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An Interview with Richard B. Parkinson

Richard B. Parkinson is a Professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford, a fellow at The Queen's College, and the former curator of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum. His scholarly interests focus on the interpretation of ancient Egyptian literature, especially the poetry of the classic age. In 2013, Professor Parkinson agreed to include his landmark translation of The Tale of Sinuhe on Oxford Biblical Studies Online (OBSO), making it available online for the first time. Featuring adventure stories, dialogues on life and death, ruminations on the problem of suffering, and teachings about the nature of wisdom and virtue, this collection explores many themes that also appear in Biblical literature. In an interview with OBSO editors below, Parkinson discusses the work that went into this scholarly endeavour, along with misconceptions about how ancient Egyptian literature relates to the genres of the Bible.

The art of translating this work is a truly astonishing scholarly endeavor. It seems that, along with the linguistic differences, you were also dealing with the problem of fragmented and scattered documents. What were the biggest challenges with translating this text?

Richard B. Parkinson: The fragility of the manuscripts is astonishing, and I am always unnerved to remember that without one particular discovery made in Luxor in the 1830s we would lack the texts of some of the most famous works of Middle Kingdom Egypt. Lexicography and grammar still pose very basic problems, but another problem is the verse-structure and style. Thinking about the manuscripts in a very specific material way is something I personally find helpful in trying to imagine the sense of the original words. Poetry is by its very nature untranslatable, and such ancient works raise the difficult issue of how to balance the needs of literal and free translations. But I find the translations to be horrible failures; I am always ashamed when I compare them with the poetry of the originals

These ancient works are written in a style that is so far removed from what the modern reader is used to seeing. There are, for example, unexpected shifts in tense and point of view, colophons, and entire sections in which the speaker is not immediately obvious. Can you tell us a little about this unusual style? What should a modern reader expect when engaging a text such as this?

RBP: The style is simply unfamiliar to people used to reading only Western prose, and its apparent strangeness tells us more about our expectations than about the poems themselves. I must admit I find reading Chinese or Arabic poetry in translation much more of a shock stylistically. For me, a key thing is to remain open to different possibilities in reading, and to try to understand the style in its own terms. Our unfamiliarity with the ancient genres, their nuances and resonances, makes it very hard to gain a sense of the total meaning, and this is something we must consciously struggle against. The common assumption that the genres we are used to must be universal and somehow essential to human literature seems to me to be a sign of cultural arrogance. As E. M. Forster once commented: "Always remember that the writer you are reading was once a living man, and that he is talking to you. This is the golden rule."

Not just the style, but also the values embodied in these texts may strike a modern audience as alien. For example, The Tale of Sinuhe depicts the concept of love in what you call a "didactic" rather than a "romantic" way, with the emotion appearing mainly as a form of devotion to one's ruler and country. Moreover, the author depicts the world outside of Egypt as a chaotic and terrifying land. How do these texts defy our expectations about storytelling and poetry?

RBP: The Tale of Sinuhe is a very good example of this issue. Most modern readers, as is obvious from modern film versions and modern retellings, tend to assume that Sinuhe was in love with the queen who features in the poem. Most modern heterosexual post-Romantic readers expect the most significant relationship in any text to be between the main man and the main woman. But of course not all readers are heterosexual, and certainly for the original audiences the key relationship was the "homosocial" one between Sinuhe and the king. Sinuhe's narrative plays with many ancient Egyptian genres to create a complex poem that is very different from the sort of adventure narrative many modern readers might expect from first reading it. The conventions and expectations are different, and the words resonate very differently. For example, in this ancient genre of a fictionalized tomb autobiography, the burial of the narrator is the expected happy and successful ending to his career—which can seem bizarre to a modern audience, although the importance of a good death would have been less alien to other European readers in more "pious" periods than the present one.

For all of the differences in style and content, what I find the most shocking is that these poems embody situations and emotions with such self-reflexive power and artistry that we can sense through the different conventions something that is simultaneously both very different and recognisably familiar—they can give us a "touch of the real." For me, the iconic moment is when the queen sees her servant (not lover!) Sinuhe after many years' absence: instead of reacting with joy and wonder; she gives a "very great cry" of shock and horror. That reaction strikes me as recognisably human across the centuries and across all cultural differences. I am starting to prepare a commentary on Sinuhe, so this episode is very much on my mind at the moment, and will deliver my inaugural lecture on the queen's cry.

Where in the Bible is the influence of this type of literature most obvious?

RBP: I'm not familiar enough with the biblical texts except in translation to comment. I think for modern readers the Bible is the most familiar point of reference: a general style and attitude, and a concern with discursive wisdom that is not common in most European literature. However, the parallel of biblical texts brings with it many associations that are perhaps not necessarily relevant and I feel that the Middle Egyptian poems should not be viewed (as they have sometimes been) primarily or exclusively as "extra-biblical" texts. I am instinctively cautious about trying to identify direct influences—it can be a distraction from trying to understand these works in their own terms, and I am more interested in the texture and experience of reading these poems as part of world literature than in looking for contemporaneous influences, even though exploring the intertext is so crucial for understanding their poetry.

A story in the collection that is packed with allegory and metaphor is The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, in which a mariner encounters a race of serpents with human heads on a mysterious island. You suggest that this piece is not only discussing how to face the disorder and capriciousness of the world, but is also commenting on the nature and role of the art of storytelling. Can you elaborate on this?

RBP: The Shipwrecked Sailor is a very simple tale in terms of grammar, and so it has been read a lot in classes for people who are starting to learn Middle Egyptian. But it is only pretending to be simple: it is a sort of a fairy-tale for grown-up people, and it alludes to ideas about the lack of any permanence in the cosmos, with a cynical sense of reality that is very different from the fantastic and wonderful world of serpents and vanishing islands that it talks about. The sailor tells his story, about a story told to him, and the act of narrating is described as bringing relief, as various people reflect on their personal calamities. Literature implicitly offers some consolation of the nature of the world. What makes the whole so shockingly brutal—and so very grown up—is that it is tale after tale in neat symmetrical patterns, and just when a happy ending is in sight with a formal closure, the pattern is broken, the sailor's audience turns on him and cynically dismisses all his narration. It has the disarming simplicity of great art. The ending always shocks me.

Oxford University Press

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