it was actually Olivier Levasseur who was hanged (and in Réunion rather than the Seychelles): but it was a surprise to me that Jean Giraud believed Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang buried his treasure in Saint-Antoine (in the North of Mauritius).

Regardless, if my translation is basically right and both Jean Giraud and his brother Lucien Giraud have now both passed away, it shows just how urgent it is to try to get to the bottom of this, before there’s nobody left to help tell the story.

Of course, the question some will doubtless be asking now is: who inherited the brothers’ collections of Nageoniana? From various fragments online, it seems that Jean Giraud left at least a son (Michel Giraud) and a grand-daughter (Marine – is she the famous Mauritian tennis player born 23rd April 1986 in Riviere Noire?): but that’s as much as I can reliably be sure about.

For what it’s worth, I found no obituary or note in Le Mauricien for either brother, nor any mention in ancestry.com: but perhaps other people’s searches for the same basic BDM data will prove both luckier and more productive than mine.

Researchers studying the Voynich Manuscript use what’s called an “interlinear transcription”: this interleaves different researchers’ interpretations of the (handwritten original) Voynich text, a line at a time. So, rather than having to constantly refer to, say, a contrast-enhanced image of the first line of the first page…

voynich-f1r-line1

…you can instead refer to its interlinear transcription, which is much more convenient, and yet lets you see the differences of opinion that various researchers have about how to read that line:

<f1r .P1.1;H>       fachys.ykal.ar.ataiin.shol.shory.cth!res.y.kor.sholdy!-
<f1r .P1.1;C>       fachys.ykal.ar.ataiin.shol.shory.cthorys.y.kor.sholdy!-
<f1r .P1.1;F>       fya!ys.ykal.ar.ytaiin.shol.shory.*k*!res.y!kor.sholdy!-
<f1r .P1.1;N>       fachys.ykal.ar.ataiin.shol.shory.cth!res.y,kor.sholdy!-
<f1r .P1.1;U>       fya!ys.ykal.ar.ytaiin.shol.shory.***!r*s.y.kor.sholdo*-

Anyway, given that I now have copies of (what might well be) all the printed versions of the Nageon de l’Estang papers, it struck me a few days ago that I should get round to putting them together into an interlinear transcription.

And there being no good reason not to, that’s exactly what I did. 🙂

The Interlinear Transcription

I’ve posted a page holding my Nageon de l’Estang interlinear transcription on the Cipher Foundation website.

The first few interlinear blocks of lines in BN1 (“Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang paper #1″) look like this:

FC: [l'an III de la République]

RC: Je pars m’enrôler et défendre la patrie. Comme je serai sans doute tué, je fais
FC: Je pars m'envoler et défendre la Patry,  comme je serai tué c'est sûre, je fais

RC: mon testament  et donne à mon neveu Jean Marius        Nageon de l'Estang,
FC: mon testament. Je donne à           Jean Marin  Justin Nageon de l'Estang,
LM:                Je donne à           Jean-Marius-Justin Najeon de l'Etang.

Here, [FC] stands for “Paul Fleuriau-Chateau”, a now-deceased Mauritian researcher from Rivière Noire, who included a transcription in his 2001 book “Aventuriers en mer”. The first line stands alone because the date Fleuriau-Chateau gave for BN1 does not appear in the other transcriptions at all. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a French Republican Calendar date equivalent to 1795).

The second set of interleaved lines appears both in Robert Charroux’s (“RC”) and in Fleuriau-Chateau’s (“FC”) copies, but not in any of the others: while the third set of lines appears in Charroux and in Fleuriau-Chateau, as well as in Loys Masson’s (“LM”) 1935 article.

Immediately you can see the kind of differences in play between the versions: but which are attempted corrections, which are miscopying, and which are insertions? What is original and what is make-believe? That is the $64,000 question (possibly even literally).

