“Translation as Scholarship: Language, Writing, and Bilingual Education in Ancient Babylonia” by C. Jay Crisostomo

C. Jay Crisostomo. Translation as Scholarship: Language, Writing, and Bilingual Education in Ancient Babylonia. SANER 22. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019.

Initially, I will first provide a summary. This will be followed by discussion of his conclusions and arguments.


In Translation and Scholarship, Crisostomo argues that ancient “translation” practices of cuneiform scholars fail to meet “our modern expectation and presuppositions regarding what constitutes translation” (3). As such, he places translation under the broader umbrella of analogy, for all translation is, at base, analogical. Particularly fundamental to the problem of defining translation is the problem of meaning. Noting that the relationship between meaning and translation is problematic in translation studies, he raises another question central to his study: concerning translation, “should meaning be restricted to semantics” (6)?9781501509810

From here, he notes that language is a social practice. As such, translation must be understood within the culture and norms of the particular language, region, and time period. That is, the social world serves as a framework for understanding and defining “translation.” Drawing from the Bourdieusian notion of habitus, Crisostomo explores the habitus, that is the practices and activities, which frame and define the ancient notion of “translation.”

So, the study deals with that very question: how does habitus of ancient cuneiform scholars during their scribal education shape their notion of translation? Rather than simply focusing on “translation,” Crisostomo argues that “Sumerian-Akkadian bilingualism and the mode of interpretation [he terms] analogical hermeneutics are exemplified in Izi. In fact, in Izi, bilingualism – translation – is analogical hermeneutics” (10). Drawing on the work of his predecessors, he illustrates how Izi, one of six lexical compositions employed for advanced lexical education in Nippur during the OB period, served to “inculcate analogical hermeneutics as scribal habit” (10). As such, ancient cuneiform scholars who could work well with analogical hermeneutics could attain more social capital within their particular social contexts.

So, he argues, scribes practicing analogical hermeneutics are agents of translation within their social field. “In other words, they act as scholars, scholars who translate. Thus, translation is scholarship” (14).

Chapter 2 further details his broad argumentation laid out in Chapter 1. The foundations of cuneiform translation are found in three places: cuneiform’s semiotic structure; multilingualism in cuneiform culture; and the institution of OB scribal schools. Together, these allow better analysis of how translation developed in scholarly communities. First, concerning cuneiform’s semiotic structure, he introduces the language and concepts. To describe cuneiform, Crisostomo draws from W. Hanks: sign vehicle (the cuneiform sign itself), designatum (type of object which the sign vehicle may refer to, with all possibilities), and denotatum (“specific, contextualized referent of the sign” (20)). Particularly with Akkadian and Sumerian, relation between these three aspects of semiotics is rooted in social convention.

Second, Crisostomo demonstrates the nature of multilingualism from the later 3rd millennium up to the OB period. The blending of Sumerian and Akkadian early on still remains a point of contention among scholars. Early in the 2nd millennium BCE, the relationship between script and language remained problematic. With the emergence of new cultural elites defined by their ability to read and write in the OB period, scribes underwent training and valorized an invented form of Sumerian culture. So, language and script were “an essential characterization of the field of education, a social differentiation largely grounded in the memory produced within the field itself” (35). Through this memory produced within the social group, Sumerian became the “foremost over all the language of Mesopotamia” (38).

Third, through scribal education and copying lexical lists, scribes could be inculcated with cultural knowledge about the invented Sumerian culture, not solely linguistic expertise. As such, analogous reasoning within lexical lists characterizes the “scribal play” found in lexical lists, and cuneiform scholarship more broadly, as normative means of knowledge production, proof of scribal competence, and social capital.

Chapter 3 outlines the expressions of analogical hermeneutics in advanced lexical education. Within this system, “translation analogically describes semiotic relations between words and signs” (51). As such, “Translation is an outcome of the broader scholarly activity of analogical hermeneutics” (51). He proceeds by describing (a) what analogical hermeneutics are, (b) analogical hermeneutics in cuneiform culture, (c) analogical hermeneutics as a form of OB scribal education habitus, (d) and the particular analogical structure of Izi.

