Around 196 B.C., a council of ancient Egyptian priests inscribed a decree on a granite slab affirming the rule of 13-year-old Ptolemy V and providing 3 translations, including one in a form of ancient Greek. After Napoleon’s troops in Egypt recovered the slab, the Rosetta Stone, in 1799, linguists used the Greek to unlock the Egyptian hieroglyphics, whose meaning had been lost for centuries.
Now, a small San Francisco foundation is leading an effort to create a modern Rosetta Stone, a collection of 1000 translations of the 1st three chapters of the book of Genesis into languages from Abkhaz to Zulu. The foundations far thinking backers hope the project will help decoders in the distant future, recover languages of our own day, many of which will certainly be lost.
“If it’s good with 3, not with 1000?” asks Steward Brand, best known as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and now a board member of the Long Now Foundation, which is coordinating the Rosetta Project.
When the collection is completed next year, roughly 30,000 pages of linguistic submissions will be inscribed by ion beams in tiny text onto 3-inch nickel disks and encased in glass balls. The technology provider, Norsam Technologies of Hillsboro, Ore., says tests show the disks will last at least 1000 years, withstanding salt water, sunlight and nuclear radiation using the technology developed at the Los Alamos nuclear labs. The foundation will distribute 1000 disks to libraries and museums and sell them to individuals around the world, all under the archival principle, “Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.”
The hope is that at least some of the disks will survive and prove useful to future archaeologists. The glass balls encasing the disks are rudimentary magnifying glasses. Larger text in 8 languages spirals around the edge of the disk as a kind of hint to discoverers to magnify the disks further. The Rosetta Project backers assume future generations will at least have a 1000 power microscope to enlarge the tiny type. They won’t need what will surely be long lost technology: the personal computer, a Windows operating system or even electricity. The information will be presented in plain text, not digital bits.
With modest funding – $165,000 over 2 years, from the Lazy Eight Foundation, of Denver, Colorado – the project is attracting submissions by linguists from around the world. No single expert could possibly check every submission, so the Rosetta Project relies on a network of linguists to correct each others’ work.
Mr. Mason began by collecting nearly 1000 translations of the world’s most widely translated text, Genesis, mainly from Bible societies. The decision to use a biblical text generated a heated debate within the foundation over its religious associations, but Mr. Mason says the availability of translations made it the only practical choice. The next most translated text, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been translated into about 300 languages.