June 1, 2016

Susan Brind Morrow talks like an Egyptian


A passage from the Pyramid Texts as inscribed in the tomb of Pepi I. Via Wikimedia Commons.

A passage from the Pyramid Texts as inscribed in the tomb of Pepi I. Via Wikimedia Commons.

It is a truth universally hailed by science that Ancient Egypt is the best.

While the swirling sands of time have obscured much about the Egyptians,  we continue to remember them as perennially hot style icons, indefatigable geniuses of politics, and pathfinders to a cuteness that would endure for millennia.

In fact, the Ancient Egyptians are such an intriguing bunch that they have continued to inspire new cultural production thousands of years after the last of their Pharaohs went out like a boss, whether it’s by nudging us to imagine our own epochal artworks as the Egyptians might have seen them, or by providing a deep-seated idea of the monumental for contemporary artists to remix and remake. They’ve starred in our operas, been portrayed by our great actors from Boris Karloff to Christopher Lee to, sure, Billy Zane, even inspired Stargate, our excellent 1994 James Spader vehicle that is—fun fact!—100% true.

In literature, too, Egypt has made its mark.  For one thing, a decent amount of the action in the world’s all-time bestselling book takes place there, and the likes of Agatha Christie, Norman Mailer, and Thomas Mann all set fiction in Ancient Egypt as well, while poet and Fugs frontman Ed Sanders included some of his own freehand translations of Egyptian poetry in his too-short-lived Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.

Clearly, we have, as a culture, spent some time thinking about Ancient Egypt.  As did the Ancient Egyptians, one of the first civilizations ever to produce an extensive written literature of its own. And somewhere, beneath the endless strata of smoke-shrouded imagination, the huge body of writing the Egyptians themselves left us remains, awaiting our attention.

Enter Susan Brind Morrow, poet, translator, erstwhile Guggenheim Fellow, and dyed-in-the-wool Egyptophile. In an interview with the CBC’s Mary Hynes this weekend, Morrow discussed her work translating the collection of early Egyptian writing known as the Pyramid Texts.  Dating from the third millennium BCE, the Pyramid Texts were a gathering of nearly 800 poetic “utterances” that Egyptian scribes of the Old Kingdom chiseled into tomb walls and royal sarcophagi. They’ve often been described as protective spells and mythological scenes, but, as Morrow has noted, the English translations that have been available are generally pretty bizarre, and periodically nonsensical. They do little to share with us the truth of Egyptian thought and poetry. We read them without really remembering the time, so to speak.

For an instructive example, take this scene, from writing carved into the tomb of the fifth-dynasty pharaoh Unis, which Morrow first quotes in the translation of James P. Allen:

Pull back, Baboon’s penis! Open sky’s door! You sealed door, open a path for Unis on the blast of heat where the gods scoop water. Horus’ glide path TWICE… Unis becomes a screeching howling baboon…

You know, like you do.

Addressing the total perplexity a poem beginning “Pull back, Baboon’s penis!” might reasonably engender, Morrow notes early in her recent book The Dawning Moon of the Mind that, in this English translation,

two foreign ideas are being superimposed on the Egyptian original. The first is that the writing is primitive. The second is that it contains a myth. The English does not track because the translator is following this preconception rather than actual hieroglyphs, and the translation does not make sense because the myth is not there.

In Morrow’s reading, the baboon in question is the constellation Orion, and the penis, in a kind of inverse euphemism, is his sword, so that the opening lines can be understood as meaning something closer to “The sword of Orion opens the doors of the sky.” She also understands the “blast of heat” to be more properly a “blast of fire” (that is, daybreak), “the gods” to be more properly “the holy ones” (that is, the stars), and “Horus,” the falcon-headed god who plays a central role in much Egyptian mythology, to be here more properly just “the falcon” (that is, in this case, Sirius, the brightest star in the Egyptian sky). In all, Morrow translates the passage:

The sword of Orion opens the doors of the sky.
Before the doors close again the gate to the path
Over the fire, beneath the holy ones as they grow dark
As a falcon flies as a falcon flies, may Unis rise into this fire
Beneath the holy ones as they grow dark.

In Egypt, Sirius rises (“a falcon flies”) at dawn (“before the doors close again”) when summer is at its height — just as the Nile begins its annual flood, the key natural event signaling rebirth in the Ancient Egyptian imagination.  So Morrow reads this as a poetic passage that ultimately means something like, “May the soul of the dead king rise into the sky like the brightest star at the moment of the world’s rebirth.”  Which, indeed, is a lot more beautiful, and a lot less inane, than shouting “Pull back, Baboon’s penis!” at a funeral.

Morrow describes the texts as offering, in her reading, “a very radiant vision of human life as being part of the universe.”

The interview is surely worth a listen, especially for anyone enthralled by the mysteries of ancient poetry and the art of translation. And as we’ve recently written, more recent Egyptian literature, written under conditions that present difficulties and subtleties of their own, can pose a serious challenge to translators as well.

We sometimes tend to think of translators as people with the simple job of extracting essential content from one language and repackaging it in another. But the truth is that good translators often begin their work by venturing deep into the mysterious heart of the pyramid, and sometimes what they carry out is treasure. At its best, translation enables a reader from one culture to fleetingly partake of another, a reminder that being human places us squarely in the middle of an incredible, ongoing experiment in meaning-making. And we get an impoverished version of what this can be when a careful constellation of words in one language is re-configured as a mere baboon penis in another.  More can happen. For its ace exemplification of this, Morrow’s work is a wonder.

And this is especially worth celebrating because, if I may return to my original point, Egypt rules. Also, Stargate is essentially a documentary.




Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.