Translating Elvis into Sumerian

 

 Simo Parpola

 

The following lines contain brief answers to questions posed by a reporter of the Reuters news agency after the announcement of Doctor Ammondt's plan to publish a Sumerian CD back in 1999. They are reproduced here to satisfy the curiosity of others possibly asking similar questions. Further information on Sumerian and the Sumerians can be found at

www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac.uk,

www.sumerian.org/sumerian.htm,

and www-oi.uchicago.edu/OI/DEPT/RA/ABZU/ABZU.HTML.

Ammondt's Sumerian CD, Three Songs in Sumerian, was released during the course of the 47th Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Helsinki, in July 2001 by ViidheSallap Oy.

 

Q: Why Sumerian? Is it hard to translate modern lyrics into an ancient language? What were the difficulties?  What does Elvis sound like in Sumerian? What do Elvis and Sumerian have in common? I understand that Ammondt's first Elvis-in-Latin record was the brainchild of Professor Oksala. Is Sumerian Elvis your idea, and if so how did it come to you? How has the idea been received in the academic community? Or do you dare mention it?

 

I know little about the Sumerian language but would be interested in any background you could give me. The popular perception is that it is the world's oldest language, though I have read that some archeological findings show the world's oldest language may now be traced to Egypt. Is it still fair to call it the world's oldest language?

 

A: Why Sumerian? As far as I am concerned, mainly because it was both fun and a challenge! I attended the occasion marking the release of Ammondt's Rocking in Latin a few years ago and, impressed by the performance, asked him if he would be interested in going still farther back in time and do Elvis in either Assyrian or Sumerian. (I had earlier -- in 1995 -- collaborated with Reine Rimón and her Hot Papas in a similar enterprise, adapting a Sumerian hymn to Inanna and an Assyrian elegy to New Orleans Jazz, which succeeded quite well). He opted for Sumerian, and so it started.

 

I must admit translating Elvis into Sumerian was not easy, but it was an interesting experience, and I learned a lot in the process. The main difficulty was lexical: because of the great distance in time and hence differences in culture -- Sumerian became extinct as a spoken language about 1800 BC -- it was difficult to find Sumerian equivalents for certain modern concepts and words. For example, the Sumerians of course didn't have nylon socks, so I had to improvise and made it "cotton boots," šuhub gu. (I resolutely resisted the temptation to take the easy road and use modern words as loan words in Sumerian, which would have ruined the whole experiment). It took me some time to solve this problem, because there does not exist a dictionary where you could simply look these things up. The only modern dictionary of Sumerian, the Pennsylvania Sumerian Dictionary, ed. Å. Sjöberg (Sumerian-English, not English-Sumerian!), has not yet advanced beyond the letters A and B!

 

As a language, Sumerian bears some resemblance to English; most of the common words are mono- or bisyllabic, so there was no great difficulty in translating the texts from the viewpoint of rhythm or meter. Personally I think Elvis sounds quite nice and certainly quite interesting in Sumerian. There are some problems regarding the pronunciation, owing to the fact that Sumerian is a dead language. We know, for example, that the vowel transliterated as 'u' stood for both [u] and [o], but it has not yet been possible to determined when exactly it was pronounced [u] and when [o]. However, there are various ways of solving these problems (for  example, the study of Sumerian loanwords in Akkadian and vice versa, and the rendering of foreign names in Sumerian script) and I personally believe we are not terribly far from the original pronunciation in our reconstructions.

 

Elvis would have fitted just fine in the Sumerian society, for love songs and intoxicating music were important parts of the enormously popular cult of the goddess Inanna.

 

The news that Elvis is being translated into Sumerian seems to have created some commotion among my colleagues. I am of course looking forward with great amusement to their reactions after the publication of the record. It will be fun.

 

As for the antiquity of Sumerian, the first written records in Sumerian (hundreds of administrative documents dealing with revenues of temples and their distribution, written in pictographic script on clay tablets) date from about 3200 BC and certainly they are the earliest specimens of true writing known to date. The earliest specimens of Egyptian writing may come close to the same date, but as there is clear evidence of strong Sumerian cultural influence in predynastic Egypt, it is likely that the impulse that led to the appearance of writing in Egypt came from Mesopotamia. Of course, Sumerian was spoken in Mesopotamia (as Egyptian was spoken in Egypt) hundreds if not thousands of years before the invention of writing.