Title: Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Author: Unknown
“Translator”: Stephen Mitchell
Genre: Ancient Narrative Poetry
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

Last year I read a version of the Gilgamesh Epic by Herbert Mason that amounted to a heavily edited retelling. I found it disappointing because there was no way of knowing the actual extent of the author’s editing and personal interpretation (a review of that version can be found here).

The main text of this version was similarly functional (thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word), as Stephen Mitchell is working off other people’s word-for-word English translations rather than consulting the ancient languages himself. However, he is careful to note where his text becomes especially interpretive. In copious endnotes he carefully cites which specific versions of the epic he is working off in a given section and provides a woodenly literal translation of difficult passage where he resorted to heavy paraphrasing or speculation. To me, this made all the difference in the world…I now feel like I have read a valid translation of Gilgamesh, not just some scholar’s “here’s what I think you should get out of this” paraphrase.

Along with translation notes, Mitchell offers commentary on the cultural setting, comparison to stories found in Genesis, and similar background. I question some of his interpretations at this point, but found much of it to be helpful as well.

If you’re not the kind of person who is into scholarly footnotes, I think that this is still a great version for reading the poem itself. You get a feel for the broad Gilgamesh tradition (including some of the bemusing and inconsistent bits “smoothed out” [i.e. omitted] by Mason) and Mitchell’s phrasing captures the great emotional depth in the timeless friendship and loss of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in a way that doesn’t come across well in a woodenly literal translations. Don’t expect a happy story. Mitchell aptly refers to this as “the epic of the fear of death,” and to me its despair over human mortality offers a sobering contrast to the “living hope” found in Christianity.

**Addendum: I forgot to mention that in the lengthy introduction Mitchell practically tells the whole story of the poem mixed in with his cultural commentary, so depending on your preferences you may want to read the poem and then come back to the introduction (or skip it entirely since a lot of the most important info is repeated in the endnotes in more concise form).

5 thoughts on “The Granddaddy of Epic Poetry

  1. Gteat review. I’ve been meaning to read Gilgamesh for some time, and I would be interested to explore some of the comparisons to the Genesis stories.

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    1. Thanks! the most obvious Genesis comparison is the universal flood story…including the man in the boat releasing a raven and a dove/pigeon to test and see if the water had gone down. Another possible parallel is to identify Gilgamesh (king of Uruk known for monster-slaying and living a few generations after the flood) with Nimrod (king of Uruk, “a mighty hunter before the LORD,” and living a few generations after the flood).

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  2. I’m trying to finish up another Malazan Book of the Fallen at the moment so I don’t think I have any room on my plate for a non-happy ending book.

    However, in a couple of years I would like to tackle this beast so I’m glad to see you reading various translations/editions so I have some idea of where to go or what to avoid.

    Do you think you’ll read any other translations? It sounds like this one worked well enough for you so you won’t be pursuing this any more but figured I’d better ask.

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    1. I gave up on Malazan…Cook’s Black Company is dark enough for me (and, aside from the recent sub-par entry doesn’t usually contain deliberate obfuscation).

      Gilgamesh is actually relatively short. Somewhere between half and two-thirds of the page count in this edition is introduction and notes and the poem is in large, widely-spaced typeface on the remaining pages.

      If I come across another edition cheap or in a library I might pick it up, but I have no immediately plans for hunting down another one. I may eventually try to find one that is a little more formal since both of the ones I have read were extremely functional (to the point of being paraphrase). It’s so hard to find the “sweet spot” on the formal-functional spectrum when it comes to poetry. In translating poetry there’s a much bigger tradeoff between precision and artistry than there is in prose.

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      1. Can’t blame you at all for giving up on Malazan. If it weren’t for Esslemont’s latest Ascendant trilogy, I’d be giving up on it as well. I am giving up on Erikson after this re-read through though.

        Good to know about other Gilgamesh editions and you. I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to review another 😉

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