Rosetta Man

He’s a man with a mission, the man in charge of the Rosetta Stone.

A literary Indiana Jones, he raids the writings of a lost civilisation in a bid to put them in books which you and I could read and enjoy.

Richard Parkinson, the Assistant Curator of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum, is an arch-translator.

“It’s a huge privilege, looking after the Rosetta Stone”, he told me, “for reasons that are counter intuitive: I stop thinking of it as wonderful and exotic and I look at the Rosetta as a large nuisance.

“It’s a very heavy stone: and suddenly my problem becomes, how do we move it? How do we transport it?

“Just like that,” he added, “we are thinking about it in practical terms. We live with these artefacts day in, day out, finally understanding them as they would be understood by Ancient Egyptian audiences.

“I get to see them face to face, and they lose their Hollywood mystique.”

When you’re not dazzled by the glare of archaic glamour, the words are allowed to tell their own stories.

Alongside Richard’s very real and practical responsibility for some of the most coveted artefacts of all time, he cherishes an obsession with the language gap of some four millennia.

This is the man who, together with colleague John Nunn, translated Beatrix Potter’s ‘Tale Of Peter Rabbit’ into hieroglyphics.

A one-off, the work of moving a Victorian text 4000 years back proved a supreme challenge, requiring one foot in the sands of Ancient Egypt and one in the English fells where the fictional Peter Rabbit was born.

The idea came when Nunn was approached by the Beatrix Potter Society, who wanted to add Ancient Egyptian to the 36 languages into which Peter Rabbit has been translated.

“The initial idea was to translate it into schoolboy Egyptian,”, Richard said, “but I suggested we should do it properly, to find an equivalent in Ancient Egyptian for Beatrix Potter’s style, and I’m glad we did that. Lots of amateur societies use it and it’s very popular.”

Immediately the culture gap showed itself: for how does one explain a wheelbarrow in Ancient Egyptian?

Now he’s about to attempt to bring a key Ancient Egyptian tale  – hitherto the dusty prerogative of a few chosen academics – to the people, in a new kind of commentary which, as you read, is being handed to the publishers.*

His journey into Ancient Egyptian literature began back in the eighties with The Tale Of The Eloquent Peasant.

It’s a pithy poem about a nasty man who lays a snare to rob a peasant of his hard-won produce, as the peasant and his donkey trudge to market. The man succeeds in confiscating his goods, but the peasant’s way with words ensures that his subsequent entreaties to the judge get them returned.

A capsule tale: but it’s the words. Sparse, sundrenched and sandworn, they make our literature appear verbose.

It’s not a long text. But the Ancient Egyptians filled their lines, and the spaces between them, with meaning.

And for the past few decades, Richard has been translating their meaning for a people utterly different from those who wrote the story.

He told me:”It’s very hard to realise how incredibly specific the style is to a culture. The Ancient Egyptians would rarely include setting, or the description of emotions; all are very different from the way we would portray it in our culture.”

Take, for example, meeting  God. Or Pharaoh to us. We’d say we were overwhelmed, overawed, terrified, ecstatic. Not so the Ancient Egyptians. Listen:

“Then I was, stretched out prostrate, unconscious of myself in front of him. While this God was addressing me amicably I was like a man seized in the dusk. My soul had perished, my limbs failed. My heart was not in my body. I did not know life from death.”

It’s from another of Richard’s translated texts, The Tale of Sinhue: a story of a noble who panics when his king dies, and flees into exile, away from his beloved Egypt, later to be invited back by a magnanimous king.

“These poems really are absolutely the equal of anything English literature has to offer,” Richard says.”It’s some of the oldest poetry humanity has produced, and it can still speak to us. It’s quite something to hear the voice of a poet from 4000 years ago speaking to us.Egyptian writing is exotic- but the sheer modernity of it is striking.”

The Rosetta Stone and other texts, ultimately, are time machines: a means to travel to a lost civilisation. But the messages they bring are still relevant for today.

“We can never know what a poem verse sounds like,” Richard said; “it’s one of the great difficulties of translating Ancient Egyptian. But it just looks so supremely beautiful when it’s carved on tomb and temple walls. People are fascinated by the Rosetta Stone- because. I think, it shows the possibility of talking with the dead.

“Finally, with this stone, we are understanding ancient cultures in their own words.”

