11 Diplomatic Multilingualism in the Middle East, Past and Present: Multilingualism, Linguae Francae and the Global History of Religious and Scientific Concepts

Lutz Edzard

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Edzard, Lutz (2018). Diplomatic Multilingualism in the Middle East, Past and Present: Multilingualism, Linguae Francae and the Global History of Religious and Scientific Concepts. In: Multilingualism, Lingua Franca and Lingua Sacra. Berlin: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Wissenschaften.

11.1 Introduction

This chapter will look at some structural features of some famous ancient Near Eastern diplomatic documents, among them international treaties and correspondence that were drafted in Akkadian (among other languages) and Aramaic. Relevant documents in this context are, for example, the treaty between Ramses II and Ḫattušili III, the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon, the Aramaic state treaties, and the Amarna correspondence. With the aim of highlighting the importance of historical Semitic studies, the question of the degree to which some of these features can still be found in modern corresponding documents will be looked at. As political “case studies,” Article 17 of the Treaty of Wəč̣ale between Italy and Ethiopia, the notorious Security Council Resolution no. 242, and Article 16 from the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) will be addressed. The different (Semitic) language versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) will also be briefly mentioned.

Treaties and formal diplomatic correspondence make up an important stock in the vast array of ancient Near Eastern documents. Due to time-independent stereotypes in both form and content, many of these documents exhibit a number of formal and stylistic features, some of which may even be found today in modern diplomatic documents. A larger project on diplomatic documents in the modern Semitic languages Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic1 would not have been manageable without such inspiring sources as D. McCarthy’s Treaty and Covenant (1981), which takes the Old Testament as its point of departure, John Wansbrough’s Lingua Franca in the Mediterranean (1996), as well as Edward Ullendorff’s and Sven Rubenson’s publications on Amharic diplomatic documents from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.2 These sources in Semitic and other language families indeed constitute an important textual “genre,” as does the vast corpus of ʾinšāʾ literature in Arabic.

Another important issue to be addressed in this context is the phenomenon of diplomatic multilingualism. Just as in private transactions, different language versions of one and the same document can have far-reaching legal consequences. This need not always be the case, though, and we may merely be faced with illuminating cultural diversity. Bilingual, and sometimes even trilingual documents, are among the pearls in the realm of philology, not to mention their crucial historical role for decipherment. The bilingual Assyrian-Aramean inscription on the Tell Faḫrīye statue, which was edited by Ali Abou-Assaf, Pierre Bordreuil, and Alan Millard (1982) is a more recent case in point. “Parallel texts” in a wider sense also include religious core documents where translations must be considered for the sake of edition methodology and textual reconstruction. As far as modern documents are concerned, an important study in this context is Mala Tabory’s Multilingualism in International Law and Institutions (1980).

11.2 Political Treaties

Political treaties constitute an important stock of historical documents, as the large-scale text series Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament and Texte aus der Umwelt des Alten Testaments amply demonstrate. The term “treaty” can be used here to translate the Akkadian term adê, denoting a formal agreement between two parties which are bound together by oaths.3 Thus, these documents contain lists of witnessing gods, as well as copious sanctions in case the clauses of the treaty should be broken by one of the contracting parties. Relevant documents in this context are, for example, the treaty between Ramses II and Ḫattušili III,4 the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon with various Iranian notables,5 and the Aramaic state treaties, as partially attested in the Sfire stelas from the eighth century BCE.6 William Moran (1963) has contributed an important article on the treaty terminology in the Sfire stelas where one finds a hendiadyoin ʿdyʾ w-ṭbtʾ ‘the treaty and the good things,’ reminiscent of Akkadian expressions such as ṭūbtu u šulummû ‘friendship and peace.’ We owe the publication of additional Akkadian treaties of the seventh century BCE to scholars like Kirk Grayson (1987) and Simo Parpola (1987, 1988), among others. Kitchen and Lawrence (2012) constitutes an extremely well-done survey and analysis of the relevant documents. At this point it is useful to consider one extract from the Vassal treaties of Esarhaddon:7

(1) Seal and Exposition (narratio) of the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon

aban kunukki ili Aššur šarri ilī bēl mātī ša lā šunnê aban kunukki rubê rabê abī ilī ša lā paqāri