According to Le Clézio, circa 1901 his grandfather knew of numerous different copies of these papers floating around in what he called “grimoires” in Mauritius (p.105). So… might there be more versions out there?

Reading between the lines (so to speak), I think the answer is almost certainly yes: in fact, I suspect there may even be ten or more as-yet-unseen variants out there in private hands. However, only by bringing them all into the light and comparing them in a really analytical, scientific, open way do we stand any real chance of making sense of them as a whole.

Incidentally, my current interlinear transcription isn’t quite complete: the two photographs I took of page 56 of Paul Fleuriau-Chateau’s “Aventuriers en mer” turned out to be out of focus. So if anyone has access to a copy and/or can email me through a scan of p.56, that would be really helpful, thanks!

Le Club International des Chercheurs de Trésor?

Interestingly, I think that Robert Charroux’s omissions are quite telling, and this is something that hasn’t really been talked about before.

For a start, he mentions (but only includes the first couple of lines of) two further cryptic documents that I call “BN4” and “BN5” (which Fleuriau-Chateau and Le Clézio both include). His reason for not including them is that “Le teneur exacte de ces documents est le propriété du Club International des Chercheurs de Trésor“, ho-ho. But don’t worry, dear reader, he then assures you that “vous savez tout ce qu’il est permis de savoir sur les secrets de Nagéon de l’Estang“. You’re not on the list, you can’t come in.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that this also explains why Charroux left out the interesting section in BN2 from “au nord” to “testament” that says how to find the cave: because only a ‘true’ treasure hunter (i.e. a member of his club) could be trusted with such powerful knowledge.

Your Mission, Should You Choose To Accept It…

What can be done to move this research strand forward? For me, the answer is obvious: dig up more versions of these letters to add to the interlinear transcription.

I’m convinced that there simply must be photographs, scans, hand-copies, mentions, quotations, letters, newspaper articles and books (for example, in other languages) that I don’t know about out there and not just cut-and-pasted from Charroux (as seems to be the Internet norm). What can we find?

I’m similarly convinced that there must be archival documents on the Klondyke Company, and even on Le Club International des Chercheurs de Trésor, both of which tried so jealously to hold back Nageon de l’Estang’s secrets for themselves. And these documents must surely include multiple versions of the Nageon de l’Estang papers, right?

Finally, I’m also convinced that there are individuals out there who have collected their own versions of the letters: for his book, Paul Fleuriau-Chateau relied on Lucien Giraud and Jean Giraud. Is Lucien Giraud still alive?

For me, the big reason for trying to make a documentary is to find these people and just ask the right questions…

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, my Kickstarter Mauritian pirate treasure documentary pitch is now live, and has already picked up its first few backers, all of them long-time Cipher Mysteries supporters (each in their own way) – thank you very much indeed for that, it’s undoubtedly true that the first few steps of a thousand mile journey are the hardest ones. 🙂

Anyway, given that the project plan is to structure the documentary into nine sections, what I’ll be doing here over the next four weeks is writing posts on those same sections – or rather, on what I currently know about them, as well as what I hope to find out about them in Mauritius. Though this won’t quite amount to a “Nageonopedia”, my hope is that it should be the most reliable (and realistic) collection of basic data on the Bernardin Nageéon de l’Estang historical mystery on the Internet or in print.

It may well turn out that better informed (or just plain cleverer) readers can answer one or two of the key research questions without my actually having to go to Mauritius to do so. Moreover, you clever people might also suggest even better research questions than the ones I set out to answer. I don’t mind, though, because these are all positive scenarios as far as I’m concerned, and the documentary would surely continue to develop and move forward in an ever-better direction as a result. 🙂

At the same time, I’m planning (over the next few days) to do some PR to propel the idea of the documentary into the wider cultural ether: so if anyone has any good suggestions for bloggers or journalists to contact about interviews, please let me know, I’m all ears! 🙂

