Faulknerese: a mild case of traduttore, traditore

When you delve into the subject of Egyptian magic, you very quickly discover how much you must rely on translations of primary sources.  Almost as quickly you discover how much those translations differ depending on their age and the translator’s worldview.

E. A. Wallis Budge, for example, did not have the advantage of our modern depth of knowledge about the Ancient Egyptian language, but he had a great deal of respect for the beliefs of the culture whose texts he was translating; so even if his translations are not particularly useful to a modern magician, some of the magic from the original texts still crackles through.  This will be no surprise to those who have heard about Budge’s links to the London occult scene of his day.

On to Raymond O. Faulkner.  He had a much better grasp of Ancient Egyptian, as we now understand the language, than Budge did, but his style of translation can be challenging for magicians.  He tended to use general English terms, such as “soul” or “spirit,” to translate precise Egyptian mystical concepts; and his books intended for general readership have very sparse footnotes, making it much harder to tell when he has done something interpretative in his translation. I have often found myself picking through the original hieroglyphs just to find out whether a word Faulkner has translated as “soul” was “ba,” “akh,” “ka,” and so on.  Other times he uses English words that a modern mystic would consider a mismatch for the Egyptian concept—‘Abyss’ is one particularly false friend.  Having said all this, his full translations of the Coffin Texts and The Book of the Dead are still the most recent and the best available in English.

Faulkner was an excellent philologist and you will stand on his shoulders a great deal if you study Egyptian magic, but as a magician you should apply some lens correction when you read him.  Mysticism in the original texts often does not come through particularly clearly.  You will also have to recognize enough Egyptian words to scan through the hieroglyphs and find the specific word behind a generic translation.  And you will have to make up your own mind about whether or not some of his emendations are right.  Faulkner is acknowledged to have had rather a gift for rendering Egyptian phrases into idiomatic English; unfortunately this gift sometimes obscured magical or mystical content that a more literal rendering would have preserved.  Be particularly suspicious when he sees corruption in the original text; I have come across one example where a passage that looked corrupt to him is now known to be unusually complex grammar.

I’ll include in my book’s appendix a ‘Faulknerese’ glossary to try and speed up the researches of future magicians, but even so, anything that stands out to you should still be checked against the hieroglyphs themselves.

Further reading

The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts, by Raymond O. Faulkner

This is the best available translation of the Coffin Texts in English.  It’s an expensive book, but at the moment there is no other option if you want a complete translation of the whole corpus.

The Egyptian Book of the Dead: 20th Anniversary Edition

If you are going to buy a copy of Faulkner’s translation of the Book of the Dead, this is the version to get.  It includes a beautiful complete, full-colour facsimile of the Papyrus of Ani, and Dr. Ogden Goelet has updated those parts of Faulkner’s translation that have not quite stood the test of time.

Author: Michael Sheppard

Michael Sheppard edits the Quareia course. He is also writing a book on Ancient Egyptian magic.

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