1   adê ša Aššur-aḫa-iddina šar kiššati šar māt Aššur

2   mār Sin-aḫḫē-eriba šar kiššati šar māt Aššur-ma

3   itti Ramatayya bēl āli Urakazabanu

4   itti mārī-šu mārī mārī-šu itti āl Urakazabanu

5   gabbu ṣehri rabê mala bašū

6   itti-kunu mārī-kunu mārī mārī-kunu

7   ša arki adê ina ūmī ṣâti ibbaššū

8   ištu napāḫ šamši adi erēb šamši

9   ammar Aššur-aḫa-iddina šar māt Aššur šarrūtu bēlūtu

10 ina muḫḫī-šunu upaššu-ni ša ina muḫḫī Aššur-bāni-apli

11 mār rabû ša bīt rēdūti mār Aššur-aḫa-iddina

12 šar māt Aššur ša ina muḫḫī-šu adê itti-kunu iškun-ni

Seal of the god Ashur, king of the gods, lord of the lands—not to be altered; seal of the great prince, father of the gods—not to be disputed.

1   The treaty which Esarhaddon, king of the world, king of Assyria,

2   son of Sennacherib, likewise king of the world, king of Assyria,

3   with Ramataia, city-ruler of Urakazabanu,

4   with his sons, his grandsons, with all the Urakazabaneans

5   young and old, as many as there may be –

6   with (all of) you, your sons, your grandsons

7   who will exist in days to come after the treaty,

8   from sunrise to sunset.

9   over as many as Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, exercises

10 kingship and lordship– (so) he has made the treaty

11 with you concerning Ashurbanipal, the crown-prince,

12 son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria.

After this exposition, a list of contractual clauses follows, mostly having to do with the preservation of property, the prevention and sanction of slander and defamation, and extradition procedures. Technically, the individual clauses in their entirety constitute a gigantic protasis, that is, conditional oath sentences without an apodosis.8 The apodosis proper is then an equally long list of dire consequences should any provisions of the treaty be broken. This syntactic and text-linguistic analysis is not uncontroversial.9 The treaty closes with a brief statement about when and by whom it was established.

As one can see, already the oldest extant treaties feature most elements of the by now well-established structure of diplomatic documents, which is known by its Latin designations:

narratio: name and title of the contracting parties;
goal of the treaty;
names and titles of the plenipotentiaries;
confirmation that the credentials of the involved diplomats are in order and that one agrees on the following
dispositio: definitions;
general and specific content of the treaty;
agreement on the implementation of the content of the treaty
corroboratio: signature, ratification, start of the treaty, temporal and geographical limitation
testimonium: sentence with signature and seals under the treaty (in witness whereof, en foi de quoi, ...)
time and place of the signatures
seals and signatures

Let us now introduce the important issue of diplomatic multilingualism and consider Paragraph 4 in the already-mentioned Egyptian-Hittite treaty between Ramses II and Ḫattušili III from the year 1271 BCE, dealing inter alia with mutual renunciation of aggression:10

(2) The Treaty between Ramses II and Ḫattušili III, § 4


§4a:u mRia[mašeš]a mai-damana šarru rabû šar māt Miṣrī lā ugarra <ana> māt Ḫatti ana

laqê mimma ina libbī-š[u] iṣṣâti.

and PN king great king:GEN land:GEN PN NEG shall:attack to land:GEN PN to take

something [from] in heart-its in:the:future

And Ria[mašeš]a mai-amana, the great king, the king of the land of Egypt, shall not

trespass into the Ḫatti land to take anything there-from in the future.

§4b:u mḪattušili šarru rabû šar māt Ḫatti lā ugarra ana māt Miṣri ana laqê [mimm]a ina

libbī-š[u] iṣṣâti.

and PN king great king:GEN land:GEN PN NEG shall:attack to land:GEN PN to take

something [from] in heart-its in:the:future

And Ḫattušili, the great king, the king of the Ḫatti land, shall not trespass into the land

of Egypt to take anything therefrom in the future.


§4a:jw bw jrj <Ḫtsl> p3-wr-ʿ3 n Ḫt thj r p3-t3 n Kmt r nḥḥ r jṯ3 nkt jm.f.

NC-intr. NEG make PN DEF ruler great GEN PN trespass again DEF land GEN PN

for eternity to-take something from-it

without , the great ruler of Ḫatti, attacking at any time the land of Egypt to

take anything therefrom.

§4b:jw bw jrj Wsr-m3ʿt-rʿ stpn-rʿ p3-ḥq3-ʿ3 n Kmt thj r p3-t3 [n Ḫt] [r jṯ3 nkt j]m.f r nḥḥ.

NC-intr. NEG make PN DEF ruler great GEN PN trespass against DEF land GEN PN

to take somehing from-it for eternity

without Wašmuaria šatepnaria, the great king of Egypt, attacking at any time the Ḫatti

land to take anything therefrom.

