The Third Translation

A Novel


By Matt Bondurant

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An ancient mystery, a hidden language, and the secrets of a bizarre Egyptian sect collide in modern-day London in this ingenious novel of seduction, conspiracy, and betrayal alter Rothschild is an American Egyptologist living in London and charged by the British Museum with the task of unlocking the ancient riddle of the Stela of Paser, one of the last remaining real-life hieroglyphic mysteries in existence today. The secrets of the stela-a centuries-old funerary stone-have evaded scholars for thousands of years due to the stela’s cryptic reference to a third translation:


Who does not regard with reverence an aged tree, which a thousand years ago, beheld generations long since passed from the earth, sitting in its shade? . . . Who can pass without emotion through the silent streets of Pompeii, which once resounded with the bustle of the forum and the song of sailors?

. . . It cannot be denied, that every man regards whatever is ancient, with a certain interest and reverence. And why does he do so? These ancient things, be they beautiful or ugly, complete or fragmentary, lustrous or encrusted with filth, speak to every one that beholds them. Ay, antiquities speak. We hear their language distinctly, not with the outward ear, but with an inner sense, with which the Creator has endowed us . . . And what is it, that these monuments of antiquity have to say to us?

Their language is: Consider, how young you are compared with those bygone generations, whose contemporaries we have been! Bethink you, how soon you will disappear from the series of living things, without leaving behind you any such monuments of your existence! A different world has been on earth before you!

—GUSTAVUS SEYFFARTH, Summary of Recent Discoveries in Biblical Chronology, Universal History, and Egyptian Archeology

The wisest sages of Egypt [ . . . ] in order to designate things with wisdom do not use designs of letters, which develop into courses and propositions, and which represent sounds and words; instead they use designs of images, each of which stands for a distinct thing; and it is these that they sculpt onto their temples [ . . . ] Every incised sign is thus, at once, knowledge, wisdom, a real entity captured in one stroke.

—PLOTINUS, in the Enneads (V. 8 5-6)

The discovery that, by combining different hieroglyphs, evocative visual emblems might be created inspired these last scribes to experiment with increasingly complicated and abstruse combinations. In short, these scribes began to formulate a sort of kabbalistic play, based, however, on images rather than on letters. Around the term represented by a sign (which was given an initial phonetic reading) there formed a halo of visual connotations and secondary sense, a sort of chord of associated meanings which served to amplify the original semantic range of the term. The more the sacred text was enhanced by its exegetes, the more the conviction grew that they expressed buried truths and lost secrets (Sauneron 1957: 123-7).

Thus, to the last priests of a civilization sinking into oblivion, hieroglyphs appeared as a perfect language.

(of Kircher and his attempts to decipher hieroglyphs before the Rosetta Stone):

The hieroglyphic configuration had become a sort of machine to the inducing of hallucinations which then could be interpreted in any possible way.

—UMBERTO ECO, The Search for the Perfect Language


THIS MORNING I’M THINKING about the shape of a man’s life, the chiseled arrangement, the pigments and textures. The way in the end it comes together to project a phantom in the mind of another, a smoky trail seen over the shoulder. The image of Alan Henry is stronger than any idea, and to this day I can still see him, bursting into our flat that night like a loosed rhino. The image of Mick Wheelhouse isn’t quite so sharp, dim around the edges, like brittle papyrus.

I know that I remember them this way because of the part I played in their deaths. This was in London, the end of October 1997. I had a week left on my contract with the British Museum to solve the cryptographic riddle of the Stela of Paser. My daughter, whom I’d abandoned at a young age and whom I hadn’t seen in three years, was due to arrive in London in a matter of days.

