Sunday, November 8, 2015

Gilgamesh Translations

When I chose to read Epic of Gilgamesh, I had a difficult time choosing which translation to use. Did I want a prose translation which flowed freely instead of showing me all the sections that were questionable and fragmented? Did I want a translation which showed me how the tablets were separated and where the fragments were? Luckily, I had access to both types of translation, and read both of them. In addition, I also listened to an adaptation of the various translations. There were pros and cons of each approach. 

English version with an introduction by N. K. Sandars

This just happened to be sitting on my dad's bookshelf, so I snatched it up. It's a prose translation which separates the narrative into six "chapters:" Prologue, The Coming of Enkidu, The Forest Journey, Ishtar and Gilgamesh and the Death of Enkidu, The Search for Everlasting Life, The Story of the Flood, The Return, and The Death of Gilgamesh. In addition, this included a lengthy introduction. Of the written translations, I admit to enjoying this one more than the verse translation. Although it is important to some people (especially scholars) to see what portions of the text are questionable and where the fragments are, I don't think that information is important to my enjoyment of the story. To me, the important part is to understand the meaning of the story. So this translation was quite enjoyable. 

The Norton Critical Edition
Translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster
This translation was in the "original" eleven tablet format - as it was discovered (in part) in the library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh. Like the translation by Sandars, this book had a lengthy introduction, but it also had footnotes and a lot of supplementary sources. There were several translations of related stories (also discovered in tablet format), and there were essays written by Gilgamesh experts. Thus, although I found the [...] and question marks indicating fragmented and questionable translation disruptive, I found the supplementary information in this book well worth reading. So this book was just as valuable to me as the Sandars translation. 

The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels
by Alexander Heidel
I wasn't a huge fan of this translation, though it's a classic that many scholars use as one of their base translations. It, like the Foster translation, is in fragmented verse. Only, it didn't have the annotations. And the typeset in my book was difficult to read. I'd say the benefit of reading this book rather than the Norton Critical Edition is that it is a classic translation and includes Heidel's analysis about Old Testament parallels. 

Stephen Mitchell's adaptation of Gilgamesh Epic -
adapted from several translations in English
Read by George Guidall
Wow. This reading was fantastic. I want to get every audiobook ever read by Guidall - and he's narrated a lot. What's interesting about this book is that it is not a translation of Gilgamesh. Nor does Mitchell claim to be a Gilgamesh scholar. He simply wanted to bring to life the story in powerful language rather than stilted precise translation. Therefore, he used every English translation he could get his hands on, and adapted them into a powerful verse epic. No changes were made to the story. Trust me. I would have noticed after reading two different translations of the story. There were only a few times where I felt that the language was unfitting to either of the translations I read - he tended to use more shocking (rude) words than the other two translations. 

I read a criticism of this adaptation which complained that it inappropriately made the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu homoerotic - but the possible implication of homosexual love between the two was present in both of the other translations I read. I think it may have been more evident in this adaptation because of the powerful language Mitchell used. But it was not inappropriate given the context. He was just taking the story that was there and conveying it with powerful words rather than exact translation. 

So which of these books would I suggest you read? Depends on what you want to get out of it. Do you want to just read and get the gist of the story? I'd go with the Mitchell adaptation - audiobook if possible, but that's not necessary. The Sandars translation is also quite readable. If you want precision in fragments or a lot of analysis essays, go for the Norton Critical Edition. 

This is a series of posts about The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here is a list of all posts thus far: 


  1. I think that I have read the Foster translation.

    I am finding that picking the correct translation is so important. I did something with my latest read of Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. I gathered several translations and though I had a primary translation that I read every word of, I read parts of all the versions. The comparison was so very interesting.

    1. Yeah, translations are very important. Especially in a case like this where it is so fragmented so scenes are open to interpretation. It was fun to read three versions.