back to article Machine translation cracks 18th century occult cipher

Statistical translation techniques have been successfully applied to decode an 18th century document written using an encryption scheme that has baffled scholars for decades. The Copiale Cipher was found in book housed in an East Berlin Academy after the Cold War. The book’s pages contained about 75,000 neatly hand-written …


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  1. nichobe

    Dr Dolittle was a cryptologist!

    Well I never.

  2. Anonymous Coward

    Dear Journotards

    A code is not a cipher. Please, please, please, please learn this very basic difference.

  3. John Lilburne Silver badge

    Good grief

    "with a strange fascination for eye surgery and ophthalmology."

    Must be the Illuminati

    1. FanMan

      well go on then

      tell us what is the difference

      1. Paul M 1

        For example, ASCII is a code but not a cipher.

        1. Tom 13

          You have that reversed, ASCII is a cipher not a code

          ciphers are one to one character replacements where as codes are dictionaries that provide word for word replacements. I'm not sure what the modern computer encryption technique or re-arranging the positions of the letters in the transmission is called but it is neither code nor cipher. And then you've got the whole steganography (sp?) thing.

      2. Kubla Cant Silver badge

        I believe the traditional distinction is that a code operates at a semantic level (i.e. words and phrases), while a cipher operates at a character level.

        1. Disco-Legend-Zeke

          Bit level, actually.

          " while a cipher operates at a character level."

          More Importantly, a cipher scrambles lorries full of informational eggs together into one bowl instead of remapping each Easter egg.*

          Most applicably, beer** scrambles useless thought.

          * in my **

      3. Snafu 2

        It's not difficult. A cypher transforms by means of substitution (at its most basic level); a code OTOH transforms by means of a key. Without the key a code is .. ahem.. indecipherable

        'AHLIdN' may transform to 'London' by means of a cypher, & this is crackable by brute force &/or mathematcs; however 'AHLIdN' may transform to 'Send the bread rolls on Tuesday' or 'Harden the bomb shelters - we're going to attack in June' depending upon the code key used.. & is therefore uncrackable by the same methods.

        Obviously repetitions of similar messages or concepts will give an insight into the coded message (cf enigma et al at Bletchley, although strictly speaking that too was a cypher), but without the key the absolute text remains unclear

        I suppose you could call all slang a code of sorts: 'I'm just going up these apples' doesn't have any connotation of what the principal is actually doing, but most Londoners would recognise Cockney Rhyming Slang for what it is & what it describes..

    2. Disco-Legend-Zeke

      Since It Is a Secret Language...

      ...the tools of translation were successful.

      As JD implied, other tools would be more appropriate for ciphers.

      For pictograms, you need beer.

  4. captain veg


    "a German secret society, with a strange fascination for eye surgery and ophthalmology"

    Or maybe that part of the translation is wrong?

    My hovercraft is full of eels.


  5. TeeCee Gold badge


    A German Secret Society with a penchant for eye-related things.

    So it's the Bavarian Illuminati then?

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge


      I thought it was A.A

      or was it .A. ?

      or perhaps ... ?

      I don't know, but it's a secret.

      1. captain veg

        Please, fondle my bum.

        My nipples explode with delight.


  6. Blue eyed boy

    Found in an East Berlin academy

    Proposed successor to the Hitler Diaries, but the Berlin Wall fell before they could be unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

  7. Mr Young

    Eye surgery?

    Fuck THAT!

  8. TenDollarMan

    Not illuminati

    The Eyeluminati, surely?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Eyeluminati, surely?

      Actually it's iLluminati, and they just got a cease and desist letter from apple.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge


        That's not Apple, that's Welsh...

        Never ask for directions in Wales Baldrick, you'll be washing spit out of your hair for weeks

  9. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    Voynich Manuscript?

    Good luck with that. IIRC, analysis of the symbols in the Voynich Manuscript have shown it to lack the statistical characteristics of language, coded or otherwise. I other words, it's most likely meaningless and probably a hoax. Hardly surprising when the illustrations appear to be of non-existent plants and animals.

