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Ancient WorldsAncient Worlds

For the First Time, You'll Be Able to Read Ancient Egyptian Literature in English

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next
Ancient hieroglyphs are pictures, but they often convey metaphors as complex as those described in ancient texts from other languages.

It’s easy to swing by your local library and pick up a book by Homer or Sappho—two of the greats of ancient Greece.

But finding translated works of ancient Egypt isn’t as simple.

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While ancient Egyptians are known for their architectural feats—like the Great Pyramid and the temples of Abu Simbel—the civilization isn’t revered for its literature, which adorns the almost every wall of every tomb. The difference between hieroglyphs and other ancient languages is that the former is often dismissed as art, not story.

Toby Wilkinson, a fellow of Clare College in the U.K., wants to change that. He’s publishing a book that, for the first time, amasses the writings of ancient Egyptians and translates it into English for the general public. His goal is to make the culture of ancient Egypt, as well as its literary canon, more accessible to people outside his small corner of academia.

Here’s Dalya Alberge, reporting for The Guardian:

Wilkinson, a fellow of Clare College and author of other books on ancient Egypt, said some of the texts had not been translated for the best part of 100 years. “The English in which they are rendered—assuming they are in English—is very old-fashioned and impenetrable, and actually makes ancient Egypt seem an even more remote society,” he said.

In translating them, he said, he was struck by human emotions to which people could relate today.

The literary fiction includes The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, a story of triumph over adversity that Wilkinson describes as “a miniature masterpiece.” It is about a magical island ruled by a giant snake—his body “fashioned in gold, his eyebrows in real lapis lazuli”—who shares his own tragedy in encouraging a shipwrecked sailor to face his predicament.

“I was here with my brothers and my children…we totalled 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,” it reads.

The book, titled Writings from Ancient Egypt , be will released this week. Since ancient Egypt’s written tradition lasted almost 3,500 years, the book certainly won’t contain everything Egyptians ever etched on papyrus. But it’s a start in the direction of making their voices heard.

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