*’The Tale of The Eloquent Peasant: A Reader’s Commentary’ (Lingua Aegypta, Gottingen)

Image source here


28 thoughts on “Rosetta Man

  1. I listened to a lecture recently in which someone talked about language evolution, and the problem of signposting to civilisations far, far into the future if there is a radioactive site which should not be approached. The solution is to write the danger sign in ten major world languages, so that an historical linguist of the future can work it out from there. I learnt historical linguistics in third year at university, but was put off by how similar it was to algebra. (Not what I was expecting from a language course!) I have the utmost respect for those whose brains are versatile enough to solve such complex puzzles!

    As for the Rosetta Stone, it probably says, ‘Gone to milk the goat. Back soon!’ (See. I passed the course with flying colours!)

  2. Fascinating, Kate. I flounder around picking through words, English words, and their meaning in different countries. Countries that speak the same language, yet here is a man and his team that delve into this ancient of languages for meaning. An arch-translator. What a magnificent gift he and his peers have. The mere idea of translating The Tale of Peter Rabbit into ancient Egyptian is fascinating. When I hear the Rosetta Stone commercial on television, I will think of it in a different way.

  3. Fascinating. David and I reached the British Museum late, just as everyone else was leaving the building, so we didn’t get to see the Rosetta Stone. Your interview has given me a new and personal perspective on the languages, the history, the translator, even the weight that makes it a nuisance. So when I finally see it up close, I’ll be seeing so much more than just the stone. Thank you.

  4. You’re killing me. Seriously. Yesterday potsherds and today the Rosetta Stone and Hieroglyphs and the British Museum.

    One of my favorite fictional authors of all time is an Egyptologist by education and background. She’s an old lady now, but as a young women she received her Ph.d. in Egyptlogy – however, then she married and had a family rather than pursuing a career. She eventually divorced and having never lost her love for all things Egyptian, starting writing fiction based on historical events. Her books have introduced me to the concept of Egyptology and taught me so much about what a potsherd is and why the history of Egyptian antiquities and the British Museum are inextricably mixed. I’ve even read The Tale of Sinhue within her books.

    I was in London on business a few years ago and I sneaked away for a couple hours to tour the Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum in awe and wonder. I could have spent days there. Thank you for sucking me back into those memories. I really can’t wait until I can cross the pond again as a tourist and really take it all in.

    1. Wow, Stef, so many connections to Egyptology and the Rosetta Stone! And someone who has read the Tale of Sinuhe….wonderful. I’d love to know the name of your Egyptology author, sounds like she’d be a good one to read.

    2. Her name is Barbara Mertz. She has a couple of non-fiction Egyptology books under that name, but the majority of her Egyptian themed fictional work is under the name Elizabeth Peters.

      She has a completely wonderful series featuring a female protagonist named Amelia Peabody. Amelia is an English spinster in 1885 (at the ripe old age of 32) and sets off on her first adventure to Egypt where she finds her destiny. The whole series is fantastic and will get you hooked reading through the adventures of this family. The series crosses time from 1885 to the mid-1920’s. The first book was written in 1975 and there are 19 books in the series.

      She also has another series featuring another female protagonist named Vicky Bliss. This series is set in modern times and there are only about 5 or 6 books in this grouping.

      Give her a read! I really think in the Amelia series is took a couple books for her to really hit her stride with the characters so keep that in mind.

  5. An intriguing and informative post and isn’t it wonderful how the conversation enriches the blogging experience?

    The story of the Rosetta stone is what first got me really interested in history and archeology as a small child. It just struck that romantic cord in me and suddenly I could see it in other history lessons.

    1. It’s a wonderful concept, isn’t it, Jamie: you couldn’t make it up, a key to a lost language. Even my eight year old son stood in front of it, awestruck, for about five minutes. Romance is the right word.

  6. I recall opening a Mars bar when visiting the Middle East. It tasted so much better with the translation from the Arabic script on the wrapper – something like “Blah blah blah enrobed in rich chocolate”.

  7. We had the British Museum Treasures collection here a couple of years ago, but of course, its Rosetta Stone was a mere replica – how awesome to be able to see the real thing!

  8. Wow, this is enchanting, Kate! Such beauty in those ancient words, echoed in yours. I just love the expressions that stream out of you 🙂 I was fascinated by the language & history in studying Latin at school, but this takes it to another level. Thanks a ton for sharing.

    1. Thanks, as always, for interrupting that hectic schedule of yours to come along! Glad it struck a chord: I loved everything about Richard Parkinson’s outlook. A real privilege to talk to him.

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