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A sailor and his family are shipwrecked on a magical island ruled by a giant snake. In fact, there are many snakes on this island. One day a star falls from the sky and all of the snakes are 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 text reads.

This tale of a shipwrecked sailor is one of many ancient Egyptian stories that have recently been translated into English by a Cambridge academic. Toby Wilkinson is bringing ancient Egyptian writing back to life by translating these largely pictorial texts into modern English. Many of us associate hieroglyphics with art and decoration, rather than language, but Wilkinson is looking to shift these perceptions.

“It has been my aim in this book to convey the wit, wisdom, humanity, and sophistication of the ancient Egyptians, as reflected in their writings,” Wilkinson told Quartz. “Too many of the old translations treat the texts as examples of dead scholarship, rather than as texts penned by living, breathing, laughing, and crying men and women.”

According to Wilkinson, because many of ancient stories are only understood by a small group of expert academics, our understanding of ancient Egypt is incomplete. And given the fact that Egypt’s written tradition spans close to 3 500 years, there are a lot of insights about life in ancient Egypt that the world has no clue about.

“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,” said Wilkinson. His anthology is titled: Writings from Ancient Egypt and unpacks tales of natural disasters, battles, satire and songs. The book offers a glimpse into how the Egyptians described themselves, their gods, and their history.

Losing languages

Did you know that languages can be considered critically endangered? As the world gets ‘smaller’ due to globalization and international commerce, the languages spoken in remote territories are being overtaken by those that are more frequently used. This makes Wilkinson’s work ever more important. His translations help us to better understand the intricacies of an ancient civilization and in doing so preserve these languages and the nuances of these ancient societies. In 2012, National Geographic reported that one language dies every fortnight and roughly half of the 7 000 languages spoken on Earth will have disappeared by the next century.

According to the article, there may be 7 000 languages but this doesn’t mean that the languages are equally divided among the seven billion people around the world. In fact:

  • 78% of the global population speak just 85 languages.

  • The 3 500 smallest languages in the world are spoken by a mere 8.25 million people.

  • English has 328 million first-language speakers.

  • Mandarin has 845 million first-language speakers.

  • A language called Tuvan, which is spoken in the Republic of Tuva in south-central Siberia, is spoken by just 235 000 people.

For Wilkinson, it was essential to pick the most appropriate words to convey the emotions and sentiment of the hieroglyphic stories. Similarly, if you’re planning to localize or translate your product brochures, training manuals or web content, your need to partner with the right translation company to get your message across. At Rubric, we’ll ensure that your translation accurately conveys what you’re trying to say. Contact us to find out more about translation services.


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Image Credit: Heritagedaily.com