New translation brings Ancient Egypt to life for modern readers

by OFER TIROSH 24/08/2016
New translation brings Ancient Egypt to life for modern readers

If you’re a fan of classical literature then you’re no doubt familiar with Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid and the plethora of letters written by Pliny the Younger. But what have you read from Ancient Egypt?

Greek and Roman literature

Literature from both Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire has been translated many times over the centuries since it was written. From texts revealing practical arrangements and the details of everyday life, to great works of literary renown, the documents available to us thanks to translation services and dedicated individual translators have been used extensively to piece together a picture of life in these ancient civilisations. 

Literary translations of Greek and Latin texts area available in every large book store, but those seeking out translations detailing life in Ancient Egypt have often found them harder to track down. Instead the focus on that civilisation has been more concerned with the great monuments that have survived – the Pyramids of Giza, the Valley of the Kings and the Great Sphinx. Many of those monuments, as well as a large number of inaccessible tombs, also display vast reams of text, but translations are not routinely provided to those who travel to see them. 

Modern translation brings Ancient Egypt to life

Now, Cambridge academic Toby Wilkinson is seeking to share the secrets of Ancient Egypt with the modern reader. Unhappy that hieroglyphs were often viewed simply as pretty pictures rather than detailed texts, he set about gathering them together and translating them into modern English. The resulting anthology provides a fascinating insight into Ancient Egyptian life, from outstanding fictional works to commentaries on farming issues and household management. He comments: 

“What will surprise people are the insights behind the well-known facade of ancient Egypt, behind the image that everyone has of the pharaohs, Tutankhamun’s mask and the pyramids.”

The power of translation

Writings from Ancient Egypt is sure to fascinate all those with an interest in both history and ancient literature. The book also serves to demonstrate the power of translation in bringing the past to life. Modern translation can still be used to unlock the secrets of our history and aid us in understanding how our current society evolved. 

While the picture of daily life built up by the texts in the anthology may seem remote to many, the human emotions of it will certainly strike a chord. The farmer Heqanakht expresses concerns over his crops and worries about his wife being bullied. The sailor in The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor has to face his difficulties and appreciate the value of his wife, children and home. 

The evolution of language

The translations also show how much has been lost through the evolution of language, with some distinctions that made sense in Ancient Egypt being lost to the modern reader, even a distinguished Cambridge academic. Wilkinson explains:

“Take, for example, the words ‘aa’ and ‘wer’, both conventionally translated as ‘great’. The Egyptians seem to have understood a distinction – hence a god is often described as ‘aa’ but seldom as ‘wer’ – but it is beyond our grasp.”

Thus while modern translations of ancient texts can contribute hugely to our understanding of the past, they can also highlight that which has been lost forever in linguistic terms. As Wilkinson’s translation of the Teaching of Ani so starkly states:

“Man perishes; his corpse turns to dust; all his relatives pass away. But writings make him remembered in the mouth of the reader.”

Final thoughts

Have you previously read any translations of texts from Ancient Egypt? Why do you feel that such translations are important to our modern society and way of life? Share your thoughts via the comments. 

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