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  • Decipherment and TranslationAn Egyptological Perspective
  • Jennifer Westerfeld (bio)

Late Antiquity, Egypt, Coptic, hieroglyphs, decipherment

Within the field of Egyptology, translation plays an absolutely central role; indeed, the birth of Egyptology as a scientific discipline is typically associated with the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in the early 1820s, which allowed ancient Egyptian texts to be translated for the first time in approximately 1,500 years (Thompson 2015, chap. 7). Before that point, texts in the ancient Egyptian scripts (hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic) had been essentially untranslatable since those scripts fell into disuse in the late Roman period—although this did not deter various medieval and early modern commentators from offering “translations” (sometimes wholly spurious) of individual inscriptions or documents. The Egyptians left no systematic treatises on the grammar of their language, as the Greeks and Romans did; this fact, coupled with the necessity of deciphering the Egyptian scripts sign by sign, has meant that a major preoccupation of the discipline of Egyptology has traditionally been the reconstruction of the Egyptian grammatical system and [End Page 29] the production of dictionaries, onomastica, and other lexical aids. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, then, Egyptology emerged as a fundamentally philological discipline, with the edition and translation of ancient sources at its very heart.

Although contemporary Egyptology has developed beyond these rather narrow philological beginnings to encompass a much broader spectrum of historical inquiry, the discipline remains firmly grounded in the translation and analysis of primary sources. The (relative) dearth of sources available for ancient Egyptian history means that any given historical event or actor may only be represented by a handful of inscriptions or documents, rendering the accurate interpretation of those sources a matter of utmost importance. Because our understanding of the Egyptian grammatical system is essentially a modern reconstruction, different schools of thought have arisen concerning the interpretation of particular features of Egyptian grammar; insofar as reflections on translation exist at all within the field, they often stem from disagreements among scholars adhering to one or another of these grammatical schools. In other words, since our understanding of Egyptian vocabulary and the basic structures of Egyptian grammar is still evolving, discussions of how best to translate Egyptian texts often deal not with questions of translation theory but with fairly narrow technical issues: What is the best way to render this particular verb form or nominal phrase? What does this hapax legomenon really mean? And so forth.

For the translation of texts in hieroglyphic Egyptian, a further conundrum is posed by the pictorial nature of the script itself. Although the various hieroglyphic signs do possess phonetic values (the recognition of which was a crucial step on the path to decipherment), phonetic signs are typically used in combination with signs called determinatives, which are not read phonetically but which mark the end of a word and provide metalinguistic information about the word and its syntactic function. For example, the name of a man might be spelled out using phonetic signs followed by a determinative in the shape of a seated man; this determinative carries no phonetic value and is therefore not “read,” but it signals that one has reached the end of the word and that the word is a masculine proper name. Multiple variations on this theme are possible: a woman’s name is determined by a figure of a seated [End Page 30] woman, a god’s name by the figure of a deity, and so forth (Wilson 2004). How can such metalinguistic information, so elegantly conveyed by the hieroglyphic script, ever be translated into a nonpictorial script like the Latin alphabet? Modern Egyptological conventions call for translators to make use of the information provided by these determinatives, but to elide them in the resulting translation. Paradoxically, the very act of translation, which brings the information contained in the text being translated to a wider audience, simultaneously results in the loss of information from that text (Assmann 1994; Goldwasser 2002; Schneider 2011).

As a relatively young discipline, Egyptology traditionally has not been very self-reflective; this is beginning to change, however, and a number of works have appeared in recent years addressing the history and early...


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