It’s been a little while in preparation (difficult things almost always are), but the project I mentioned a little while ago has now gone live for crowdfunding on Kickstarter (so I now have 30 days to convince you and a thousand other people to back it).

mauritius-pirate-treasure-documentary-medium

The documentary I’m planning to make is called Gold Beyond Your Dreams: the idea is to go to Mauritius and see if I can finally unravel some (though hopefully most) of the secret history of Bernardin Nagéon de l’Estang and his alleged pirate treasure, and tell the story. But I’ve included a 3-minute video (with subtitles) as part of the pitch which explains it all nicely, along with a project plan showing exactly what I’m aiming for: hopefully it’s specific enough.

Even though I think there’ll be enough source material for 120+ minutes, I’m aiming for a 45-minute final edit to keep it all tight and interesting.

What do you think?

Like it or not, we find ourselves completely surrounded by Bad Voynich Theories: this is an unfortunate (and often dispiriting) state of affairs, and one that seems unlikely to change any time soon.

Having said that, everyone is entirely free to pursue their own foolish Voynich theory (though it sometimes seems as though this is close to becoming obligatory). But as long as you’re only wasting a small amount of your own time, that’s essentially fine, because you’ll probably learn a load of interesting stuff along the way. And if you can (eventually) get to the point where you truly understand the basic mistake that set you on the wrong track (and can actually accept it), you’ll probably have stretched your mind in an overall positive way.

However, the one thing that takes a Bad Voynich Theory and turns it into an outright tragedy is when it starts to gain followers – people who have no inkling of the basic historical/logical error the original theorist has almost certainly made. For if there are (say) a thousand Voynich theories out there (and the smart money is surely on the actual figure being a fair bit higher), that means that at least 999 of them are wrong: or, put another way, the chances of a randomly picked Voynich Theory being correct is no more than 0.1%.

I’ve written before that I think Tucker & Talbert’s “New Spain / Nahuatl” Voynich theory is demonstrably wrong, but their camp has now acquired a new ally who wants to take those ideas much further….

“The Annotated Voynich Codex”

Jules Janick at Purdue University has picked up Arthur O. Tucker’s Mesoamerican baton and done his best to hurtle forward down the same track with it. According to his freshly-minted Voynich project page (a longer PDF version including Janick’s transliteration tables and working examples of plant decryptions is here):

The two botanists who have published papers in refereed journals (Hugh O’Neil, 1944 and Arthur O. Tucker, 2013) have observed the presence of only New World plants. Tucker has demonstrated that this is a MesoAmerican codex based on identification of plants, animals, a mineral, language symbols, and heliocentrism.

(Of course, he means “Hugh O’Neill” here. *sigh*)

Subsequent analysis by Tucker and Jules Janick have demonstrated a direct connections to colonial Mexican history including illustrations of landmarks and cities and an allusion to the establishment in 1530 of the Celestial City of Jerusalem (Puebla de los Angeles) by the Franciscan friar Toribio of Benvente known as Motolinía (1482–1568). All our research to date indicates that the Voynich is a 16th century codex associated with indigenous Indians of Nueva España educated in schools established by the Spanish.

(He means Toribio de Benavente here, who arrived in New Spain in May 1524.)

Janick believes that the Voynich’s pharma section offers so many labels of herbs and plants that it can be used as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for decrypting Voynichese. I’ve cut-and-pasted his transliteration table (below) into a form that Voynich researchers can quickly make sense of (note that I’ve given EVA t/k pride of place at top left, because it is the ‘tl’ from which every single Nahuatl Voynich theory ultimately seems to spring):

jules-janick-voynichese-transliteration

With the Voynich Manuscript so comprehensively solved, we should all now decamp to the bar for tequila shots (surely the only sensible way of ingesting agave), right? Well… no, not just yet. Janick continues:

However, the bulk of the manuscript defies translation, and it appears that a dialect or lost language associated with Classical Nahuatl is involved. This is being pursued. We are convinced that the Voynich codex is a document produced by Aztec descendants that has been unfiltered through Spanish editors. As such, we believe it may be a critically important manuscript to colonial Mexican history.