Alan Henry said we had to go out that night, that we had to meet this new friend of his. I was looking forward to a quiet night on the battered love seat with Gardiner’s work on the Twelfth Dynasty Hymns of Sobek, but Alan Henry was not one to be obstructed by the passive pursuits of Egyptology. He wore a white T-shirt and a green fishing vest, and his boots looked like something from the circus, freakishly large and a gleaming, deep blue. My flatmate Mick was in his Y-fronts, frying a pan of sausages on our hot plate. He spat into the sink, fingered his thin hair into a ponytail and laid a staggering raft of Arabic curses on Alan and his family. But Mick put some pants on. I was trying to find my wallet in a stack of dirty laundry.

Mick Wheelhouse was my colleague at the British Museum, an Egyptologist and translator born and raised in England. Mick usually tagged along whenever Alan came by, complaining most of the time and fingering his prayer votives. Mick and Alan were both just young kids barely over twenty. I was forty-six years old then, still in the thick heart of my career as an Egyptologist and cryptographic translator.

Alan Henry had to duck his head slightly because of the way the ceiling sloped in our tiny flat. He was a giant man, over six and a half feet tall with hands like bunches of bananas. Alan Henry wore large, squared glasses with thick black frames, and he commonly referred to himself as “a scholar and a gentleman.” He put his hand on my shoulder and regarded the scaled-up copies of the Stela of Paser I had on the wall. They covered one whole side of the apartment; the other walls were papered with copies of glosses of the Stela and my hand-drawn charts of the transliterations, as well as some of Champollion’s tables.

Ah, yes! he said. Fascinating stuff. But let’s move! He waved his massive arms at Mick, who was scowling into his pot at the stove and whispering into his small carved wooden-ear votive of Deir el-Bahri. He held it up to his mouth like a tiny secret telephone. Whatever he was saying, it wasn’t complimentary.

Before we left the flat Mick had to pack away his stylus and clay tablets, wrapping each carefully in wax paper to keep them damp. The floor was always covered with shavings because Mick carved his own styluses, the reeds imported from Cairo. Mick’s specialty and true interest lay in hieratic and demotic scripts, which are essentially the shorthand or cursive forms of hieroglyphics. He was an expert on troublesome translations, from just about any period, and Dr. Klein brought him here two years ago from Cambridge to tackle the Stela of Paser, but like the others before him he had come up with nothing. Now there was me.

Our excursions with Alan usually started this way; he was always discovering some fascinating or important figure we had to meet. Once, Alan’s friend was an old New Zealand rugby legend, another time it was a German nuclear scientist who claimed to have his own personal satellite. He tried to show it to us from the vantage point of an alley in Mayfair.

See? he said, pointing into the vague, yellow-gray London night. That one there.

I saw a few specks of light, but nothing seemed to be moving.

That one? I pointed up in the general area of a few white dots.

No, not zat one, zat one!

I’m not one to find much fascination in eccentric behavior, though my ex-wife used to claim I did. Yet while it seemed that he was always bursting into our flat and dragging us out somewhere, I liked having Alan Henry for a friend. He was still just a kid and always fired up about something.

Alan Henry lived down the hall in our old Georgian row house one block from Tottenham Court Road, in Bloomsbury, London. Alan was a writer from North Dakota doing a book about a secret failed Canadian moon-shot mission in the late fifties. I still have no real idea why he was in London to do this. He did enjoy lurking in the new British Library, doing research, reading dusty hermetic religious texts, esoteric mysticism, and theoretical physics. That’s where I first met him.

A minute later we were following Alan’s booming feet as we stumbled down the seven flights of stairs to the street. Great Russell Street ended to the west into Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street, the busiest intersection in all of London. The streets were thronged at this hour, teeming with tourists and locals all out for a night on the town. It was the kind of area that, much like Times Square in New York, attracts crowds who come to see the crowds. And then there is the whole left/right thing. An Englishman will want to walk to the left of course, but since a full half of the people on the streets are tourists who want to go right, what you are left with is a complete muddle of head fakes and dance steps as the opposing crowds attempt to sift through one another. Alan Henry just bulled his way through the milling bodies and stomped across Oxford Street with Mick and me in his wake, heading into Soho. The theatre crowds were just letting out, the Dominion Theatre on the corner was running Les Miserables and the tourists were thicker than desert flies. The night was cold with the kind of dampness that somehow, despite waterproofed and insulated footwear, manages to seep into your shoes and roost deep in the knuckles and sockets of your joints. It was the peculiar kind of English cold that never leaves you, the kind of cold that wakes you up in the pale hours of the morning, huddling under a rough tent of four blankets, to inspect your bluing toes with blind, numb fingers. The kind of itching, irritating cold that might drive you to conquer and colonize the far corners of the globe.