Interestingly, both the Akkadian and the Egyptian versions constitute translations from the lost original version in the respective other language. What is more, not all parts of the treaty are attested in their entirety. The independent discovery of the two versions, as documented by Langdon and Gardiner (1920), as well as by Edel (1997), is thus of great cultural significance.

The third excerpt of interest for our purposes is a clause of the treaty between KTK and ARPAD,11 here accompanied by an English translation by Franz Rosenthal (1969, 660). The first sentence is, of course, an active construction in Aramaic.

(3) The Treaty between KTK and ARPAD (lower fragment from stela Sfire I C)

14  —m—

15 y ṣ r w ʾ l h n m n y w -12

16 m h w m n b y t h w m n

17 l y ṣ r m l y s f r ʾ z y b n ṣ b ʾ z n h

18 w y ʾ m r ʾ h l d m n m l w -

19 h ʾ w ʾ h p k ṭ b t ʾ w ʾ š m

20 [l] l ḥ y t b y w m z y y ʿ b -

21 [d] k n y h p k w ʾ l h n ʾ š -

22 [ʾ h] ʾ w b y t h w k l z y b -

23 h w y š m w t ḥ t y t h [l -

24 ʿ] l y t h w ʾ l y r t š r -

25 [š] h ʾ š m

May [he who observes the words of this stela] be guarded by the Gods as to his day and as to his house. But whoever does not observe the words of the inscription on this stela but says: I shall efface some of its words, or I shall upset the good things and put down evil ones, on the day he will do so, that man and his house and all that is in it shall be upset by the Gods, and he (his house) be turned upside down, and his line shall not acquire a name!

There are remarkable formal parallels between this and the previously mentioned treaty, even though the latter treaty is not attested in its entirety and the order of the various elements in the treaty is in limbo. The parallels extend, for instance, to the equally fearsome list of sanctions as a response to a possible breach of the treaty, of which item (3) offers a taste.

(3) Diplomatic Correspondence

There is no doubt that the Amarna correspondence13 can be considered the most famous Near Eastern compilation of texts in this context. In the very first letter of this collection, the Pharaoh complains to the Babylonian king about evidence regarding the fate of the latter’s daughter, inappropriately simple gifts, and other things. The formulaic introduction to this letter in this collection is quite instructive.

(4) Amarna Correspondence, first letter (beginning)

[ana]mKa[da]šman-dEnlil šar kurKaraddun[i]a[š]

aḫī-ya qibi-ma umma mNibmuaria šarru rabû

šar kurMiṣriki aḫu-ka-ma ana maḫrīya šulmu

ana maḫrī-ka lū šulmu ana bītī-ka ana aššātī-ka

ana mārē-ka ana rabûtī-ka sisē-ka

gišnarkabātī-ka ana libbi mātātī-ka danniš lū šulmu

ana yâši šulmu ana bītī-ya ana aššātī-ya ana mārē-ya

ana rabûtī-ya sisē-ya gišnarkabātī-ya

ṣābē mād šulmu u libbi mātātī-ya danniš šulmu

Say [t]o Kadašman-Enlil, the king of Karadun[i]še,

my brother: Thus Nibmuarea, Great King,

the King of Egypt, your brother. For me all goes well.

For you may all go well. For your household, for your wives,

for your sons, for your magnates, your horses,

your chariots, for your countries, may all go very well.

For me all goes well. For my household, for my wives, for my sons,

for my magnates, my horses, my chariots

and numerous troops, all goes well, and in my countries all goes very well.

Not surprisingly, similar formulae are stylistically imperative in many kinds of modern Middle Eastern correspondence, even correspondence of a private nature.

11.3 Modern Parallels in Form and Content

Let us concentrate in the following on structural parallels found in modern diplomatic documents. These parallels may not be surprising, given the common and timeless logic inherent in such documents, but they are nevertheless noteworthy. As already stated, complex syntactic structures are prevalent in such documents, be it in treaties or formal letters. While the individual clauses in a modern treaty usually constitute independent syntactic units, the preambles to these treaties feature precisely the complex syntactic structure found already in ancient counterparts. While chains of coordinated ʾiḏ-clauses are typical of the Arabic versions, the Hebrew versions are made up of b- + infinitive constructions. Let us consider an excerpt of a preamble, here the final part of the preamble to the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel.14

(5) End of the Preamble to the Peace Treaty between Jordan and Israel


Bearing in mind that in their Washington Declaration of 25th July, 1994, they declared the termination of the state of belligerency between them;

Deciding to establish peace between them in accordance with this Treaty of Peace;