First, briefly discussing analogical hermeneutics, his findings resonate with E. Frahm; however, whereas Frahm views hermeneutics as aiming for correct interpretation, Crisostomo replaces “correct interpretation” with “all potential interpretations” (52). With this, he defines analogical hermeneutics as “a mode of scholarly interpretation by which a scribe perceives, generates, or imposes through analogical reasoning associations between two or more epistemic objects” (52), echoing the voices of scholars like G.E.R. Lloyd and F. Rochberg. He continues, noting that cultures throughout time and space have employed analogical reasoning. As a form a rhetoric in history, cuneiform likewise utilizes analogy. Moreover, analogy for cuneiform scholars was tied to social identity as it demanded knowledge of the writing system and languages.

Second, Crisostomo explores how analogical hermeneutics are present from the early lexicography through to the first millennium BCE. Through a wide range of text genres, including ED lists, 1st millennium commentaries, omen lists, epics, and more general OB texts, he shows the continuity of analogical hermeneutics. What distinguishes the OB period from other periods, though, “is the systematic habituation of the technique, particularly in scribal education” (68).

Third, outlining the OB scribal habitus, he shows how analogical hermeneutics plays a role in each text employed as part of the advanced lexical education. He briefly looks at examples from Izi, Ea, Diri, Lu, Kagal, Nigga, Lu-azlag, Ugumu, the Nippur God Lists, the Nippur Legal Phrasebook, and Mathematical lists and tables. Each of these texts, Crisostomo contends, reflect the habitus of the OB scribal curriculum. The habitus, in turn, was reproduced through scribal practice and provided social actors with social capital via inculcation of analogical hermeneutics.

Fourth, and central to the entire volume, Crisostomo reviews all of Izi, picking up on Civil’s work at entry 158. Likewise, he offers a few revisions of Civil’s descriptions. His description of analogical hermeneutics within Izi, both in terms of the macrostructure and microstructure, convincingly illustrate that analogical hermeneutics were embedded as practice in the habitus of OB scribal education.

Chapter 4 focuses on how the technique of analogical hermeneutics plays out multilingually, namely how scribes practiced interlingual analogical hermeneutics. First, he provides an overview of interlingual analogical hermeneutics diachronically, drawing from various commentaries, bilingual texts, NA texts, OB texts, and lexical texts. These demonstrate how “a systematically embedded scholarly practice during the Old Babylonian period… likely persisted to the end of cuneiform culture” (124).

Second, he shifts to focusing on multilingualism in Izi from OB Nippur in context of advanced lexical education. Within this, he looks at bilingual texts and unilingual texts with Akkadian glosses. Akkadian glosses in unilingual texts employ analogical strategies, as do bilingual texts; however, bilingual texts are pedagogically oriented towards interlingual analogies with semantic correlation. Therefore “Whereas the bilingual version [of Izi] seeks to preserve semantic congruity between the two languages, the unilingual version [of Izi] supports practices in interlingual associations reflecting the goals of analogical hermeneutics as a whole” (140).

Third, returning to how interlingual analogical hermeneutics is rooted in cuneiform script, he further shows how Sumerian was restricted to the habitus of OB scribal schools. As such, OB scribal habitus at Nippur marked a major shift: “scholarship need not be indexed by whether one writes in Akkadian or in Sumerian… A true Babylonian scribe could operate fluidly in the interlingual space. We are thus privy to the beginnings of a new conception of scholarship marked by analogical hermeneutics” (152). Moreover, it is important to note that, though Crisostomo agrees with Van De Mieroop (2015) concerning how the writing system was exploited for scholarship, Crisostomo pushes against Van De Mieroop’s claim by arguing that “writing and reality need not be connected in any way; writing and the analogically based interpretation of writing is scribal habit, conventionalized and routinized within and applicable for position taking in the field of scribal education” (144).