So despite the fragments of Voynichese that seem to be Nahuatl (if you squint at them in just the right way), there are huge sections of the text (I’m guessing this means 99% of the text) which even Janick’s clever transliteration table still makes no sense of. But to give him his dues, he would still appear to be several times further forward than Stephen Bax ever managed (numerically speaking, that is). 🙂

Puebla de los Angeles

Despite these significant (and, I suspect, insurmountable) linguistic shortcomings, Janick, Ryba & Tucker seem pretty convinced about their interpretation of the Voynich’s infamous nine-rosette page. Here’s a link to their paper Voynich Diagram 86v: An Interpretation, which excitedly concludes:

Page 86v of the Voynich Codex is a complex figure that involves two concepts: (1) a kabbalistic sephirothtic Tree of Life, and (2) a map associated with Puebla de los Angeles, the New Celestial City of Jerusalem established by the Franciscan Friars including Motolinia. It includes four encircling cities, Huejotzingo, Tlaxcalla, Tecamachalco, and Zempoala (Cempoala) Vera Cruz, all mentioned by Motolinia. The diagram is evidence that the artist of the Voynich Codex was involved with Catholic mysticism linked to Jewish kabbalah.

So… yet another nine-rosette spatial decryption to place atop what is already a tall and teetering pile. Anyone got a box of matches? The weather’s suddenly turned cold here and… (you know the rest).

Your Chance To Meet Jules Janick!

Regardless, if you’re just as excited as Janick et al. seem to be about this (and I can assure any disbelieving Cipher Mysteries readers that there are plenty of Voynichese/Nahuatl devotees out there) and can haul your sorry ass over to West Lafayette in Indiana this coming Wednesday lunchtime (21st September 2016), the very distinguished Jules Janick himself will be giving a talk on all this at Purdue University, hosted by the Jewish Studies Program:

Wednesday, September 21 ~ Beering Hall, Room B222 ~ 12:30
Jules Janick, James Troop Distinguished Professor of Horticulture, Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, Purdue University, “A Kabbalah Sephirothic Tree, the New Jerusalem, and the Voynich Codex: Understanding a Bizarre 16th Century Manuscript of New Spain”

Personally, I think the probability that the Voynich Manuscript originated in New Spain is so close to zero that your desktop calculator would have to switch into scientific notation to display it. But given that nobody gives a monkey’s about what I happen to think, all I can say is: it is what it is.

Surely hoping to emulate the stunning success of sideburns and urban beards in recent years, Gordon Rugg is now apparently trying to revive his old papers on the Voynich Manuscript, along with the fame on the world stage that they brought him before.

He has therefore recently co-authored a paper in Cryptologia – Gordon Rugg & Gavin Taylor (2016): Hoaxing statistical features of the Voynich Manuscript, Cryptologia, DOI: 10.1080/01611194.2016.1206753 – which I’m perfectly happy to cite, simply because I immediately append my opinion of it, both then and now: that it is specious quasi-academic nonsense that only an idiot would be convinced by. And any academic referee who read the paper and thought it sensible is an idiot too: sorry, Cryptologia, but it’s just plain true.

Rugg once again argues – just as he did 12 years ago – that the Voynich Manuscript must surely have been hoaxed using a set of tables and grilles (broadly similar to Cardan grilles, a mainstay of popular books glossing 16th century cryptography) to ‘randomly’ select word-fragments from those tables, while yielding the visual appearance of the ‘Currier Languages’, specifically the Voynich Manuscript’s two main ‘dialects’ (or, as Currier himself would have preferred to say to avoid being misunderstood, ‘statistical groupings’).

