The worldwide known Italian expression “A translator is a traitor” has long been considered as the epitome of the untranslatability. It only illuminates the widespread misconception that there is a simple word-by-word correspondence between any two languages and that the translation is a mechanical process.
Apparently the difficulties of the job of translator did not exist since times immemorial; the job itself was certainly useless before the times of the Tower of Babel and the confusion spread ever since. An indirect corroboration of the Ancient Myth that persisted in every literature may be the fact that we have not yet found any bilingual inscription antedating the last quarter of the 3rd millennium BCE. At those days, Sumerian, Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian and Elamite writing systems were in full use, but still no need for a bilingual text may have arisen among the then Middle Eastern scribes and diplomats.
The well known Biblical story seems to reflect the Sumerian Myth of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, according to which Enmerkar of Ur implored Enki to restore the linguistic unity among the Mankind. As a modern interpretation identifies Enmerkar of Ur with the Biblical and Quranic Nimrud, who had also been mythologized as Gilgamesh in the Mesopotamian traditions, we understand better the references of the great Islamic Historian Al Tabari who, in his venerated History of the Prophets and Kings, attributed the Tower to Nimrud and the magnificent punishment of the exploit to Allah, referring to the ensuing 72 languages of confusion.
We therefore thought necessary to go the other way round; if confusion created the languages, we place comprehension and awareness at the epicenter of our endeavour. We seek to contextualize the meaning, and interpret it by subsequently producing an equivalent text in the target language. In this effort, we felt that we simply are the last ring in a long chain of Egyptian scribes and translators.
Egypt – Land of the Pyramids, Egypt – Land of the Translations
The fact that the world’s first international language was the Semitic Mesopotamian Akkadian, and its derivatives, Assyrian – Babylonian, created an interest among the New Kingdom’s Pharaonic rulers to hire educated and multilingual scribes. When the pharaoh wished to communicate with his Hittite counterpart (in the area of today’s Central Turkey), with the kings of Assyria, Babylonia, Mitanni (the Hurrian kingdom in the area of today’s Northeastern Syria), and Elam (in today’s Southwestern Iran) or the lesser importance kings of the Canaanite kingdoms of Ugarit and Byblos, the royal correspondence was always conducted in Cuneiform Assyrian – Babylonian. Out of this context of international relations before 3400 years emanate the famous Tel Amarna Tablets, a few hundreds of clay tablets with letters exchanged between Amenhotep III, Akhenaten with their Asiatic counterparts. All due to the translators of that era.
Come closer to our times by a millennium, and meet Ptolemy II, the Macedonian origin Pharaoh, who invited 72 Jewish scholars to translate the Bible (Torah) to Ancient Greek, the then international language of the Mediterranean world; they carried out the task in 72 days, residing at the island of Pharos in Alexandria, somewhere between today’s Ras el Tin palace and the Qaytbey castle. Every morning, they came to the erudite Pharaoh’s palace to thank him and ask God blessings to be conferred upon him.
Almost three quarters of a century later, in 196 BCE, the scribes and the translators of Ptolemy V produced a document in two languages and three scriptures, namely Egyptian Hieroglyphic, Egyptian Demotic (the cursive writing of the Pharaonic administration) and Ancient Greek. The document was delivered in two copies; the first – irremovable – was inscribed on the granite Second Pylon of the Temple of Isis at Philae, in the south of Aswan (Syene), and the second on a stone that went lost for millennia. When it was discovered nearby the city of Rashid (Rosetta) in the Nile’s estuary, more than 1070 km far from the first copy, people called it the Rosetta Stone, and it is thanks to this translation that the modern decipherment of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic became finally a dream come true.
More than half a millennium later, in the 4th Christian century, Egypt had become the land of almost all the religions. Back to that era date the Coptic translations of the Kephalaia, the Synaxeis, the Acts and other masterpieces of Mani, the Persian philosopher and founder of Manichaeism, that we found in Armant (in the south of Luxor), in Dakhla oasis, and in Fayoum in the beginning of the 20th century. They testify to the extraordinary diffusion of the first religion in the world that covered the entire span between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans before the emergence of Islam. Due to the genius of the Manichaean Copt translators, we re-establish today the doctrine of the – severely persecuted by the Sassanid emperors of Iran – great Iranian philosopher of whom Al Nadim spoke extensively in his Fihrist.
No less than 700 years later, Egypt and Islamic Cairo was still a great land of attraction for the greatest Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who born in Cordoba, left Andalusia and Morocco to settle, write and translate like so many others in Cairo – when he was not busy treating Salahaddin (Saladin) as he was the king’s personal physician.
Having all this mind, we set out to make an exception, namely to be translators without being traitors.