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)
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