Getting to grips with influential books — in 9th century alphabet

Most of us have been asked how many of the world’s 100 most influential books we have read — but how many could identify them when written in Georgian using the 9th century Nuskhuri alphabet?

That was the task facing the Irish team in competition with teenagers from around the world at this week’s International Linguistics Olympiad at Manchester University.

The four-strong team had four hours on Thursday to translate as many titles as possible, ranging from the relatively well-known Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to ancient philosophical texts such as the Hindu Upanishads, and the History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides.

The trouble, to start with, was that they only knew that the list was compiled 15 years ago by a poet and critic, but had to figure out for themselves the topic of the 100 items.

“Judging by the job description, we guessed it might be something to do with books all right,” said Daniel Herlihy, one-quarter of the team. “But we struggled to get many of the titles. We had a general idea but we couldn’t figure out a lot of them.”

The four were far more pleased with their performances in the six-hour individual contest on Tuesday. “There was a question on the Indonesian language Muna that wasn’t too bad, the language had a pattern to it that wasn’t too difficult,” said 16-year-old Daniel, who is going into fifth-year at Douglas Community School in Cork.

His team-mates included three-times national representative Imogen Grumley Traynor, who gets her Leaving Certificate results next month at St Killian’s Deutsche Schule in Dublin. Also just finished school are Eleanor McSweeney, from St Joseph of Cluny, Dublin, and Matthew O’Dwyer, a former student of Gonzaga College in the capital.

While the team did not get into the medal placings, team co-ordinator Cara Greene, of the Centre for Next Generation Localisation at Dublin City University, said the standard was remarkably high.

“We’re very proud to have such a strong group of problem-solvers representing Ireland,” said Ms Greene. “They trained hard for this event.”

The team gold went to the US, with contestants from Brazil, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland, Russia, and the US emerging as the top individuals.

The Irish team emerged from last March’s All-Ireland Linguistics Olympiad at DCU, which attracted more than 700 entrants.

Ms Greene said skills developed in such competition can be applied in the kind of research led by CNGL, such as computer coding for language translation programmes.


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