Because these tables and grilles allow people to quickly generate hoaxed text mimicking the structure and statistics of Voynichese, he and his co-author Gavin Taylor triumphantly conclude (much as Rugg did before):

“The main unusual qualitative and quantitative features of the Voynich Manuscript are therefore explicable as products of a low-technology hoax, with no need to invoke an undiscovered new type of code and/or the presence of meaningful text in the manuscript.”

In my opinion, this was a dud argument in 2004, and – given all we have learned about the Voynich Manuscript in the decade and more since – it’s an even bigger dud in 2016. Specifically, I think there are Four Big Reasons why this is so:

Reason #1: Rugg’s History Doesn’t Work

Given that nobody used a Cardan grille before Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) invented it in 1550, Rugg’s requirement that his putative Voynich hoaxer’s “low-technology” mechanism uses a sophisticated Cardan grille variant necessitates a post-1550 date.

But opposing that is (a) the radiocarbon dating of the vellum to the first half of the 15th century, (b) the mid-15th century ‘humanistic’ handwriting that is used on every page, (c) the 15th century handwriting used for the quire numbers, (d) the 15th century handwriting used for the back page, and (e) numerous Art History arguments pointing to a 15th century origin (which I get bored of reprising, and of defending against Diane O’Donovan’s endless sniping).

So, to shore up his wonky historical timeline, Rugg has to start by saying that the Voynich Manuscript is not only a hoax, but also an extraordinarily sophisticated late-16th century literary forgery, where all these distinctive 15th century features were codicologically layered on top of one another (and using century-old vellum) in order that the finished hoax artefact resemble some unknown kind of 15th century herbal manuscript.

In 2004, we already knew enough to say that this made no sense and was manifestly wrong (I certainly did so, even if nobody else did): but by 2016, this side of Rugg’s claim alone shouldn’t stand up for even a New York second.

So… does his 2016 paper fix this problem in any obvious way? No, sorry, it doesn’t. (Italian playing cards, really? I don’t think so.)

Reason #2: Digital Mimicry Is Insufficient

Unlike the recent herds of Bax-inspired historical linguists roaming wild across the arid Voynichese plains, a-hunting for dry tufts of linguistic tumbleweed lodged in the statistical cracks to feed upon, Rugg initially constructed his clever tables ex nihilo: for a long time, he considered the problem of Voynichese as a purely forward construction issue. That is, all he was trying to do was to mimic the statistics of Voynichese: his claim was therefore not that he could reproduce Voynichese, but that his tables and grilles could produce something that resembled Voynichese (if you didn’t look too closely).

This was, of course, an extremely lame ta-da to be passing off as any kind of über-theory. And so, after a great deal of prodding, he then went on to claim that it should be possible to work backwards from the Voynich Manuscript to try to reconstruct the tables that were used locally. But – to the best of my knowledge – he has retrofitted not even a single paragraph’s worth of tables and grilles in all those years, let alone an entire bookful. (It turns out that Voynichese is much less regular and well-formed than it at first looks.)

Rugg then back-pedalled once again, saying that all he was trying to do was to prove the possibility that a mechanism along these lines could conceivably have been used to generate the Voynich Manuscript.

Yes, and the Voynich Manuscript could conceivably have been found in the middle of a giant golden egg, laid by a space turkey on the Pope’s lap. “Conceivability” isn’t a particularly useful metric, let’s say.

Reason #3: Rugg’s Computer Science Doesn’t Work

At its core, Rugg’s idea of using tables to generate the ghostly immanence of historical signal is a kind of anachronistic computer game hack (and I speak as someone who wrote computer games for 20 years). Beyond the comforting surroundings of his basic word-model, he adapts each and every exception case (and Voynichese has plenty of these: paragraph-initial, line-initial, line-final, A, B, Pharma-A, Bio-B, labelese, etc) with layer upon layer of yet further improvised explanatory hacks.