Have agreed as follows:


wa-ʾiḏ taʾḫuḏāni bi-ʿayni l-iʿtibāri ʾanna-humā ʾaʿlanatā ntihāʾa ḥālati l-ʿadāʾi bayna-humā bi-mūǧibi ʾiʿlāni wašinṭūn al-muwaqqaʿi fī 25 tammūz 1994;

wa-ʾiḏ tuqarrirāni ʾiqāmata salāmin bayna-humā bi-mūǧibi muʿāhadati s-salāmi hāḏihī.

fa-qadi ttafaqā ʿalā mā yalī:


be-tet-an daʿat-an le-xax še-be-haṣharat wašington me-yom 25 be-yuli 1994 hen hiṣhiru siyum maṣav ha-milx̱ama bene-hen;

be-hax̱liṭ-an le-konen šalom bene-hen be-hetʾem le-x̱oze šalom ze;

hiskimu ke-di-l-qaman:

In some cases, preambles can be shorter and be reproduced without the optical structure of individual clauses. The following introduction to the “Declaration of Principles” (“Oslo 1 Accord”) provides an example):15

(6) Preamble to the “Declaration of Principles” (“Oslo 1”)


ʾInna ḥukūmata ʾisrāʾīla wa-farīqa munaẓẓamati t-taḥrīri l-filasṭīnīyati (fī l-wafdi l-ʾurdunnīyi—l-filasṭīnīyi ladā muʾtamari s-salāmi fī š-šarqi l-ʾawsaṭi) (“al-wafdu l-filasṭīnīyu”) yattafiqāni ʾanna l-waqta qad ḥāna li-waḍʿi ḥaddin li-ʿuqūdin mina l-muwāǧahati wa-n-nizāʿi, wa-yaʿtarifāni kullun min-humā bi-l-ḥuqūqi l-mašrūʿati wa-s-sīyāsīyati li-l-ʾāḫari, wa-yasʿayāni ʾilā l-ḥayāti fī taʿāyušin silmīyin wa-karāmatin wa-ʾamnin mutabādalayni, wa-ʾilā taḥqīqi taswiyatin silmīyatin ʿādilatin wa-dāʾimatin wa-šāmilatin, wa-muṣālaḥatin tārīḫīyatin ʿan ṭarīqi l-ʿamalīyati s-sīyāsīyati l-muttafaqi ʿalay-hā.

Wa-bināʾan ʿalay-hi, yattafiqu l-ǧānibāni ʿalā l-mabādiʾi t-tāliya:


Memšelet yisraʾel ve-ha-qvuṣa ha-falesṭinit (be-misgeret ha-mišlax̱at ha-yardenit-falesṭinit le-six̱ot ha-šalom b-a-mizrax̱ ha-tixon) (le-halan “ha-mišlax̱at ha-falesṭinit”), ha-meyaṣeget ha-ʿam ha-falesṭini, maskimot ki higiʿa ha-ʿet le-haviʾ l-ide gemer ʿasarot šanot ʿimut u-li-fʿol ke-xol yaxult-an le-maʿan du-qiyum, kavod, u-vitax̱on hadadim, u-le-hasig hesder šalom kolel, ṣodeq, u-var qyama ve-piyus hisṭori be-misgeret ha-tahalix ha-medini ha-muskam.

ʾE-le-xax maskimim šne ha-ṣedadayim ʿal ha-ʿeqronot ke-di-l-qaman.


The Government of the State of Israel and the PLO team (in the Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to the Middle East Peace Conference) (the “Palestinian Delegation”), representing the Palestinian people, agree that it is time to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize their mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence and mutual dignity and security and achieve a just, lasting and comprehensive peace settlement and historic reconciliation through the agreed political process.

Accordingly, the two sides agree to the following principles:

Modern diplomatic correspondence, notable the genres “exchange of notes” and “note verbale” are equally characterized by a highly formulaic structure. Just to mention one example: a letter concerning the Lockerbie crisis by the former president of the Arab League, Ahmed Esmat Abdelmeguid, to the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, features a single oblong preamble-like structure:16

