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Interpretation and Authority: the Social Functions of Translation in Ancient Egypt

  • Author(s): Cole, Emily Christine Cooper
  • Advisor(s): Dieleman, Jacco
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines the social functions of translation in Egypt from the Middle Kingdom through the Roman Period (ca. 2000 BCE-200 CE), focusing on the practice of translating texts from earlier into later phases of the Egyptian language. There are two main objectives for this study. First, I determine how translation developed, and second, I investigate how the practice of translation in Egyptian society changed over time. I accomplish this by situating the translations, which form the basis of my textual analysis, within their social contexts. This research establishes that translation was a part of a tradition of Egyptian interpretive processes, offers evidence for the continued social prestige of translation as an intellectual ability from the Pharaonic to Roman Periods, and contributes to the discussion of how broader linguistic developments affected the social use of language in Egypt.

In order to prove that there was a progression from interpretation to translation, I begin by analyzing the earliest attestations of Egyptian textual commentary from the Middle Kingdom. Then I compare those techniques to the ones found in translated texts of the Third Intermediate Period and later. I illustrate how the increased specialization of the traditional Middle Egyptian language after the New Kingdom led to the adoption of translation as a means of textual interpretation.

From the repeated attestations of interpreting in the biographies of high-ranking officials from Pharaonic Egypt, I conclude that Egyptians were interested in highlighting their intellectual aptitude as part of their elite identity. Educated scribes who were invested in transmitting and explaining complex texts thus valued translation as an scholarly pursuit, as it guaranteed that important ritual texts remained understandable to the general population over time.

Following the spread of Greek-Egyptian multilingualism from the Late Period onward, I contend that translation became an important feature of daily life and its function expanded beyond interpretation. By comparing the bilingual Rhind papyri and the Ptolemaic trilingual decrees, I argue that Middle Egyptian and its associated scripts were adopted alongside contemporary Demotic to invoke the religious and political authority of traditional Egyptian culture during the Ptolemaic Period.

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