Arts & Culture

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts Translated into English for the First Time in a Book

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts Translated into English for the First Time in a Book

Part of a panel from a version of the Book of the Dead. Photo: Dalya Alberge
Part of a panel from a version of the Book of the Dead. Photo: Dalya Alberge

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs have been published in modern English for the first time in a book by a Cambridge academic who translated ancient texts found on papyri and rock faces.

The book was published on Wednesday by Penguin Classics, which described it as a “groundbreaking publication.”

“These writings have never before been published together in an accessible collection,” The Guardian quoted the publishing house as saying.

Speaking to The Guardian, Toby Wilkinson, the academic behind the book, said he started working on ancient Egyptian texts because “there was a missing dimension in how ancient Egypt was viewed.”

Because hieroglyphs depend on pictures and symbols, and very few experts and specialists have been able to read it, the writing tradition that lasted almost 3500 has remained inaccessible and largely overlooked.

“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,” Wilkinson told the Guardian, adding that the ancient writings have been treated for long as “a mere decoration” or “artifacts” rather than texts.

The task was challenging for the author, who pointed out that the rich Egyptian language is not easy to express in English.

“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,” Wilkinson explained.

The book gathers literary fiction texts such as “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor” telling the story of a magical island, letters that date from 1930 BC and official inscriptions that record a “cataclysmic thunderstorm.”

“I was here with my brothers and my children … we totaled 75 snakes … Then a star fell and they were consumed in flames … If you are brave and your heart is strong, you will embrace your children, you will kiss your wife and you will see your house,” the tale reads.

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