The Granddaddy of Epic Poetry

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).

A Disappointing “Translation”

Image result for Gilgamesh a verse narrativeTitle: Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative
Author: Unknown
Translator: Herbert Mason
Genre: Epic Poetry
Pages: 126
Rating: 2 of 5

The Gilgamesh Epic is the granddaddy of epic poetry, predating Homer by at least centuries and possibly millennia…and I am sad that this is the first version of it that I read. As I read about the deep friendship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu and the emotional devastation that death brings, I was quickly struck by the fact that the lengthy “talky” sections of the poem didn’t sound much like ancient thought. Obviously, the themes dealt with are universal but much of the wording and vocabulary (and the minimization of action sequences) was so modern as to make me question the accuracy of the translation. In the translator’s afterword it becomes apparent that this is indeed a very loose translation (bordering on selective retelling) that is primarily about trying to make you feel about this poem what the translator feels (and, by extension, what he thinks the original hearers felt). Personally, I strongly dislike this feeling-based “dynamic equivalence” model of translation and view the product of it as more of a commentary than an actual translation. I want to know what the ancient’s actually said, not what you think they felt!

Translation theory aside, Gilgamesh has a lot of interesting things going on. Some of the elements of the poem resemble accounts in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), most notably a flood/ark story (Genesis 6-9) and the possibility of Gilgamesh being identified with Nimrod (Genesis 10:8-12). The theme of Gilgamesh’s horror at Enkidu’s death that dominates most of the story grapples with universal themes of loss. Especially this time of year, it really shows the contrast between ancient (or atheistic) concepts of the afterlife (or lack thereof) and the “living hope” provided by the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Christianity. Now I really have to go find a translation that tries to faithfully translate the words. (and for any of you Trekkies out there: “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra”)

Oh, and I’m using this as my “Pre-1800 Classic” for the Back to Classics Challenge.