Fourth, since Crisostomo established that translation (i.e. bilingualism) in advanced lexical education reflects analogical hermeneutics, he describes the various techniques of analogical hermeneutics. The typologies of Sumerian-Akkadian correspondences are as follows: semantic commensuration, semantic extension, qualified or abbreviated, phonological substitution, morphological substitution, transferred meaning, grammatical derivation, loanwords, graphic extension, iconic representation, antonymic translation, spatial/traditional references, and opaque analogies (153).

Chapter 5 synthesizes his discussions, focusing on the “implications for language and translation raised by the application of analogical hermeneutics” (167). So, restating previous arguments, the polysemy and polyvalency of cuneiform is systemized in OB education through advanced lexical education. On this basis, analogy is scholarship. Notably, he comments that other have suggested that cuneiform scholarship, such as J. J. Glassner; however, Crisostomo contends that the foundations for Glassner’s claims are weak (171n8).

Pushing against tendency within recent Assyriological literature to assume a “Platonic association of name and essence” (177), he argues that scholars misconstrue scribal practice, as they assume the hermeneutic practices were a search for singular truth. By contrast, Assyrian and Babylonian hermeneutics recognize the diversity of meaning through cuneiform. So, “The practice of analogical hermeneutics in Mesopotamia is not due to mentality that conceived word and sign as inherent or natural to a thing but to a social convention within the field of scholarship that appreciates the possibilities granted by the writing system” (179).

Additionally, Crisostomo argues that “translation should be reevaluated as a semiotic process for attaining partial equivalence under multiple possible perspectives” (180). Put another way, Crisostomo views the Western understanding of “translation” as too limited, contending that cuneiform scholars understood at least three concepts of translation. As such, scholarly translations are limited by scribal conventions. So, through employing these scribal conventions, scribes “asserted their social role in the culture” (184).

Finally, Crisostomo offers a brief summary of his entire volume. Through inculcation of scribes via the advanced lexical education in OB Nippur, a habitus was established which enabled scribes to reproduce cultural capital and attain cultural capital through control of the writing system. The analogical hermeneutics which were engrained through the advanced lexical education permitted scholars to demonstrate their knowledge and expand cuneiform knowledge via the interlingual space between Sumerian and Akkadian, mediated by the writing system. As such, it entextualized “transmutable knowledge that could carry the field to the end of cuneiform culture” (185), that is analogical hermeneutics.

Chapter 6 is an edition of the OB word list Izi from Nippur. Appendix 1 provides a catalogue of other versions of Izi, based on region and time period. Appendix 2 lists the Akkadian glosses from Izi at Nippur which indicate the use of either semantic commensurability or another analogical hermeneutical technique, showing that of 465 viable entries, 37% indicate other analogical techniques and 63% show semantically commensurable glosses.


Many aspects of Crisostomo’s analyses are commendable. First, his incorporation of habitus is one of the stronger points of his work, demonstrating how Izi served to inculcate scribes as part of broader social activities. It is one of the constant threads throughout the volume. As such, he effectively demonstrates how the OB scribal habitus served to inculcate analogical hermeneutics into students. Second, his discussion of analogical hermeneutics as a pedagogical aspect of OB scribal education is erudite and insightful. Perhaps future studies will begin to trace how analogical hermeneutics, and their associated habitus, changed through time and space after the OB period in Nippur. Third, the theoretical discussion of analogical hermeneutics, translation, habitus, etc., along with his ability to merge them into a coherent argument, is notable. Though not without problems, Crisostomo’s discussion is undoubtedly essential to address for any Assyriologists dealing with issues related to translation.

That said, there are a few caveats to these commendable aspects of his work. First, it is unclear how he defines the relationship between translation and analogical hermeneutics. Early on, he claims that “translation is scholarship.” Because translation is a type of analogical hermeneutic, though, analogical hermeneutics are not necessarily always a type of translation. Instead, “Translation is an outcome of the broader scholarly activity of analogical hermeneutics” (51). Later on, he comments that “The knowledge that OB ALE scribes conveyed concerned hermeneutics more than translation” (165). That is, analogical hermeneutics was conveyed more often than translation in the sense of semantic commensurability alone.