(7) Letter by Ahmed Esmat Abdelmeguid to Boutros Boutros-Ghali


ʾiṭāri stimrāri ǧāmiʿati d-duwali l-ʿarabīyati fī baḏli ǧuhūdi-hā buġyata ʾīǧādi taswiyatin silmīyatin li-l-ʾazmati l-lībīyati maʿa kullin mina l-wilāyāti l-muttaḥidati wa-barīṭāniyā wa-faransā,

wa-ʾilḥāqan bi-risālat-ī la-kum bi-tārīḫi 3/4/94 bi-ḫuṣūṣi qarāri maǧlisi ǧāmiʿati d-duwali l-ʿarabīyati bi-hāḏā š-šaʾni wa-l-muqtaraḥi llaḏī taḍammana-hā hāḏā l-qarāru ḫāṣṣatan fī-mā yataʿallaqu “bi-ʾiǧrāʾi muḥākamatin ʿādilatin li-l-muštabahi fī-himā min qibali quḍātin iskutlandīyīna wafqa l-qānūni l-iskutlandīyi, wa-fī maqarri maḥkamati ʿadli d-duwalīyati bi-lā hāy, wa-ḥaṯṯa maǧlisi l-ʾamni ʿalā ʾaḫḏi hāḏā l-iqtirāḥi l-ǧāddi wa-l-ǧadīdi bi-ʿayni l-iʿtibāri, li-l-baḥṯi ʿan ḥallin silmīyin manʿan li-ʾayyi taṣʿīdin fī l-mawqifi min šaʾni-hī ziyādatu t-tawatturi fī l-minṭaqa.”

Wa-fī ḍawʾi l-mawqifi l-lībīyi l-multazimi bi-hāḏā l-qarāri wa-mā ʾabdat-hu l-ǧamāhīrīyatu l-lībīyatu min murūnatin wa-ʾīǧābīyatin kabīratin fī t-taʿāmuli maʿa hāḏihī l-ʾazmati buġyata t-tawaṣṣuli ʾilā taswiyatin silmīyatin la-hā.

ʾArǧū min-kumu t-takarruma bi-ʿarḍi hāḏā l-muqtaraḥi l-ʿarabīyi ʿalā maǧlisi l-ʾamni bi-š-šakli llaḏī tartaʾūna-hū wa-kull-ī ṯiqatun ʾanna-kum sa-tuwāṣilūna baḏla l-ǧuhūdi min ʾaǧli t-tawaṣṣuli li-ḥallin silmīyin li-hāḏihī l-ʾazma.

Official English translation

In the context of the continuing efforts of the League of Arab States to seek a peaceful settlement to the crisis between the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and the United States, the United Kingdom and France;

Further to my letter of 3 April 1994 concerning the resolution adopted by the Council of the League on the matter and the proposal made in the reso­lution, in particular, “that the two suspects should be judged equitably by Scottish judges in conformity with Scottish law, and that their trial should take place at the seat of the International Court of Justice at The Hague, and to urge the Security Council to take this new and constructive proposal into consideration with a view to arriving at a peaceful settlement and avoiding any escalation which might exacerbate tension in the region”;

And in light of Libya’s attitude of compliance with the resolution and of the flexibility and great responsiveness shown by the Libyan Jamahiriya in its handling of the crisis in a desire for a peaceful settlement.

I request you to be so kind as to present this inter-Arab proposal to the Security Council in whatever form you deem appropriate. I am fully confident that you will continue your efforts to reach a peaceful solution to this crisis.

Let us mention two further examples of an opening and a closing formula in diplomatic correspondence, respectively (one in Arabic, one in Amharic), which also shed light on European stylistic influence on such documents:

(8) Arabic Diplomatic Formula

Arabic original

Li-ya š-šarafu ʾan ʾufīda saʿādata-kum bi-stilām-ī li-ḫiṭābi-kumu l-muʾarraḫi fī 4 māyū 1946 al-muwāfiqi 3 ǧumādā ṯ-ṯāniyati 1365 wa-llaḏī naṣṣu-hū ka-mā yalī:

Official English translation

I have the honor to acknowledge receipt of your Excellency’s letter dated May 4, 1946, corresponding to Jamada-al-Thaniya 3, 1365, the text of which is as follows:

(9) Amharic Diplomatic Formula

Amharic original

Yəhən-ən məknəyat bä-madräg lä-kəburənnät-wo y-allä-ññ-ən käf y-allä astäyayät əgälṣallähu.

Official English translation

I avail myself of this opportunity to renew to Your Excellency the assurances of my highest consideration.

Let us now return to the question as to which problems can arise in diplomatic multilingualism. In modern treaties, which ideally have to be drafted in all the languages of the contracting parties, possible misunderstandings between the different versions has to be avoided. Here is an example from the Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt. At the time, the issue here was the term Gulf of Aqaba:17

(10) Article 5 of the Camp David Peace Accord between Israel and Egypt


Ha-ṣedadim roʾim be-meṣar tiran u-ve-mifraṣ ʿaqaba (ʾelat) netive mayim benleʾumiyim ha-ptux̱im le-xol ha-ʾumot le-x̱ofeš šayit ve-tayis bilti mufraʿ u-bilti nitan le-hatlaya. Ha-ṣedadim yixvedu kol ʾex̱ad ʾet zexut zulat-o le-šayit u-le-tayis le-šem giša le-xol ʾax̱at min ha-ʾaraṣot derex meṣar tiran u-mifraṣ ʿaqaba (ʾelat).