But even if you – somewhat trustingly – accept that these multi-layered CompSci hacks will collectively coordinate with each other to do the overall job Rugg claims they will, they still all fall foul of the basic problem: that prior to computers, nobody used tables to generate text in such a futilely complicated manner.

Don’t get me wrong, using tables to simulate cleverness is a great hack (and Rugg understands completely that a Cardan grille is nothing more than an indirection method for selecting a subset of a two-dimensional table), and one that sat at the heart of countless late-1980s and 1990s computer games (the Bitmap Brothers were particular masters of this art).

But it’s at heart a great modern hack, not a 16th, 17th, 18th, or even 19th century hack.

Reason #4: Rugg’s Arguments Don’t Work

Even though the preceding three reasons are each gnarly enough to throw their own Herculean spanner into Rugg’s works, this fourth reason is about a problem with the entire structure of his argument.

Rugg claims that his solution of Voynich Manuscript verifies his “Verifier Method”, the approach he claimed to have used to crack it (and on top of which he has built his career). But all he has actually proved is his ability to retrofit a single bad solution to it that is, though not historically or practically credible, conceivably true. This is, in other words, an extraordinarily weak conclusion to be drawing from a hugely rich and complicated dataset, comprising not only the Voynichese text but also all the physical evidence and provenance information we have.

I’ll happily admit that he has produced a possible solution to the Voynich Manuscript’s mystery: but this has come at the cost of discarding any vestige of historical or practical likelihood, an aspect which was just about visible in 2004 but which should be glaringly obvious in 2016.

And if that’s what the poster child for his Verifier Method looks like, I shudder to think what the rest of it looks like.

Before I begin: I just stumbled upon a bot-generated webpage that claimed to be “A discussion of the geography, accuracy and geometric salesman relating to the 14C farrago of the Voynich“. Who’d have thought random text could be so splendidly insightful?

Irena Hanzíková

Anyway… might Irena Hanzíková be our Voynich theorist of the day? A recent piece in Novinky.cz (the highest-traffic Czech news-site, and the online face of Czech newspaper Právo) has a nice picture of her:

irena-hanzikova-with-voynich-manuscript-cropped

The Voynich Manuscript is, she says, nothing less than “o knihu života” (the book of life), and that “Obsah bude pro všechny překvapením” (the content will surprise us all).

But the article does (thankfully) give us a short snippet of her transcription / decryption of folio 49 (it doesn’t say recto or verso) to keep us going while she gets the rest countersigned by a notary: apparently it says “Vedle cti doutná zlomyslnost, prospěch má sestru zradu, cílem je poznat svět, přesto svítit do tmy” (and, in case you hadn’t guessed, it is written in Old Czech).

Giuseppe Bianchi

Of course, Hanzíková has plenty of competition: such as Giuseppe Bianchi, a surveyor from Arquata Scrivia in North-West Italy, whose April 2016 article in La Stampa describes his wondrous Voynich microwriting theory.

He believes the key to understanding the Voynich lies in f1r (the first page) and f116v (the last page), because the whole manuscript is sort of an experiment in “proto-typography” – forming letters with (terrifically tiny) stencils, where each stencil is equivalent to a particular code. Here’s how the second word of the (in)famous “michiton oladabas” breaks down into stencil presses, which is (I have to say) a lot like an odd cross between William Romaine Newbold’s supposed microwriting and the Phaistos Disk’s shape-stamping:

oladaba-kvfg-u1070913399848i8-1024x576lastampa-it

There’s plenty more on YouTube, if microstamping Voynich theories are your bag.

Glen Russum

Enthusiastic smoker Glen Russum has his own Voynich theory to fill his YouTube video with (for example)

I want for Yous to do most of the paying Sam Can Not
be doing it without Help o what I am saying to Help
I think I am wanting all 8 to Pay His and Hers, and
she also. Not I, Sam They I’m Not going to Pay-
not so- not for all 8 of Us! Have Mercy! Please woMen
Do not be so cruelly cruel. …. (do) Care

The first YouTube commenter calls this “Just ridiculous“: but having seen plenty of genuinely ridiculous Voynich theories, I’d be hard-pressed to say whether this has even managed to attain ridiculousness yet. I guess you’ll have to make up your own mind.

