The literature of Ancient Egypt remains one of its forgotten glories, often neglected beside its more visible monuments. From as early as 1300bc, there are collections of lyrics celebrating the joys and the difficulties of young love. These songs are the most immediately appealing of Egypt's writings, and their sensual liveliness shows beyond all doubt that the Egyptians were not obsessed with death, as is often supposed.
Various translations are already available, ranging from the clear accurate ones of Egyptologists such as Miriam Lichtheim and Pascal Vernus, to the free, imaginative versions of John L. Foster, and - most famously - Ezra Pound.
The fragmentary state and the antiquity of the songs make it difficult to assess their meaning, let alone to recreate the effect of the originals in modern verse. Barbara Hughes Fowler presents a selection of these songs, and her book is another welcome attempt to make these poems accessible to a general audience without sacrificing academic accuracy.
As the preface candidly states, she is not an Egyptologist and has based her versions on the useful edition and study by Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs.
Sometimes she follows his literal translations rather closely, and at other times softens them and adds a few phrases or verses to make the sense clear.
These expansions, however, are sometimes unnecessary and even distracting. One simple couplet, for example, which was scribbled by an apprentice scribe on the back of his papyrus (now in the British Museum), can be translated literally: "If the wind comes, it is for the sycamore;/ if you come .you are for me
/". Fowler renders it more diffusely: "If the wind comes, it blows/ toward the sycamore tree./ If you come, you blow/ on the wind toward me."
Although Fowler aims to be faithful to the originals, there are occasional slight misunderstandings in the translations and notes. In one note, she comments that "the word 'foliage' does not occur in the Egyptian text. I added it for the sake of the meter" but the word is actually there in the papyrus. Such comments might give the impression of a greater familiarity with the originals than the author intended to give.
Despite these minor slips, which are perhaps inevitable when paraphrasing something not fully understood at first hand, Fowler often succeeds in achieving the very difficult balance between the conflicting demands of poetic readability and scholarly accuracy.
I do not see how one clear, elegant translation, for example, could be bettered: "Would that I had/ a morning of looking,/ like the bronze that spends/ a lifetime with her!/ Lovely the land of Isy/ and precious its tribute!/ Joyous the mirror/ receiving her gaze!".
R. B. Parkinson is assistant keeper, department of Egyptian antiquities, British Museum.
Love Lyrics of Ancient Egypt
ISBN - 0 8078 2159 4 and 4468 3
Publisher - University of North Carolina Press
Price - $19.95 and $10.95
Pages - 65
Translator - Barbara Hughes Fowler