Ancient languages are one of the hardest subjects that translators have to tackle. Coptic translation and being a Coptic translator is no exception. Quite a number of translators avoid learning such languages, but there always seems to be a need to handle such a language.
So, what kind of language is Coptic? As one expert service explains, “Coptic is the most recent phase of ancient Egyptian. It is the direct descendant of the ancient language written in Egyptian hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic scripts. The Coptic alphabet is a slightly modified form of the Greek alphabet, with some letters (which vary from dialect to dialect) deriving from demotic. As a living language of daily conversation, Coptic flourished from ca. 200 to 1100.”
But, is Coptic an active language that people use daily? Actually, as the same source notes, the last record of its active use was during the 17th century. Formally, Coptic today is an extinct language and does not have official status.
Still, there is a part of the population in modern Egypt that declares themselves as Copts. These are Egyptian Christians that still follow the Coptic version of Christianity. That is why “Coptic survives today as the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church” (above source).
Coptic Egyptian was spoken only in Egypt, and historically has had little influence outside of Egypt proper, with the exception of monasteries located in Nubia. Coptic’s most noticeable impact has been on the various dialects of Egyptian Arabic, where an immense amount of words from the Coptic lexicon has been preserved as well as many morphological, syntactical, and phonological correspondences. There are also a handful of words of Coptic origin that have been borrowed more generally into Standard Arabic. Modern Nubian languages borrowed many words of Coptic origin (above).
More about the Coptic language
Who were the Copts in History, and why is there a need for Coptic translation today?
According to Biblical Archeology, “Egypt’s Coptic period—also called Egypt’s Christian period—lasted 500 years, from the fourth century to the ninth century C.E.” At that time, the majority of Egypt’s population was Christian. “The major shift in religion—from the old Egyptian religion to Christianity—occurred in Egypt between 200 and 400 C.E. This change was undoubtedly accelerated when Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion in 313 C.E.”
Another shift in religion brought about the end of Egypt’s Coptic period in the ninth century. Arabic-speaking Muslims conquered Egypt in 640 C.E. Although Christianity and Coptic remained the predominant religion and language for several centuries after the conquest, eventually, most of Egypt’s population adopted the new religion, Islam, and language, Arabic, of their conquerors (above).
Still, the Coptic language persevered among the clergy of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and it is still the language that it uses in its services. Axis Translations (above) notes that the revival of this language begun in the second half of the 19th century. “Pope Cyril IV of Alexandria started a Church-sponsored movement to educate the clergy and the new generations. The revival of Coptic seemed to be a necessary tool for such a movement. So Coptic language education was offered in all the schools that he built alongside the other curriculums that were needed to make a new, better, and educated generation.”
In the last half quarter of that century, the movement to revive the Coptic language intensified. “These dedicated people spread the language among the masses. They printed many of the Coptic service books for the first time, as they were only extant in manuscript form, thus reviving the use of Coptic in the Church services.”
Coptic translation and language in the 20th century
Actually, during the 19th-century revival, the language purveyors came up with several works of grammar as well as a comprehensive dictionary. They also established a Coptic Clerical College.
“The clerical college also continued the tradition of the 19th-century revival of Coptic. With the advent of the revolution of 1952, the Arabic language became more prominent in Egypt and had eventually an influential effect on the new educated classes among the Copts.”
Still, as the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Los Angeles explains, the Coptic Church is one of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, a group that includes the Ethiopian Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Syrian Church of India, and the Armenian Church. The Oriental Orthodox Group has around 60 million members worldwide.
According to their information, the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest Church in the Middle East, with about 12 million faithful in Egypt. At the end of the twentieth century, estimates ranged from 6 to 11 million; 6% (official estimate) to 20% (Church estimate) of the population, the majority living in the Upper Egyptian provincial capitals of Assiut and Minya, and in Cairo. World Atlas adds that the total population of Coptic in the diaspora is 1,243,000. United States, Canada, and Kuwait have the highest Coptic diaspora population in the world. The United States has the highest Coptic believers with 1,000,000 followers this is 80% of all the Copts in Diaspora.
