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Professor analyzes translation on Rosetta Stone

Tori Roeck | Sunday, November 10, 2013

In a lecture Friday titled “The Rosetta Stone and the Politics of Translation,” Ian Moyer, associate professor of history at the University of Michigan, said comparing the Greek and Egyptian text on the Rosetta Stone can illuminate the political situation of Ptolemaic Egypt in the Hellenistic Period.

“[The Rosetta Stone] has to be one of the leading contenders for most famous, least read historical document,” Moyer said. “According to the British Museum stats, it’s the most visited object, and the British Museum is the second most visited art museum in the world.”

The Rosetta Stone, which allowed scholars to decipher the Egyptian language, contains a decree honoring Egypt’s Hellenistic ruler Ptolemy V, and its text is written in hieroglyphics, demotic Egyptian and Greek, in that order, Moyer said. The Greek was most likely written first and then translated into these two variants of Egyptian, he said.

“Several scholars have re-emphasized the Greek form of the decree … and its connections with other decrees that were used by many Greek city states to praise their benefactors, including Hellenistic kings in the wider Hellenistic world,” Moyer said. “Rather than representing an Egyptianization of the Ptolemaic state, the texts are rather seen as a sign that members of the Egyptian elite adopted the culture and political language of Hellenism and were integrated into the Ptolemaic state.”

The Egyptian priests who translated these decrees into Greek had definitely adopted some of the habits of their Macedonian rulers, Moyer said.

“Egyptian priests acted like a Greek polis or city-state to praise a Macedonian king as if he were an Egyptian pharaoh,” Moyer said.

Moyer said these Egyptian priests were not completely Hellenized, and he thinks inconsistencies in the translations on the Rosetta Stone and similar decrees prove they retained some of their previous beliefs. For example, in the Canopus decree where new tribes were established in honor of Ptolemy III, the Greek word used to mean “tribe” describes a group of people in a civic context, while the corresponding Egyptian term describes a group of people in a religious context.

“From the earliest period of Egyptian history, [‘tribes’] denoted groups of people who provided part time service to the temples, or in work crews or in mortuary cults, usually in some sort of rotation system,” Moyer said. “The difference between the two terms, Greek and Egyptian, was probably based on perceived structural and functional analogies. The Greek tribes … served among other purposes as constituent groups for the selection of magistrates and officials and also for a rotation of service in the prittanies, the rotating executive council of the city.”

This difference in language proves the Egyptian priests still contextualized these Greek-style decrees in Egyptian terms, Moyer said.

“The context of this translation … suggests that the Egyptian priests adopted it not just as a convenient approximation, but as a term whose political significance suited their purposes,” he said.

Moyer said these discrepancies in translation reflect the competing cultural influences prevalent in Ptolemaic Egypt.

“On the one hand, the priests who practiced this Hellenistic political discourse could well have become a community loyal to the Ptolemaic state,” he said. “On the other hand, a ramified response to the demands of this Hellenistic political discourse is not unlike … ‘sly civility,’ in as much as it was polite in its address but rather equivocal on accepting the terms of the actual discourse.

“In the subtle politics of translation, the decrees offer insights into the ways the Egyptian priests were making sense of their world and their official communications.”

Contact Tori Roeck at vroeck@nd.edu