Papyrus Translators Wanted

by Translation Guy on August 8, 2011

Hey, it’s all Greek to me. So this is one gig I’m happy to pass on to you, especially since it doesn’t pay. Well, except for academic glory. And how do you put a price tag on scholarly immortality? Oxford University is looking for a few good armchair archeologists to translate and catalogue hundreds of thousands of ancient Greek texts written on fragments of papyrus found in Egypt a century ago. That is a slow turnaround, so no wonder they sent it to the cloud.

“Researchers hope the collective effort will give them a unique insight into life in Egypt nearly 2,000 years ago.

“Project specialist Paul Ellis said: ‘Online images are a window into ancient lives.’

“The collection is made up of papyri recovered in the early 20th Century from the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus, the so-called ‘City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish.’

“Many of the documents the public can see on the site have not been read for more than 1,000 years.

“But although they are written in Greek, visitors to the website do not have to have any knowledge of the language in order to use an online tool to help analyse the fragments.

“One letter, written in 127 AD, which has already been translated is from a grandmother called Sarapias asking that her daughter is brought home so that she can be present at the birth of her grandchild.

“Project director Dr Dirk Obbink said: ‘We aim to transcribe as much as possible of the original papyri, and then identify and reconstruct the text. No single pair of eyes can see and read everything. From scientists and professors to school students and ancient enthusiasts, everyone has something to contribute – and gain.'”

The work site Ancient Lives is lovely, and the task for casual visitors is to transcribe the handwritten notes using a keyboard based on the ancient script. Works the same way as CAPTCHA, but the interface is far more sophisticated. Looks fascinating, but after the learning curve attempted to cross the wire of my attention span, Mr. Executive Function in the guard tower had to shoot it down.

Anyway, I’ve got blogs to write and other important CEO stuff to do, but it does look like fun, in the same way that snapping bubble wrap is fun. Perhaps after I retire I can take it up as a hobby, like crocheting or making big jigsaw puzzles, but I’m likely to forget about it before then as retirement races ahead ever closer to my own personal deadline.

Anyway, my advice to those Oxford eggheads is to dumb it down if they want to get people like me pecking away like pigeons in a Skinner Box. Hey, wait a minute. Why, of all the nerve! They don’t want people like me; they want really smart people willing to spend hours and hours in the name of science!


  1. Maren says:

    WTF is a Skinner Box?


  3. The ‘democratisation of academia’ is in vogue at the moment and this resource is in the same league as the British Library’s recent online collation of eighteenth century documents and Faber&Faber’s Waste Land mobile phone App. In fact, the Ancient Lives resource probably exceeds those two as an aide to learning. Solid post Ken.

  4. Kyra Baehr says:

    Here’s an audio interview about the project, quite interesting –

  5. As far as a crowdsourcing project goes, this seems to be attractive to a relatively small crowd: unless the interface is made more ‘armchair friendly’ (for want of a better term), this projects seems more the sort of thing that undergrads in Greek or grad students needing some other procrastination station would participate in … not really a recipe for getting a lot of folks involved. We’ll monitor the project’s project, of course.

  6. Cherry says:

    In recent times we’ve heard of crowdsourcing in a Civil War Project and there’s even a website devoted to crowdsourcing projects (not all are ‘literary’, of course). And while I’m usually gung-ho about connecting technology and ancient stuff, in this case I’m a bit diffident. A visit to the Ancient Lives website shows a very slick interface, but it really isn’t intuitive how one should begin. All that is there to click on is ‘Lightbox’ (other than the menu along the top) and I’m still not clear what this is … is it a random papyrus for me to work on? Are others working on it? The tutorial definitely needs another section like “getting started”…

    • Ken says:

      UI needs work, for sure.

  7. Deciphering ancient papyri is like trying to read a doctor’s handwriting… good luck!

  8. Sometimes it’s tempting to think of the ancient world as a closed book, because everything happened so long ago. But there are millions of fragments still out there – among them, there might be a new Homer or a Virgil. Keep it coming mighty historians!

    • Ken says:

      And so much more to be found thanks to all the new technologies. Very interesting time for archeologist, armchair and otherwise.

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