Teen prodigy decodes 4,000-year-old Egyptian text

Discovery has provided invaluable insights into the societies of ancient Judea, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Michael Hoffen, a young author, has made a significant contribution to the understanding of ancient Egyptian culture through his new book, "Be A Scribe! Working for a Better Life in Ancient Egypt." The book, which centers around a teenager named Pepi and his father's efforts to secure him a job in the royal court, draws on a 4,000-year-old piece of literature known as The Instruction of Khety, or The Satire of the Trades.

Hoffen’s journey into ancient texts began in middle school, where he developed a fascination with translating hieroglyphics. His interest led him to the Middle Kingdom period of ancient Egypt, a time when The Instruction of Khety was written on papyrus. This ancient writing material, made from reeds, has provided invaluable insights into the societies of ancient Judea, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.

Hoffen collaborated with two Egyptologists, Christian Casey and Jen Thum, to translate this ancient text into modern prose. Their work spanned three and a half years, during which they meticulously translated the hieroglyphics and gathered images to bring the story of Kheti and Pepi to life.

The resulting book, "Be A Scribe!" is not just a translation but a richly illustrated narrative that delves into the timeless themes of parental aspirations and the career dilemmas faced by young people. Through Hoffen’s prose and the visual imagery from Egyptian antiquities, readers can explore the ancient world and find parallels to their own lives.

Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor, praised the book, calling it a “marvel” and noting that she “could not put it down.” She highlighted its appeal to young readers and adults alike, stating, “Young people will gobble it up without realizing they are learning. And even adults with advanced degrees will find themselves engrossed, educated, and fascinated by this story of an Egyptian father giving life advice to his teenage son—and astonished at how little parenting has changed across the millennia.”

The Timeless Relevance of Ancient Texts

The Instruction of Khety is a piece of wisdom literature from ancient Egypt, often referred to as The Satire of the Trades. It presents a father's advice to his son, Pepi, urging him to pursue a career as a scribe. Kheti extols the virtues of the scribe's profession, contrasting it with the hardships of other trades.

This ancient text is more than a career guide; it offers a glimpse into the values and societal structures of the time. The role of the scribe was highly esteemed in ancient Egypt, as scribes were essential to the administration and culture.

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They recorded everything from tax records to literary works, making their role crucial in a society that valued written knowledge.

Hoffen's translation captures the essence of this ancient advice, making it accessible to modern readers. By preserving the original context and infusing it with contemporary language, Hoffen bridges a millennia-old gap, showing that the human condition and societal aspirations have remained remarkably consistent.

The Journey of Translation

Translating The Instruction of Khety was a complex task that required a deep understanding of ancient Egyptian language and culture. Hoffen, with his background in translating ancient texts since middle school, brought a unique perspective to this project. His co-authors, Christian Casey and Jen Thum, provided the scholarly expertise necessary to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the translation.

The team faced numerous challenges, from interpreting the hieroglyphics to deciding how to present the material in a way that would engage modern readers. Their solution was to create a narrative that not only translated the text but also illustrated it with images from Egyptian antiquities. This approach allows readers to visualize the world of Pepi and his father, adding depth to the text.

A Modern Educational Tool

"Be A Scribe!" is more than a historical document; it is an educational tool that brings ancient wisdom to life for a modern audience. The book's vivid illustrations and engaging prose make it an excellent resource for teaching about ancient Egypt. It also serves as a reminder of the enduring nature of certain human experiences, such as parental aspirations and career choices.

The book’s appeal is broad, capturing the interest of both young readers and adults. Its ability to educate while entertaining makes it a valuable addition to any library, whether for personal enjoyment or academic study.

This work highlights how little the core aspects of the human condition have changed over thousands of years. Parents still want the best for their children, and young people still face crucial decisions about their futures. Through Hoffen’s translation, the ancient advice of a father to his son resonates with readers today, offering insights and reflections that are as relevant now as they were 4,000 years ago.


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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.