Along the way Alan told us that this guy he wanted us to meet was a favorite author of his, whom he happened to bump into in a bar. The next Salman Rushdie, he said. Believe it.

Alan Henry was always going on about some new writer. As we walked he was swigging from a huge flask he kept with him at all times in his vest pocket. He passed it to me and I took a slug. The gin warmed from his body sank into my chest like hot sand. The flask was engraved with a picture of a jaunty old British sailor and the words: HMS Valiant. Mick sniffed it suspiciously as Alan waved it under his nose, then took a grimacing sip.

Oxford Street was especially crowded as a large semicircle of people had gathered around the entrance to the Virgin record superstore to catch a glimpse of some American professional wrestlers who were apparently shopping. Alan was a big fan of this particular sport.

It’s the modern Roman arena, he said, swiveling his bristled, boxlike head, except we’re more civilized. We’ve distanced ourselves from the violence, made it cartoonish and unreal. The cultural feed bag for the great unwashed masses. Just like Elizabethan theatre.

Gutter poetry, Mick muttered, flicking his cigarette ash.

That surprised me. I didn’t think Mick gave a damn about anything, other than industrial-strength insecticides and his secretive translations and mutterings. But I was wrong about a lot of things then.

Crowds in that area of the West End aren’t so unusual; various famous people occasionally shopped around the intersection of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford, the gateway to Soho, and they often drew huge crowds. We plowed through the craning throng and made our way down Frith Street. When we reached Soho Square, Alan took a couple of skipping steps and started doing slow, heavy cartwheels through the cigarette-butt grass of the tiny square, his bulky frame rotating like a wagon wheel. He did at least six in a row, spinning through the shadows of the pitiful, choked trees staked out with wires. Mick and I trotted after him to keep up. The dark places of Soho Square were filled at night with groups of paired men, pants around their ankles, embracing madly under the stunted elms and the dim light of London stars, and they clutched knees and shoulders in fright as Alan rolled through to the other side and into the street where he rounded off his last turn with a whoop and a deep bow. Alan burned like a torch in the night. He was excited for us to meet his new friend, and remembering him now, how I wish I could see him like that again.

I think that maybe I was their last hope, the last chance the museum and Dr. Klein had to get the Stela solved. I was perfectly happy out in Abu Roash, just outside Cairo, working on a dig with an Italian group who liked my work when Klein cabled me from London. In those days I was just wandering around to wherever a translator specializing in Egyptian cryptography and paleography was needed. I guess you could say I had little ambition, at least in terms of prestige or money. I was getting to the point in my life when I really should have been thinking of settling into something, something with some kind of security and retirement. But it never seemed like it would end.

I know Mick resented the fact that the board stuck me in his flat on Great Russell Street, three blocks from the museum. The Bloomsbury area of London is extremely expensive and open flats are rare, so the board had to scrimp a bit to make it work. I didn’t mind the cramped living arrangements too much because the perks were huge: unlimited access to the British Museum, day or night, with the most extensive collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world, guaranteed publication and a bonus for solving the Stela of Paser, not to mention a chance to work independently on one of the last remaining cryptographic puzzles of the ancient world.