Yaʿtabiru ṭ-ṭarafāni ʾanna maḍīqa tīrāna wa-ḫalīǧa l-ʿaqabati mina l-mamarrāti l-māʾīyati d-duwalīyati l-maftūḥati li-kāffati d-duwali dūna ʿāʾiqin ʾaw ʾīqāfin li-ḥurrīyati l-milāḥati ʾawi l-ʿubūri l-ǧawwī. Kamā yaḥtarimu ṭ-ṭarafāni ḥaqqa kulli min-humā fī l-milāḥati wa-l-ʿubūri l-ǧawwīyi min wa-ʾilā ʾarāḍī-hi ʿabra maḍīqi tīrāna wa-ḫalīǧi l-ʿaqaba.


The Parties consider the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba to be interna­tional waterways open to all nations for unimpeded and non-suspendable freedom of navigation and overflight. The Parties will respect each other’s right to navigation and overflight for access to either country through the Strait of Tiran and the Gulf of Aqaba.

At the time, the Israeli side wanted the use the geographical term mifraṣ ʾelat, even though the legally neutral English version unequivocally had been Gulf of Aqaba. But as the contracting partners were also checking the language versions of the “opposite” side, the more neutral version mifraṣ ʿaqaba (ʾelat) was agreed upon.

The following example from the nineteenth century, Article 17 of the Treaty of Wəč̣ale (“Uccialli”) between Italy and Ethiopia,18 was much more virulent, as it involved the attempt to establish a protectorate in the wording of the Italian version (“consente di servirsi” as a euphemism for “factually has the duty to”). In contrast, the Amharic version stipulates political independence on the Ethiopian side (yəččalaččäwall ‘it will be possible to Him,’ that is, the Ethiopian king will have the option to communicate with the Italian king in matters of external political affairs):

(11) Article 17 of the Treaty of Wəč̣ale (“Uccialli”) between Italy and Ethiopia


Sua Maestà il Re dei Re d’Etiopia consente di servirsi del Governo di Sua Maestà il Re d’Italia per tutte le trattazioni di affari che avesse con altre Potenze o Governi.


Yä-ityopp’ əya nəgusä nägäst kä-ewropp’a nägästat lä-mm-ifälləgu-t gudday hullu bä-iṭalya mängəst aggažənnät mällalak yəččalaččäwall.

Contemporary analyses of the issue reflect a high degree of arrogance, as can be seen in the following comment by Despagnet:

La difficulté dont il s’agit aurait été écartée si, comme il arrive souvent dans les traités avec les peuples barbares dont la langue est mal connue et peut prêter à des ambiguïtés dont ces peuples seraient tentés d’abuser, on avait dit que, en cas de divergence, le texte dans la langue de l’Etat civilisé ferait seul foi. (Despagnet 1897)

The most famous (or infamous) example in this context is certainly Security Council Resolution 242 (1967) with significant differences in its wording of the phrase (the) territories. While the French and Spanish versions make use of the definite article, the English version does not—for political, not stylistic reasons, as is by now firmly established.19 The Russian and Chinese language versions are prima facie opaque in this respect, as definiteness has to be circumscribed by other means in these languages, which have no definite article. Arabic was not yet an official language in the United Nations system at the time; the Arabic version below, curiously based on the English and not the French and Spanish versions, represents an official translation at the time:

(12) Security Council Resolution 242

(i) definite (territories):


Retrait des forces armées israéliennes des territoires occupés lors du récent conflit.


Retiro de las fuerzas armadas israelís de los territorios que ocuparon durante el reciente conflicto.

(ii) indefinite (territories):


Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.


Saḥbu l-qūwāti l-musallaḥati l-ʾisrāʾīlīyati min ʾarāḍini ḥtallat-hā fī n-nizāʿi l-ʾaḫīr.

(iii) unmarked (opaque) with respect to definiteness (territories), but definiteness implied:


Yisieli jundui cheli qi yu zuijin chongtu suo zhanling zhi lingtu.


Vyvod izrailskikh voruzhennikh sil s territoriy, okkupirovannykh vo vremya n'edavn'ego konflikta.

