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Note on the Translations

Rather than trying to guess at the effect of the original and recreate this in modern poetry, I have made my translations deliberately literal. The spare style of many of the poems hinders comprehension, and I have therefore inserted ‘and's and ‘but's to help the reader follow the train of thought that would have been obvious to the ancient reader, while trying to keep this falsification of the style to a minimum. The poems make much use of wordplay between homonyms and homophones, and the more significant instances of this are remarked on in the notes. The diction is quite restricted, and a word will often be repeated through a passage with slightly different meanings; I have tried to preserve this repetition wherever possible, without making the rendering too stilted. I note where these repeats, echoes, and ‘keywords’ are significant for the meaning.

When only New Kingdom manuscripts are extant I have considered it necessary to draw on conflated texts, and I have not usually followed one manuscript exclusively; I have also silently replaced the New Kingdom version of the colophon with the Middle Kingdom version.

I have made no attempt to render the poems into modern verse, but have marked the end of each ancient line of verse with a new line, following the metrical principles proposed by Gerhard Fecht (see Select Bibliography, p. xvii), but with some modifications. I refer to these units as ‘verses’, to groups of verses as ‘stanzas’. ‘Line’ refers to a (horizontal or vertical) line of the ancient manuscript; in some manuscripts the horizontal lines of the text are arranged into columns, which I refer to as ‘pages’.

Ancient Egyptian verse is almost always written out continuously, and so the lines of text on a papyrus do not correspond to lines of verse; line-breaks can occur in the middle of a verse, a clause, or a word. In the outer margins of the translations I supply numbers referring to the line or section of the original text; these numbers are given only at appropriate intervals to avoid distracting the reader with indications of every new line or section of the text. The numbers in the margin follow the conventions of the standard modern edition of the poem. They give either the line numbers or page and line numbers (e.g. R 1.1) of the principal manuscript, or the section numbers adopted by the standard parallel text edition; in the latter case, subsections are indicated where necessary by a letter or another number following the practice of the edition (thus, the first subsection of section 5 is referred to as 5a or 5.1). When the numbering is that of a parallel text edition, I supply the line numbers of the principal manuscript in parentheses where appropriate. The numbers in the margin do not correspond to the lines of verse in the translations; in the notes I cross-refer to the lines or sections of the text, for the ease of those reading the original text, rather than to the verses of my translations.

As stated in the Preface, there are no indications of uncertainties in translation. Sigla have likewise been kept to the minimum, and are included when only one manuscript survives. I have paid particular attention to lacunae, to considering possible reconstructions, and to assessing the amount of text that is lost, basing my assessments on factors including the surviving traces, the physical size of the lacuna, and the metrical structure. The importance of assessing what and how much of a composition may have been lost has often been underestimated. Losses, omissions, and restorations are indicated as follows.

Square brackets [ ] indicate gaps due to damage to the manuscript. The text inside the brackets is a restoration by the modern editor, either on the basis of the remaining traces of text or on the basis of the context, often drawing on parallel passages in other texts. When restoration is impossible, dots give a visual indication of the amount of text that is missing; […] indicates that a single syllable or complete word is lost in lacuna, and brackets with four or more dots indicate that a phrase of varying length is lost. The dots do not represent a specific number of signs or words. A row of dots in square brackets on a separate line indicates that a complete line of verse, of varying length, is lost. For a loss of three or more verses the following convention is followed: a lacuna of three verses is indicated thus:

[……………]

[total of 3 verses lost]

[……………]

If an uncertain number of verses is lost at the start of a text, the translation is headed with:

……………]

Angled brackets 〈 〉 indicate an erroneous omission by the ancient copyist. The text inside the brackets is supplied by the modern editor. When restoration is impossible, dots give a visual indication of the amount of text that is missing, as with square brackets.

In the notes, particular words from the passage which are being discussed are set in italics; these lemmata are, however, not always in exactly the same form of the word in the original text. The note is placed at the end of the first verse of the passage that it discusses, and usually at the end of the first verse of a stanza or section of a stanza. Thus, the lemma in the note is usually in the subsequent verses, and only occasionally in the preceding ones.

The notes provide different levels of commentary for various texts. Some of the narratives and much of the didactic writing are clear to follow, as are the ‘laments’ which have a single theme consistently expounded. Other passages, especially those which are reflective or discursive, need extensive notes to explain the often allusive trains of thought. This requires a certain measure of paraphrase. I do not attempt to indicate the full diversity of possible reactions to the poems, but try to provide pointers towards a unified reading of a remarkably rich and coherent corpus. Since I hope to make the poems accessible to readers of the comparatively modern Western canon such as myself, I have not explored the culturally specific aspects of the ancient corpus in depth. This strategy may underplay the ‘otherness’ of the poems, but I consider it a necessary step to bring out the distinctive nature of their discourse that is closer to early modern concepts of ‘literature’ than the reader may at first assume.

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