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.

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9 thoughts on “A Disappointing “Translation”

    1. They’re both the “semi-divine” tyrant king of Uruk (among other places) reigning within a few generations of the great flood (3 for Nimrod, 5 for Gilgamesh) and known for hunting prowess (“a mighty hunter” for Nimrod, slayer of Humbaba and the Bull of Heaven for Gilgamesh). I haven’t studied it enough to see if there are other connections…I think the identification of the two is a pretty common hypothesis, but don’t know how much scholarly support it has.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I was going to ask the same thing. I read Gilgamesh for an undergrad class, but I didn’t remember hearing about the connections to Nimrod. Great review, thanks!

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      2. I’m pretty sure it has been held by at least a few respectable archaeologist types, but their analysis tend to get buried under some pretty kooky speculation and extrapolation (at least if you are doing research on the internet).

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Let me know if you find a good one. Poetry is always hard to translate – I look for that balance between formal and functional that doesn’t completely destroy artistry or obscure authorial intent. If you ever want to read Norse poetry, Lee Hollander is the way to go

      Liked by 1 person

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