Posted by: xeper | September 8, 2008

The Negative Confession Lost in Translation (and Just Found)

Back in May, I gave a lecture in Serafis about the “Moral Codes of Ancient Egypt: Quest for Perfection”. And while I relied on common translations of the spiritual Declaration of Innocence (more widely known as the Negative Confession), I suggested a correction of the verse declaring:

~~

I have not waded in water..

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It had striked me as a very odd verse; a mundane and irrelevant one sticking out of an otherwise quite homogenous text discussing a person’s conduct in relation to others. Indeed, and to my limited knowledge, while there are different versions of the Confession, and 42 verses in any version, each verse declares one’s innocence from taking some right of someone else, whether they be other humans, living creatures in general, or God and His Names (the Neteru).

EXCEPT THIS VERSE! “I have not waded in water”.

The same expression is found in the Qor’aan, in Arabic this time, also about Judgement Day confessions. The scene describes how “criminals/outlaws” when asked why they went to Hell, they would confess a list of good deeds that they did not do, and also that they “waded with those who waded” [Verse 74:45]. The similarities are striking: Judgement Day scene, list of confessions, all negative in the Coming Forth By Day version and most negative in the Qoranic version, and with this seemingly out-of-place confession of “wading into water” (the benevolent spirit in the first version says he did not do, while the criminal spirits in the second say they did it). One difference, though: The Qoranic translation was not lost!

Moslems understand the Wading-in-water verse (74:45) clearly, and it means to discuss things we are not sure of, or to speculate. The term is still in usage in a language showing considerable Ancient Egyptian influence (Arabic) when describing someone speculating about other people’s lives, or talking about other people in a way that touches their honor, this person is described as “wading in their honor” and you find it the same in contemporary classical Arabic (yaxuudu fii a3raad-in-naas) as in contemporary Egyptian spoken language (biyxuud fe a3raad en naas).

While we might discuss the origin of the expression in another venue, I invite you to use the following translation of the verse or debate it:

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I have not speculated (about Honorable* matters)

~~~~

~

* “Honorable matters” meaning both Divine matters, as well as matters pertaining to people’s honor and private lives.

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Notes: You can find more in “Egyptology without Egypt?!” more effects of neglecting what modern-day Egypt has to offer Egyptology. This video has another translation suggestion, regarding verb tenses, made more plausible by Stadler’s scholarly overview of interpreting the uses of the Negative Confession (Declaration of Innocence).

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Responses

  1. In my version of the Qur’an 74:45 says ‘But we used to talk vanities with vain talkers’. This says to me that one speaks of gossiping, and downgrading another for the mere reasoning of bringing onself up.

  2. Tafsir Ibn Kathir gives the translation as:

    “And we used to speak falsehood with vain speakers” and explains the meaning as `we used to speak about what we had no knowledge of.’ Qatadah said, “It means that every time someone went astray we would go astray with them.”

    This brings to mind an expression we have in English, which is “wading through murky waters” and which I believe means entering into something potentially dirty for which you have no real knowledge i.e. gossip, vain talk, scandal. The use of the descriptive “murky” provides a visual image of stepping into something which can’t be seen clearly and could lead to downfall. I tried to find the origin of this phrase but came up with nothing.

    Your post also brings to mind slander and defamation of character which are “sins” or crimes punishable by law.

    I would be very interested to see you write about moral codes which have been passed from one age to another under the guise of religious and/or social edicts and if we are being taught these as new standards of behaviour or if they are more of a reminder. Nature/Nurture.

  3. @Omniia: Many English translations use the expression vanity and vain to translate the wading verb in its figurative form. However, this does not sound right to my ear. The current usage does not fit, the imagery does not fit. Before I could reply to your comment Zakhak helped us with a little research, which covers most of what I was going to say and added a bit more. I will continue my response referring to that.

    @Zakhak: Translating Wading as “speaking falsehood” is very neutral because it is very general (falsehood could be lies, mockery, and many other things). However, the explanation after it coincides very nicely with the current usage of the word and what I was thinking: speech about things one does know about. Qatadah’s explanation introduces us to imagery; going astray is going somewhere other than the correct way, endangering oneself and risking getting lost away from the correct path.

    The expression you use “Wading through murky waters” and your explanation fits what I imagine was an Ancient Egyptian’s view of the water. Ancient Egyptians were not known to go into water for no reason. In fact, water was the image of chaos, and from it rose Hippopotamuses (associated to Set) that trampled agriculture and did nothing but bring the water’s chaos to land. Can we consider the crocodile’s jaws as the end result of the impious person in the Day of Judgement? That would show the association of Water.

    Wading is different from swimming, too. Wading implies you are not really at ease while moving. Cumbersome movement. And you are on your feet and moving with difficulty. While “murky” wasnt mentioned in the AE text, it still is the image I got; if it wasnt murky your wading would make it so.

    I will write the little I know about moral codes passed til today, but allow me to do it as part of a wider study of all we inherited.

    I think I understand but am not sure I get what you mean by Nature/Nurture, if you would elaborate.

    Thank you.

  4. Nature vs Nurture. Do certain things come naturally to us or are we taught them i.e. do humans lie naturally or are we taught to do this.

  5. Most good things we do naturally, most bad things we re taught 🙂

    I will write about that sure.. but for the time being, you know the Quran says if you are not taught anything at all you grow up as a Muslim? I will come back to this later too, but just thought to leave this in the oven till we can come back to it 🙂

  6. [Comment erased for being blatant advertising with unsupported claims of inherited Egyptian wisdom. I’m not happy with your site but I am leaving your link in case someone wants to check it out for themselves. You’re welcome.]


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