And yet, Chapter 5 suggests that “translation should be reevaluated as a semiotic process for attaining partial equivalence under multiple possible perspectives,” thereby creating space for cuneiform scholarship and their “translation” (180). What I mean to point out through these various quotations is the lack of clarity concerning the relationship between translation and analogical hermeneutics. He suggests:

(a)    That translation is analogical hermeneutics, and therefore translation is scholarship. As such, we should change our understanding of what “translation” means. So, Babylonian scholars “crafted a version of translation reflecting these analogical habits rather than solely semantic alignment” (113). If it is a “version” of translation, does it really constitute translation anymore? Can we justify calling it “translation” if the goal of the translation is not communicative?

(b)    That translation is just an aspect of analogical hermeneutics. As such, analogical hermeneutics sometimes overlap with translation, particularly in terms of semantic commensurability. If so, how do we define the relationship between analogical hermeneutics and translation?

(c)     That analogical hermeneutics are conveyed more frequently than translation, indicating a distinction between analogical hermeneutics and translation. So, does this mean that Babylonian scholars used both translation and analogical hermeneutics?

Thus, although he provides helpful and solid theoretical discussion concerning language, translation, and analogical hermeneutics, he should have spent more time discussing and clarifying the relationship between analogical hermeneutics and translation. From my perspective, perhaps it is better to abandon the idea that scholarship is translation; perhaps scholarship is simply analogical hermeneutics, which has a different goal than translation and can still overlap with translation through semantic commensurability.

Additionally, while discussing the issue of multilingualism, he comments on the problem of “code switching.” While some texts clearly demark units where the code is being switched, some texts from the SI.A-a archive blend Akkadian and Sumerian. This is also present in other archives. To what degree, though, is what we perceive as linguistic admixture (a) to be understood as two distinct languages or (b) to be understood as a single, linguistic system, even if just a linguistic system designed for writing? Dealing with this issue is central because it impacts the degree to which the relationship between Akkadian and Sumerian were perceived as distinct languages and sign systems. Thus, it also impacts what we mean by words like “translation.” For if language divisions were not as sharp in the later 3rd millennium as they are now, especially for the scribal community, it is questionable whether or not the scribes perceived their actions as related to “translation” in any way.

Furthermore, regarding one example of advanced lexical education, he fails to offer any explanation of how it shows analogical hermeneutics. Concerning mathematical lists and tables, he comments: “As such, it is difficult to posit how they fit into the proposed emphasis on analogical reasoning, if they even do. Perhaps the introduction of a new subject in association with writing demands a degree of analogy” (92). In other words, he unsure how mathematical lists fit into the system. Unfortunately, he never attempts to deal with this problem any further. While this doesn’t discount his proposed analogical hermeneutical focus for advanced lexical education, it does indicate that there is still a hole in his argument.

Finally, his categories of analogical hermeneutic techniques are particularly helpful. My primary critique is that he fails to catalogue which techniques were applied the most within Izi. In other words, all the techniques are analogical hermeneutics. How often, though is grammatical derivation used as opposed to semantic extension? In Appendix 2, he lays out the percentage of Akkadian-Sumerian glosses with semantic commensurability as opposed to another analogical hermeneutic technique. He bundles all other techniques, though, into a single category. By detailing the number of times that each analogical hermeneutic technique is used within Izi, we would have an even better understanding of the role that analogical hermeneutics plays in OB scribal habitus at Nippur.

In conclusion, Crisostomo’s Translation as Scholarship is an excellent volume. Particularly as it regards the historical development of scribalism during the OB period and the textualization of analogical hermeneutics in scribal education as a foundation of cuneiform scholarship for nearly 2 millennia, the volume is erudite, informative, and well-argued. Likewise, the volume is useful for more methodologically and theoretically oriented issues. Unfortunately, aspects of the theory and methodology were unclear, especially the relationship between language, translation, and analogical hermeneutics. Hopefully, future scholars, or perhaps Crisostomo himself, will help by clarifying the relationship.

