In a small room filled with old books at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, professor Meakh Bora and two volunteers have a hefty task ahead of them.
Their mission is to translate ancient stone inscriptions from temples across the country into a modern Khmer dictionary for future generations.
Mr Bora, who is head of inscriptions at the Royal Academy’s Institute of National Language, is working with a team of about ten researchers to translate the ancient Khmer script, which dates from between the sixth and 16th century.
“My working team is collecting data to compile the dictionary,” he said. “They are studying the script meticulously and inputting it into computers in modern Khmer language.”
The team has had to create digital versions of ancient Khmer fonts, as well as translate old words into modern Khmer.
Mr Bora, who is already using two computers simultaneously, switches on a third and connects a cable to a projector, so he can show off some of the ancient Khmer letters created by the team’s fonts technician.
“We have followed the vowels and consonants seen on the stone inscriptions,” he said.
The team worked closely with IT experts to get the ancient fonts as close to the original form as possible, he added. “This dictionary is for the next generation of researchers, who will be able to study the roots of Khmer literature through modern technology,” Mr Bora said.
In the past, researchers translated ancient Khmer inscriptions into French or English, but none had ever created modern Khmer versions of the historical texts.
The new digital dictionary will make it easier for Cambodian children to study their heritage.
“I am continuing professor Long Seam’s work to make a dictionary translating ancient Khmer to modern Khmer language,” Mr Bora said.
“We have already drafted about 50 percent of it, but we still have a lot of work and corrections to do.”
Mr Bora collaborated with Mr Seam on the project for several years, until his death in 2007. Since then, he has taken forward the work with the help of his team.
The move to compile the dictionary has been lauded as a step forward for Khmer literature and a boost to the next generation of researchers.
You Sophea, a Khmer literature lecturer at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said the dictionary would be vital to Khmer literature and history researchers.
“It will make it easier for both national and international researchers who want to study Khmer literature, history or ancient culture, because the previous documents were only translated into French or English, which risked losing the meaning of the original language,” he said.
He said the dictionary would allow both foreigners and Cambodian people to gain a deeper understanding of Khmer culture.
Bin Socheat, a former Khmer literature student from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said he hoped the dictionary would help the next generation of researchers to understand the roots of the nation’s culture and history.
“This will benefit researchers, because Khmer script has evolved for many generations, and ordinary students do not currently study it,” he said.
The work of compiling the dictionary is not an easy task.
One particular challenge, Mr Bora said, was finding the meaning behind words that have no obvious modern translation.
“It is difficult, but we are still trying to do it,” he said. “In cases where we cannot translate a word, we will compile what we know and let the next generation of researchers add to our work.”
Mr Bora puts on his glasses and searches for a book to show a photo of one such puzzling stone inscription. He points to the ancient letters.
“I still can’t find what this means,” he said. “But we will keep investigating.”
Once the dictionary is finished, Mr Bora hopes foreign researchers will be interested in learning more about Cambodian culture.
His aim is to spread knowledge of Khmer culture around the world, and that goal edged a step closer in December with the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Royal Academy of Cambodia and a university in South Korea.
The deal will focus on research and study exchanges for students and teachers from the two countries.
Royal Academy president Sok Touch said many Korean researchers want to learn Khmer, and plans are afoot to translate historical Khmer documents into Korean language.
Mr Touch said the Korean researchers are particularly interested in learning about the inscriptions at the famous Angkor Wat temple complex, which were written in Sanskrit.
Without knowledge of Khmer, researchers and academics will be unable to get underneath the skin of ancient Cambodian culture, he added.
Mr Touch believes the publication of Mr Bora’s dictionary will open up Khmer culture to the world.
But budget for the project is uncertain and there is much to do before it will be available to the public.
Mr Bora is undeterred: “The work of compiling the dictionary will take another three years. I expect it will be nearly 2,000 pages long. If all goes well, it will be completed and published by 2021.”