Individual terms can have different connotations in different languages and cultures. An example is the term musāwāh ‘equality’ in the context of international law. Consider the “Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” Article 16 of this convention, which is equally “authentic” in all of the six official UN languages, addresses questions of equality in family law:

(13) CEDAW, Article 16


1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimina­tion against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:

(a) The same right to enter into marriage;

(b) The same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent;

(c) The same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolu­tion;

(d) The same rights and responsibilities as parents, irrespective of their mar­ital status, in matters relating to their children; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount;

(e) The same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights;

(f) The same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, ward­ship, trusteeship, and adoption of children, or similar institutions where these concepts exist in national legislation; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount;

(g) The same personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation;

(h) The same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisi­tion, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property, whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration.

2. The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.


1. Tattaḫiḏu d-duwalu l-ʾaṭrāfu ǧamīʿa t-tadābīri l-munāsibati li-l-qaḍāʾi ʿalā t-tamyīzi ḍidda l-marʾati fī kāffati l-ʾumūri l-mutaʿalliqati bi-z-zawāǧi wa-l-ʿalāqāti l-ʾusrīyati, wa-bi-waǧhin ḫāṣṣin taḍmanu, ʿalā ʾasāsi tasāwī r-raǧuli wa-l-marʾa:

(a) nafsa l-ḥaqqi fī ʿaqdi z-zawāǧ;

(b) nafsa l-ḥaqqi fī ḥurrīyati ḫtiyāri z-zawǧi, wa-fī ʿadami ʿaqdi z-zawāǧi ʾil-lā bi-riḍā-hā l-ḥurri l-kāmil;

(c) nafsa l-ḥuqūqi wa-l-masʾūlīyāti ʾaṯnāʾa z-zawāǧi wa-ʿinda fasḫi-hī;

(d) nafsa l-ḥuqūqi wa-l-masʾūlīyāti ka-wālidatin, bi-ġaḍḍi n-naẓari ʿan ḥālati-hā z-zawǧīyati, fi l-ʾumūri l-mutaʿalliqati bi-ʾaṭfāli-hā; wa-fī ǧamīʿi l-ʾaḥwāli, takūnu maṣāliḥu l-ʾaṭfāli hiya r-rāǧiḥa;

(e) nafsa l-ḥuqūqi fī ʾan tuqarrira bi-ḥurrīyatin wa-bi-šuʿūrin mina l-masʾūlīyāti ʿadada ʾaṭfāli-hā wa-l-fitrata bayna ʾinǧābi ṭiflin wa-ʾāḫara, wa-fī l-ḥuṣūli ʿalā l-maʿlūmāti wa-t-taṯqīfi wa-l-wasāʾili l-kafīlati bi-tamkīni-hā min mumārasati hāḏihī l-ḥuqūq;

(f) nafsa l-ḥuqūqi wa-l-masʾūlīyāti fī-mā yataʿallaqu bi-l-wilāyati wa-l-qiwāmati wa-l-wiṣāyati ʿalā l-ʾaṭfāli wa-tabannī-him ʾaw mā šibhu ḏālika mina l-ʾanẓimati l-muʾassasīyati l-iǧtimāʿīyati, ḥīna tūǧadu hāḏihī l-mafāhīmu fī t-tašrīʿi l-waṭanī; wa-fī ǧamīʿi l-ʾaḥwāli takūnu maṣāliḥu l-ʾaṭfāli hiya r-rāǧiḥa;

(g) nafsa l-ḥuqūqi š-šaḫṣīyati li-z-zawǧi wa-z-zawǧati, bi-mā fī ḏālika l-ḥaqqu fī ḫtiyāri l-laqabi, wa-l-mihnati, wa-l-ʿamal;

(h) nafsa l-ḥuqūqi li-kilā z-zawǧayni fī-mā yataʿallaqu bi-milkīyati wa-ḥiyāzati l-mumtalakati, wa-l-ʾišrāfi ʿalay-hā, wa-ʾidārati-hā, wa-t-tamattuʿi bi-hā, wa-t-taṣarrufi fī-hā, sawāʾan bi-lā muqābilin ʾaw muqābila ʿiwaḍin ḏī qīma.

2. Lā yakūnu li-ḫuṭūbati ṭ-ṭifli ʾaw zawāǧi-hī ʾayyu ʾaṯarin qānūnīyin, wa-tattaḫiḏu ǧamīʿa l-ʾiǧrāʾāti ḍ-ḍarūrīyati, bi-mā fī-hā t-tašrīʿu, li-taḥdīdi sinnin ʾadnā li-z-zawāǧi wa-li-ǧaʿli tasǧīli z-zawāǧi fī siǧillin rasmīyin ʾamran ʾilzāmīyan.