Volder Z

“Volder Z”, by way of comparison, is trying to carve out the perilously narrow linguistic furrow most famously ploughed by Stephen Bax’s ard. Volder takes some bits out of Bax’s box while discarding others; rules out most European languages; then moves to his own brand of “modified Syriac” (i.e. start with Syriac but twiddle with ~50% of each indiviudal letter, even though Syriac was written right-to-left *sigh*); and tries to logically deduce the gallows pronunciation in terms of aspirative plosives.

Of course, there are the inevitable problems (he thinks that EVA “i”, “v” and “q” don’t have sounds), and Volder has an entire second video (which I lost the will to watch after only a few minutes, but perhaps you will fare better). But the short version [spoiler alert] is that he thinks it is a super-early Romany language.

There’s a kind of relentless Mormon logic to Volder’s entire linguistic edifice that Bax utterly shares: that just because you can apply a certain frame of reference to a thing, not only should you do it, but that doing so guarantees you a good result.

And the rest…

I could go on (e.g. Karin Marie Olt, who was shown the solution by twins “Lisa and Leonardo” in her dream, now has a Facebook page and has published her own book, etc), but that’s not really the point.

For me, the single biggest reason why I haven’t covered these kinds of Voynich theories here for such a long time is that they – and even stuff like the bot text I started this page with – all merge into a single thing for me.

The way I see the Voynich Manuscript – as a series of micro-stories, all told by the manuscript’s internal evidence, but not as yet gelling into a complete macro-story – is so diametrically opposite to these Voynich theorists that it’s hard to bridge the gap between them. Asking which is the Voynich theorist of the day, week, month, year or decade would be missing the point: I don’t really want any of them, sorry. 🙁

A swaggeringly big tip of the Cipher Mysteries fedora to über-medievalist Lisa Fagin Davis (@lisafdavis) for posting this image to her Twitter feed, taken from “Black Widow & The Avengers” No.18, “in which Diablo steals the Voynich, not realizing it’s online“:

Black-Widow-And-The-Avengers-Voynich

D’oh! (Sorry, wrong comic universe).

In our less-than-completely-superhero-saturated universe, however, Voynich-related interactions tend to be somewhat closer to those portrayed in A Voice For Pierre (Ep.5). *sigh* Enjoy!

Here is as good a collection of pre-1800 maps of Mauritius as I have been able to put together. If you have others (or even better quality versions of the same), please leave a comment below and I will update the page accordingly, thanks!

1601 – Gelderland

The Dutch colonized Mauritius (quoth Wikipedia): landing in 1598, they initially named the Island after Prince Mauritz of Nassau (hence “Maurice” and “Mauritius”). However, when in 1615 governor Pieter Both was shipwrecked and killed on his way back “from India with four richly-laden ships in the bay”, Dutch sentiment shifted against the island, thinking it was “cursed”.

This is a map of a bay in the southwest of Mauritius, drawn from aboard the Dutch ship the Gelderland.

Gelderland1601-1603-medium

This is historically notable because it mentions dodos, which almost certainly gets ornithology historians a-twitching (in a nice way, I’m sure).

1659 – Johann Blaeu

This early (but modestly-sized and almost impossible to recognize) map was printed in Amsterdam in 1659 as part of Johann Blaeu’s “Nuevo Atlas o Teatro del Mundo”:

1659-Johann-Blaeu-Mauritius

Mysteriously, the auction site where I found this scannotes that this was printed on the reverse side of a map of “Vaygach Island” (in Russia), when it is actually of Staten Island (next to Hollandia Nova). Oh well! *sigh*

16xx – Portolan

A very early (but undated) Portolan map of the island, courtesy of Harold and Maryse.

portolan-mauritius

1702-1707 – John Thornton

This is “A chart of the Island of MAURITIUS” by John Thornton: and though it was reprinted a number of times during the 18th century, it was first drawn between 1702 and 1707.

