Who was the true victor in hieroglyphic translation?

22nd Mar 2013

The Rosetta Stone was the essential key to modern understanding of Ancient Egyptian literature andcivilization.

Scholars began attempting translations of the Rosetta Stone as quickly as they could get their hands on it. It didn't take too long to translate the Greek and Demotic text, but the hieroglyphics seemed to be an indecipherable mystery. An intellectual battle over hieroglyphics ensued between a British scholar, Thomas Young, and a French scholar, Jean-François Champollion, both of whom wanted to crack the code first.

Their respective countries were equally as competitive, and even today Britain and France debate about the true victor in hieroglyphic translation as well as which country owns (or should own) the stone. When the Rosetta Stone was displayed in Paris in 1972 for the bicentenary of its discovery, rumours flew that Parisians were planning to secretly steal the stone. The British and French also argued that the portraits of Young and Champollion, displayed alongside the stone, were of unequal sizes, glorifying one scholar above the other.

The Greek inscription was translated by the Reverend Stephen Weston. He completed his work on the stone in April 1802. While knowledge of the Greek language and alphabet were certainly limited among some professionals and academics, the Western world had become acquainted with Greek centuries ago, when the Renaissance incited Europeans' interest in the Greco-Roman civilization and culture. Therefore, Weston's contribution stirred less attention than the events that would follow.

Undoubtedly, the hieroglyphic part of the stone was the most challenging to decipher, but early scholars who translated the Demotic and Greek established some important precedents. French scholar Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy and Swedish diplomat Johan David Åkerblad each successfully interpreted the Demotic inscription in 1802.

While de Sacy detected proper names -- Ptolemy and Alexander -- in the text and used those as a starting point for matching up like sounds and symbols, Åkerblad's methodology depended on his knowledge of the Coptic language. Åkerblad noticed some similarities between the Demotic inscription and Coptic, and by comparing these similarities he was able to discern the words "love", "temple" and "Greek." Relying on these words to form a skeletal outline of the Demotic alphabet, Åkerblad went on to translate the entire part.

The term Rosetta Stone is now used as the name for the essential clue to a new field of knowledge.

For help with your interpreting or translation requirements, please contact Pearl Linguistics on 020 7253 7700 or sales@pearllinguistics.com.

Beata Marchewa, Booking Coordinator



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