Though our flat was like a matchbox. Mick and I shared a bedroom, and when I sat up and swung my legs off the narrow bed, my knees touched the edge of Mick’s mattress. You had to leave the bathroom door open to sit down on the toilet. The roof was steeply sloped because we were in an attic space, and to get to the one small window in the narrow rectangle that was our living room you had to get down on your hands and knees. It had been built for diminutive seventeenth-century Englishmen, not massive, sprawling Americans like Alan Henry or chubby types like myself. Mick was small enough, built like a reed quill, or the wandering-snake hieroglyph that curls over the moon. Still, I didn’t mind. I’ve never been comfortable with even slightly extravagant lodgings. We never spent any time there anyway; we practically lived in our lab with the Stela.

The surviving fragment of the Stela of Paser is 112 centimeters by 85 centimeters, a large section of the original slablike limestone monument, the kind often set up in tombs or temples. It’s essentially shaped like a gravestone, and our conception of the gravestone comes from this Egyptian form. It has a deeply incised frieze of deities along the top, with the rest of the tablet covered in a grid of incised lines, each square containing one hieroglyphic symbol, sixty-seven squares wide and eighty squares deep. We know this based on calculations, as a good portion of the bottom section is worn beyond recognition, the edges are shattered and incomplete, and a large fissure runs diagonally from bottom left to top right, rending the piece in two parts. Much like the Rosetta Stone, only about two-thirds of the text is available.

There is also a name or signature in the top corner, identifying the author as one “Paser, True-of-Voice.” True-of-voice is an ancient Egyptian epithet referring to judgment after death, indicating the person as deceased. For the ancient Egyptians, only in death comes the power of truth; the ultimate power was the ability to cross back and forth over the two lands of life and death. With this title Paser was claiming the knowledge of the dead, an understanding of the other side of life as well as this one.

The top line of text that lies outside the grid reads like a title or set of instructions. It reads: As for this writing, it is to be read three times. Its like has not been seen before, heard since the time of the God. It is set up in the temple of Mut, Lady of Isheru, for eternity like the sun, for all time. That’s the easy part. It’s the “three times” that throws us off, because we can only read the text in two ways at this point, horizontally and vertically. The other obvious possibilities, like backward and diagonal, have been tried and proved unsuccessful. Mick spent three months trying to put together a gloss of the outer ring of the Stela and came up with nonsense. Most of it is a direct hymn to the goddess Mut, an obscure figure in the Egyptian pantheon, popular among ancient Egyptians but little studied in modern scholarship. She is mostly referred to as some sort of moon goddess, often contained in what Egyptologists call “crossword pieces” like the Stela of Paser, due to their physical resemblance to crossword puzzles, though in fact they look much more akin to a “word find” game.

The truth is I’d been working on the Stela for a few months and produced nothing. All the other translating work for the British Museum had been offloaded to Mick, to allow me to concentrate fully on this one project. Mick had been working almost exclusively on the cursive scripts since the board took him off the Stela. That was the easy work; anything past the Third Intermediate period was child’s play to any Egyptologist worth his gypsum. But there were lots of cursive and funerary hieratic scripts laying about the museum, and Dr. Klein’s desk was stacked with documents and requests from museums from Cairo to Berlin for translations.

Mick had a lot of these projects already laid out on our shared worktable in the lab in the basement of the British Museum, covering most of it with his guides and script keys. I didn’t mind since I had most of my guides and grids pinned on the walls. I had large-scale reproductions taped everywhere, with colored sections marking certain aspects and grammar, plus my handwritten sheets on either side listing all the possible determinatives and other notes. In our lab the Stela itself was fixed to an iron stand, angled like a drafting desk, with a wire grid that I’d rigged up on the front surface. Each symbol was in its own box and marked with note tabs, numbered and outlining consonant shifts and bilaterals. I was better able to study the possible patterns this way. I preferred to work standing up and pacing, which drove Mick mad. He worked on one of the tall stools, perched like a water bird flipping his papers back and forth between his fingers as he tried to work out the ligatures. I’d never spent this long on a single piece before; most pieces of this size I could knock out in a month tops—give or take a few extra days for the poetic translations and possible transliterations, if they wanted them.