Whereas the English version makes use of gender-neutral terms such as “spouse,” women have to be grammatically “marked” in the Arabic version, meaning that the symmetry in the English version cannot be reproduced as such. Paragraph (b) of Article 16 exhibits special attention to Islamic circumstances in its wording (nafsa l-ḥaqqi fī ḥurrīyati ḫtiyāri z-zawǧi, wa-fī ʿadami ʿaqdi z-zawāǧi ʾil-lā bi-riḍā-hā l-ḥurri l-kāmil), which is entirely absent in the English version.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948. This is one of the documents, which after having been drafted in English has been translated into a maximum of languages, without however being legally “authentic” in all of these. Here is a synopsis of Paragraph 1 in its three Semitic versions (Arabic, Hebrew, and Amharic) and its English original, which show no semantic differences, in spite of small stylistic nuances:

(14) UDHR, § 1


All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.


Yūladu ǧamīʿu n-nāsi ʾaḥrāran mutasāwīna fī l-karāmati wa-l-ḥuqūq. wa-qad wuhibū ʿaqlan wa-ḍamīran wa-ʿalay-him ʾan yuʿāmila baʿḍu-hum baʿḍan bi-rūḥi l-ʾiḫāʾ.


Kol bne ʾadam noldu bne x̱orin ve-šavim be-ʿerk-am u-vi-zxuyot-am. kull-am x̱onanu bi-tvuna u-ve-maṣpon. le-fi-xax x̱ova ʿale-hem li-nhog ʾiš le-reʿe-hu be-ruax̱ šel ʾax̱ava.


Yä-säw ləǧǧ hullu s-iwwälläd näṣa-nna bä-kəbur-ənna bä-mäbt-əm əkkulənnät ya-säw näw. Yä-täfäṭro mastäwal-ənna həllina səlalläw and-u lela-w-ən bä-wändəmmamačənnät mänfäs mämälkät yəggäbbawall.

11.4 Conclusion

In conclusion, it is interesting to tie in the discussion of structural and semantic features in comparable documents of completely different time periods in their linguistic and cultural-political significance, not least because so many problems appear to be of a perennial nature. Even increased efforts to prevent misunderstanding in translation have not been able to prevent a variety of interpretations to arise in various diplomatic contexts. At the same time, diplomatic multilingualism offers a broad spectrum of linguistic and cultural perspectives and may help to engender better understanding of one or several parties’ political, economic, legal, and/or cultural goals. Thus, diplomatic multilingualism can definitely be considered a value in itself.


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Edzard (2006).

Ullendorff and Beckingham (1964); Ullendorff (1967, 1968); Rubenson (1964, 1966, 1969, 1976, 1987, 1994).

Cf. also Weinfeld (1973) and McCarthy (1981, 141f).

Cf. Langdon and Gardiner (1920); Goetze (1969, 201–203); Edel (1983, 135–153, 1997).

Cf. Wiseman (1958); Reiner (1969, 534–541); Borger (1983, 160–176).

Cf. Dupont-Sommer (1958); Donner and Röllig (1962–1964, esp. 222–224); Fitzmyer (1967); Rosenthal (1969, 659–661); Lipiński (1975); Rössler (1983, 179–189).

Cf. Wiseman (1958, 23–30); Kitchen and Lawrence (2012, 963–1002).

Cf. Huehnergard (2005, 438); for “defective” conditional clauses functioning as oath clauses in Arabic, cf. Fischer (2006, 205f).

Cf. Streck (1998, 190): “Daher [...] sind sind die Stipulationen [i.e., the individual paragraphs of the treaty, LE] und die Flüche nicht als Protasen und Apodosen eines Konditionalgefüges, sondern als syntaktisch selbständig und die Stipulationen als Schwüre aufzufassen”; cf. also Edzard (2012) for an analysis of the syntactic issues involved.

Cf. Edel (1997, 26–29); Kitchen and Lawrence (2012, 573–594).

Cf., among others sources, Dupont-Sommer (1958, 87–95, pl. xv, xvi).

The hyphen “-” indicates that a word is continued on the respective next line.

Cf. Winckler and Abel (1889–1890); Bezold and Budge (1892); Knudtzon (1915); Mercer (1939); Moran (1992).

Cf. UN-documents A/50/73, S/1995/83, and United Nations Treaty Series, vol. 2042, pp. 394ff.

Cf. UN-documents A/48/486 and S/26560.

Cf. UN-document S/1994/928.

Cf. United Nations Treaty Series, vol. 1136, pp. 100ff.; cf. also Lapidoth (1983).

Cf. Rubenson (1964).

Cf., for instance, Lord Caradon et al. (1981).