The Mystery of the Untranslatable Book

In Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library is a book that no one has ever been able to read. It is written in a non-existent or unknown language and features illustrations of plants and creatures that have never been seen on the planet. The copy has 240 illustrated pages, is quite small, and is bound with a fragile, ivory-colored cover of vellum (calf or cow skin used for painting or writing on its surface). In its pages one can see exotic plants, astrological symbols, creatures shaped like jellyfish, and even something that looks like a lobster. In one of the pictures, one can see a group of women with snowy white skin, naked, sliding down a waterslide. The text is written with brown lettering and resembles the Elvish language, created by the English writer J.R.R. Tolkien for his fantasy novels.

Theories on its origin are numerous and diverse. Is it a system of secret communication about a buried treasure? A poisoner’s handbook? A coded elixir for eternal youth? It has even been said that it is an illustrated diary of an alien teenager that he left on Earth before departing.

This mysterious book is known as the “Voynich Manuscript,” in honor of the resale book dealer Wilfrid Voynich, who claimed to have discovered it in Italy in 1912. We know that Voynich was born in 1865, was Polish, and lived in Lithuania (at the time belonging to the Russian Empire). He was arrested and taken to Siberia for engaging in revolutionary activities, and later fled to England by way of Manchuria. In London, he opened a secondhand book store, which became a center where political exiles would meet. Voynich said he had found the manuscript in a Jesuit seminary in Villa Madragone, near Rome.

In the manuscript was a letter written in 1665 by Johannes Marcus Marci, a physicist of the Holy Roman Empire. The letter said that the text had belonged to Rudolph II, Emperor of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, and that it was probably the work of the Elizabethan alchemist Roger Bacon. Two other possible authors that are often linked with the mysterious text are John Dee, an extraordinary magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth, and one of his followers, Edward Kelley.

Another theory suggests that the book might not have not been discovered by Voynich, but instead, that he had falsified it by applying his knowledge of chemistry gained at the University of Moscow while in Russia; by using a large amount of parchment, he was able to create the curious specimen.

Ever since the book has been known about, many specialists have been interested in deciphering its contents. The American William Friedman, one of the great twentieth century cryptographers, spent 30 years trying to crack the code of the manuscript. Moreover, it has been argued that the plants that appear are of Mesoamerican origin, while others claim to have translated some words by applying knowledge of linguistics. However, despite the extensive research and efforts that have been made, it remains, at least for now, completely untranslatable.