John-Thornton-A-Chart-of-the-Island-of-Mauritius-1734

This scan was from NYPL, who have very kindly posted up an even higher resolution TIFF image of it if you want to download that.

Note that North is to the right, so Mauritius’ modern-day Black River district sits across the top left edge of the map, though few (English-language) landmarks here have names recognizable to a modern cartographer. Barely any internal details of the island are filled in: all in all, it’s more of an outline than a map.

1726 – François Valentijn

Here’s an early Dutch map of Mauritius, which this seller calls “the earliest large map of the island”. The cartography seems a bit suspect to my eyes, but perhaps others will disagree:

Valentijn Mauritius 2

17xx – Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville

This undated map of Mauritius was allegedly drawn for Monsieur de Noyon, who was (it says here) the Governor of the island (though I’m not sure about this myself). I found it on Harold and Maryse’s site, in their nice collection of old maps of Mauritius.

Bourguignon-dAnville-Mauritius

1751 – Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Denis d’Apres de Mannevillette

This next map is “Plan de l’Isle de France, suivant les observations de M. D’Après de Mannevillette” by Nicolas-Louis de La Caille (1713-1762), which you can download from Buchfreund, while the matching bibliographic detail is on Gallica.

Mannevillette-IsleDeFrance

Once again, North is to the right: but some rivers, internal details and many modern names are now visible – la Riviere Noire, Flic en Flac, and so forth. Nice quality draughting, but still somewhat sketchy.

1753 – Van Keulen

Here’s a Dutch map of part of the coast dating to 1753:

Van_Keulen_-_De_Z._O._Haven_van_'t_Eyland_Mauritius

1764 – J.N. Bellin (Part 1)

Bellin was the Hydrographer at the Depot de la Marine: I found this copy courtesy of Harold and Maryse’s site.

1764-Bellin-Mauritius

1764 – J.N. Bellin (Part 2)

Bellin adapted his map for the Duc de Choiseul, adding a few useful extra cartographic bits round the edges:

1764-Bellin-Mauritius-Part-2

Once again, this was courtesy of Harold and Maryse’s nice site.

1781 – John Lodge

A handwritten note added at the top of the full map from which this was cropped (courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library) says: “Cut from The Political magazine, London 1781, vol. 2, p.545”. Note the best map ever drawn, for sure, but it is what it is:

1781-John-Lodge-Mauritius

1788 – Rigobert Bonne (First Map)

Rigobert Bonne (1727-1795) was a French engineer and cartographer who was the Hydrographer at the Depot de la Marine after J.N. Bellin. This map was a part of “Cartes générale et particulières des Isles de France, de Bourbon et de Rodrigue” (a good copy is here, courtesy of DePaul University), and appeared in a number of places, such as Abbé Guillaume-Thomas-François Raynal’s “Atlas de Toutes Les Parties Connues de Globe Terrestre”, and Bonne’s own “Atlas Encyclopédique” (2 volumes, 1787-88).

Rigobert-Bonne-Cartes-Generale-1788

Even though this is recognizably Mauritius and Bonne has obviously tried to develop a topographical angle (by adding mountains), there’s not a lot of named detail: hence this seems to have been drawn independently of la Caille’s 1751 map and even possibly of Bellin’s 1764 map(s).

1791 – Rigobert Bonne (Second Map)

It’s hard to say whether this is genuinely a second Bonne map, or just a kind of merging (say) of the toponymic detail from La Caille’s 1751 map into Bonne’s first map of 1788. There’s a good quality scan downloadable courtesy of Wikipedia.

Rigobert-Bonne-Isle-de-France-1791