Our lab was bigger than our whole apartment, and we had it all to ourselves, just the two of us and the Stela.

That night in late October Alan Henry brought us to the Lupo Bar in Soho, West Central London, a tight, deeply cushioned place with a plaque hanging out front depicting Romulus and Remus suckling the she-wolf. We found Alan’s writer sitting on a couch set in one of the back rooms. He had a young woman draped on his shoulder. It was the usual Soho crowd: young, carefully coifed, and clad in black. I was probably the only guy in London who habitually wore a pea-green corduroy jacket and slacks. Alan thumped off for the bar so I took it upon myself to do introductions.

I’m Walter Rothschild, I said. And this fellow, I said pointing at Mick, is Dr. Mick Wheelhouse.

We pumped hands and said English sorts of things like cheers and right and brilliant and then sat down. Alan brought over a rack of double gin and tonics with a plate of lime wedges. The writer was a rumpled Anglo-Pakistani named Hanif and his lady friend was called Erin. She had a round elfin head and spiky black hair with purple tips like a crown. Slight like a boy in her stretch pants, with a tight, long-sleeved black top that formed around each individual breast like a mold. A sharp nose and lips painted maroon. I’d seen lots of girls like her around in West Central London. She was a Soho queen to be sure.

I drank off most of my glass right away. I got nervous around new people, particularly friends of Alan Henry. It was never quite clear when the shouting would begin and I wanted to be adequately numbed. The gin tasted like clear electricity and popped blue lights in my eyes, deepening the music’s pulse into a comforting, though rapidly increasing beat. I didn’t have a particular attraction to booze, but sometimes it helped to stifle the process of translation and interpretation, which, after twenty years of training, almost perpetually occurs in my head. It can be a problem sometimes.

Hanif was a swarthy fellow with a wild head of curly jet black hair. I’m pretty sure he was already stinking drunk when we got there. I’d never heard of him, but then I don’t know much about writers, or at least writers of this millennium. I could tell you all about the rich poetry of the twelfth-century B.C. scribe Tjaroy or the lyrical prose of Amennakht, son of Ipuy, but not much about anybody after the Arab conquest in A.D. 641. Alan said Hanif was supposed to be something special, a hot writer who was part of the new wave of Pakistani neo-post-colonialism that was sweeping Britain and the U.S.

Hanif said he met Erin last week “on holiday.” She offered us some cigarettes in a silver case and I took one. I noticed she had three fresh packs of cigarettes stacked on the table as well. I’m about as ambivalent toward cigarettes as I am toward alcohol, but I did like the shifting shapes of smoke. Hanif began enthusiastically lecturing us on the merits of British women versus Pakistani, his eyes squared and his lips flecked with spittle.

The modern British woman, he slurred, is the perfect construction of decadent sensuality and imperialist fascism. She has no regrets or pretense of altruism. Decades of selective breeding have produced a singular race of such inept spiritual fortitude, braced only by the technology gap, which they use to hold sway over the developing world.

Alan seemed to hang on his every word, nodding his head and smacking the table with his palm to punctuate Hanif’s points.

She wears ridiculous silk knickers to bed, Hanif continued, then immediately dives for the crotch, insatiable. Yet she insists that you take off your socks, even if it’s bloody freezing in the flat!

Bollocks, I heard Mick mutter under his breath.

What is to be done? shrieked Hanif, sweeping his arm and clearing the table of drink glasses and ashtrays, sending them shattering across the floor.

I watched Mick eyeing the tight curve of Erin’s folded legs. She was curled up against Hanif, her eyes almost closed as he rambled on at a frenetic pace. Erin nodded and smoked, and when Alan came back with more drinks, she sat up quickly and downed her glass, sucked on the lime wedge for a moment and went back to Hanif’s shoulder with a contented look. She looked supremely relaxed. Her eyes blinked slowly, languidly. The liquid in our glasses shook with the thumping bass of the music, something eerie and intricately syncopated.