Nonetheless, any Assyriologist dealing with issues of scribal education, translation theory, or lexical lists should consult Translation as Scholarship. Scholars dealings with Aramaic-Akkadian bilingual inscriptions, along with trilingual inscriptions, should also consult this volume. It establishes a foundation for OB scribal habitus at Nippur and its subsequent reception over two millennia. Perhaps future scholars will continue in Crisostomo’s path, exploring how analogical hermeneutics changed over two millennia of Babylonian and Assyrian scholarship.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to De Gruyter for providing a review-copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 


“History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition” by Niek Veldhuis

CuneiformNiek Veldhuis. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record (GMTR), Volume 6. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014, pp. 524, 79.00 €.

In a comprehensive overview of cuneiform lexical lists (See , “What is a Lexical List“), Niek Veldhuis (Ph.D. Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 1997; Professor of Assyriology at the University of California, Berkley) traces the developments within the lists from the Archaic Lexical corpus up to the Late Babylonian period. Simply put, he traces lexical lists as knowledge, which he analyzes as “a social phenomenon, as something that people use to pursue their material, social, and cultural goals, embedded in a historical context” (6). Thus, through his work he draws out how shifts and developments in the cuneiform lexical list corpora reflect social-historical conditions.

Chapter One introduces the basic framework standard to any academic work: trajectory, introduction to the topic, history of research, and resources. Chapter Two analyzes archaic lexical lists and, after arguing against their purposes as world order or teaching tools, explains the standardization and transmission of the corpus as construction of scribal identity through a constantly changing environment. Struggling with a broad geographical spectrum of data and lack of regional consistency in the All-Babylonian, Regional, and Local traditions, Chapter Three concludes that third millennium lexical texts do not provide enough data to fully contextualize knowledge within its own context. Shifting to a period in which significant develops were made, Chapter Four analyzes the Old Babylonian (or Amorite) period’s geography and nature of lexical texts in order to provide a theoretical Old Babylonian scribal curriculum, three major uses of lexical lists (scribal curriculum; scholarly handbooks), and to emphasize the precedent of long term effects of the writing revolution.  Distinguishing between the Middle Assyrian and the International Period, Chapter Five explores how lexical traditions in the International Period were appropriated with local variations through international relations, textual traditions, and scribal teachers. Shifting to the Middle Assyrian Period, Chapter Six examines the fundamental changes to the cuneiform lexical corpus, namely the value of the tablet over the scribal community, and their role in establishing and defining stakes regarding the power and legitimization of Neo-Assyrian dynasties. By the Neo- and Late Babylonian periods, lexical texts are no longer the locus of intellectual creativity, Chapter Seven argues, but a tool is scribal school curriculum to further the study and development of texts like celestial sciences and horoscopy. Finally, Chapter Eight synthesizes the information and succinctly summarizes the lexical traditions in regard to three categories: writing, knowledge, and power, categories which allow lexical texts to “sing their own little part as one voice in a choir” (429).

Study of lexical texts is an incredibly specialized field of Assyriology, a point Veldhuis recognizes and emphasizes. For that reason, his contribution to Assyriology is extremely valuable because, for him, the lexical corpus is merely one voice in a choir of voices. His study states the purpose of being a starting point for more nuanced studies of different periods of history that utilize the full range of over-specialized fields within Assyriology. Rather than falling into glorifying his area of extreme specialization, he encourages scholars to synthesize specialized fields.

Although his study did not focus on or even mention biblical literature, it provides an important framework for broadly understanding the scribal community and role of scribes during the range of ancient Israelite existence. While specific points of relations may be difficult to construct, if not impossible, it does help to contextualize certain practices and records within ancient Israelite historiography and folkloric traditions. Needless to say I look forward to how biblical scholars contextualize ancient Israelite scribal communities and praxis in light of Veldhuis’ expansive analysis of 4,000 years of lexical lists.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this work as a reference source. Most people will not read through it, as I did; however, any research regarding scribal communities or reconstruction of certain regions in history should interact with the analyses by Veldhuis.