    1. Mike Richards Silver badge

      The Voynich is more complex than that.

      There's the huge problem of how many characters are used - there's almost no agreement about whether some characters are distinct or whether they are actually different characters with ligatures. Estimates vary that Voynichese uses between 20 and 30 characters for the bulk of its text plus a few other rare characters.

      Then when you start doing the number crunching odd things begin to appear - there are definitely word-like groups in the text, but the word lengths do not resemble any known language - there are very few short words and very few ones over 10 characters long. Some words are only found in certain parts of the manuscript. Individual words are often repeated either identically or with slight variations - a pattern not usually found in real texts.

      The patterns of characters are definitely not random, there are rules about which characters follow others and which do not and whether they appear anywhere in a word or only at the beginning.

      When you measure the entropy of the whole text (ie. how predictable the text is), it comes much lower than most European languages, around the same as English or Latin - but neither of those match the previous patterns found in the text.

      It most probably is completely meaningless, but a huge amount of work was put into its creation and it would be wonderful to know more about where this thing came from and why it was made.

      The best suggestion is that it was an alchemical fake designed to impress the rich and powerful in Central Europe, but there is a frustrating lack of contemporaneous evidence for the book prior to the early 17th Century (we now know from C-14 that the vellum is early 15th Century, but that does not necessarily mean the book itself is that old).

  10. Drew V.

    The secret they had secretly discovered...

    ...was that it was better to use a blunt spoon than a dull fork.

    Stop laughing! Measured by 18th century surgical standards it was a great leap forward, you know.

  11. Peter Simpson 1

    Who controls the British Pound?

    //Stomecutters' handbook

    1. Rob 103

      I always heard that as "Who controls the British Crown" but I could be wrong - and probably am!

  12. AbortRetryFail

    So..wait, what they're saying is that they ran it through Google Translate? :o)

  13. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    Cipher translated as......

    If you can read are too close!!!

  14. Asgard

    @"making sense of languages that are not currently spoken by humans, including ancient languages and communication between animals."

    I'm reminded of a Farside joke about a dog translator... :)

    But then it could just as easily be this other Farside joke about dog thinking... ;)

  15. KMJA

    Not Illuminati

    It is a Masonic ritual. The "eye" is the all seeing eye.

  16. Dave 32
    Thumb Up

    Eye surgery

    Ah, so that's where that vitrectomy procedure originated (Look it up if you dare!!!).

    Yeah, I've had that, and also I've seen the business end of a 20 Watt Argon laser, and it is....GREEN!

    Fortunately, both were done by a VERY talented ophthalmological surgeon. Thank you Dr. Thompson!


    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      just wait a few years

      it took 7 before I was having to wear glasses again after my very talented surgeon temporarily sorted mine.

  17. Britt

    Eye surgery or All Seeing Eye? you know, that nice little symbol at the top of the pyramid!

    Sherlock because this is my greatest detective work to date.

    1. Tom 13

      Shirley you mean Watson!

      Or haven't you been keeping up with your Dr. Helen Magnus?

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Looking at the logograms...

    ... the 'eye' might be a Stargate! :)

    Where's Richard Dean Anderson when you need him?

    1. Tom 13

      You mean where is Michael Shanks when you need him?

      RDA mostly blew stuff up.

  19. Toastan Buttar

    Translation output: "Should have gone to Specsavers".

  20. GrahamT

    Non Sequitur

    "..also prove useful in making sense of languages that are not currently spoken by humans, including ancient languages and communication between animals"

    Unlikely; the statistical method only works if you know the language that is encoded/enciphered - in this case German. As no one alive speaks animal or many of the dead languages, how would they know the relevance of symbol or sequence frequency? That is why a Rosetta Stone is so important - it provides a basic glossary in the unknown and a known language.

  21. hi_robb

    Eye Surgery!

    The code didn't look like ths by any chance?






  22. gsl


    Surely the Voynich manuscript is already understood:

  23. gonzo_ed

    The code, Mr. Takagi, give me the code!

  24. John Latham

    amanfrommars, your time is up.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I will not buy this tobacconist's

    It is scratched.

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