Based on this information it becomes clear that the need for Coptic translation still exists. The focus is obviously on the religious element of the language.
Elements of the language – what Coptic translators have to do
Axis translations explain that the core lexicon of Coptic is derived from the ancient Egyptian language. It is most closely related to the demotic phase of the language. Approximately one-third of Coptic vocabulary is drawn from Greek. These borrowings are not always fully adapted to the Coptic phonological system and may have semantic differences as well. There are instances of Coptic texts having passages that are almost entirely composed from Greek lexical roots. However, you should have in mind that the majority of Coptic texts are direct translations of Greek works.
Coptic uses a writing system almost wholly derived from the Greek alphabet. There is a number of additional letters that have their origins in Demotic Egyptian. There is some variation in the number and forms of these demotic signs depending on the Coptic dialect. Some of the letters in the Coptic alphabet that are of Greek origin were normally reserved only for words that are themselves Greek in origin.
Actually, the name ‘Coptic’ derives from the Greek word for Egyptian: Aigyptioi which became Qibt in Arabic and then was Latinised to become Copt (Omniglot.com).
For translators, the problem with the writing system may arise when they encounter different Coptic dialects.
According to the above source, there are six major Coptic dialects:
In Sahidic, syllables may have been indicated by a supralinear stroke. Many scholars hold that it was used to indicate /e/. There is currently no agreement on this issue. Some scribal traditions use a diaeresis over and at the beginning of a syllable. Bohairic uses a superposed point or small stroke known as a djinkim. Scholars think this to be unrelated to the Sahidic supralinear stroke. Also, most Coptic texts do not indicate a word division.
Coptic translation today mostly concerns religious texts
Since Coptic language today lives in the religious proceedings of the Coptic church, that is where Coptic translation comes in most useful. Leo Depuydt from Brown University wrote one of the more comprehensive analyses of the Coptic language titled “Coptic: Egypt’s Christian Language.”
In referring to his text, Megan Sauter notes that Coptic was the lingua franca of Egypt when Egypt was predominantly Christian. Many assume that the Coptic language was developed primarily to spread Christianity, but Depuydt disagrees. He supports the great Belgian Coptologist Louis Théophile Lefort’s theory that the Coptic language was created by another group—the Jews.
But, whatever is the case, Coptic religious texts remain the prime element of Coptic translation. One source points out the following fact about Coptic translation. “During the third century C.E., various translators, working independently of one another, rendered portions of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Greek Scriptures into Coptic.”
The Coptic versions of the Bible were translated from Greek. It seems that most Bible books were available in Coptic by the beginning of the fourth-century C.E.
The oldest complete Coptic codices of the Gospels available today date from the 11th or the 12th century C.E., but copies of single Bible books, or portions of them, date back to as early as the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. The value of the Coptic translations, particularly the early ones, is that they were based on Greek texts that predate many existing Greek manuscripts. The Coptic translations may shed light on the ancient texts from which they were translated.
Being a Coptic translator – concluding remarks
These cross-translation processes remain one of the most intriguing aspects of any Coptic translation. This is not only interesting from the aspect of linguistics, but also from the aspect of how you will approach a translation of a text in Coptic or any other language that is not in formal use anymore.
There, translations can indicate the origins, but also the active use of words, terms alphabets, and others. But, when it comes to Coptic translation itself, it might seem appropriate to refer to the Skopos theory of translation. This theory represents “the idea that translating and interpreting should primarily take into account the function of both the source and target text.” Basically, the way you translate a certain text determines how you will approach the process of translating that text.
Since currently, the main focus of Coptic translation seems to be on religious texts, this is the focus potential Coptic translators have to have in mind. This would mean that they would probably need solid background and knowledge of religious, and Biblical studies in particular. It is quite possible that you may find such a suitable translator among those available here at BunnyStudio.