Then Alan explained what it was Mick and I did for a living, though I don’t think Hanif was ever quite clear on it. But Erin started asking me questions about my work.

Normally I’d be scared to death of a woman like Erin. She was young and beautiful. But I was feeling the gin coursing through my arms and legs. So I slouched in the deep velvet cavity of my chair and started telling her about the Stela of Paser, but somehow ended up talking about my daughter, Zenobia, and her mother, Helen.

Zenobia’s mother was a musician I met while I was at Berkeley. Helen was the first-chair cellist for the San Francisco Symphony for seven years. Now she gives private lessons and teaches at a boarding school. I can’t say that our marriage, short as it was, or our falling in love, was accidental or tragic. But I didn’t see it coming. I was just admiring the way a good cellist can stretch a note, so unlike the sharp concise quality of other instruments, like the piano. Helen played Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 for her thesis recital, and sitting in the front row of the auditorium I felt for the first and last time the truest stirrings of something like love, or as close as I could get to it.

It’s true I should have known better. I work in lost time, in the lasting binds of history. I am surrounded by monuments and records of time and loyal remembrance. Three years after that recital I was away at a dig in Syria dusting off a bit of papyrus, looking for an inscription when I realized I didn’t want to go back. I remember sitting in the desert at night and looking back at my home, the little white walk-up we had in North Beach with a small, common atrium space in back, lined with brick paths around roughly trimmed topiary, where Helen would practice afternoons and the group of elderly Italian ladies next door and across the way would clasp their hands together and shower her with gardenia petals. She would play little cuts of Verdi sometimes and the ladies cooed like swallows in the fading light. I remember standing with my daughter clutching my finger in her tiny baby fist like it was an anchor to this earth. The sour, earthy smell of her chubby body. And I knew I shouldn’t have been there, it should have been someone else in my place.

I’d only seen my daughter twice in the last six years. I saw her briefly a few years ago in New York and she stopped by my Princeton apartment for a night in 1991, when she was on her way to New Hampshire for a Grateful Dead show. Zenobia was a junior at Mount Holyoke then, studying English literature. She had two guys with her, skinny fellows with long hair and smelling strongly of incense and body odor, and they smoked pot all night. I made spaghetti and bread with some Chianti I brought back from Italy. She treated me almost like a stranger, and I guess I deserved it. I sat there in a chair while they smoked and talked and tried not to look at her too much. The two guys seemed to think what I did was interesting, but Zenobia just rolled her eyes whenever I spoke. Several times she deliberately mocked me, making fun of my current life, being deliberately cruel to me. But I didn’t say anything about it. I wanted to do the right thing.

I went to bed at about two in the morning, and I woke just about an hour later to the sound of my daughter screaming. I was halfway down the hall in my underwear before I realized it was the sounds of the three of them having sex. I went back to my room and standing there in the dark I concentrated on the hanging icicles outside my window. I felt dust collecting around my bare feet on the cold floor. I was beginning to understand the stillness of age and the slow slipping of time. I want to say that I wept all night, and that in the morning I begged for her forgiveness and we were reborn. But I didn’t. For most of the night I looked at the faint city stars from my window and pieced together my own constellations, Horus, Ra, Seth, Amun, Helen, even my daughter. She had a place there, faint but still part of the order.

In the morning they were gone and a note was stuck to the fridge that said:

Thanks for the food and couch space.

Miss you.


That’s when I wept.


On Sale
Apr 6, 2005
Page Count
400 pages
Hachette Books

Matt Bondurant

About the Author

Matt Bondurant began working on this novel while living and working in London, and finished it while employed at the British Museum, where he first saw the actual Stela of Paser and learned of its elusive and mysterious third translation. A professor at George Mason University and two-time Bread Loaf scholarship winner, his short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, the New England Review, and numerous other publications. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Learn more about this author