Andrew's Reviews > Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Gilgamesh by Anonymous
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's review
May 18, 2008

it was ok
Read in July, 2008

Gilgamesh, one of the oldest things in writing, is certainly a wonderful read for those who relish things old, such as myself. I'm lately attempting to give myself a belated sort of Classical education, and though Gilgamesh isn't exactly part of the Classical tradition, figuring it to be the oldest thing from the Ancient Near East/Mediterranean, I thought I'd give it a try. I was slightly disappointed though. The story itself is fine, with a great deal of resonant power--something the translator, Stephen Mitchell, does a good job of teasing out in his introduction--but having just finished the Odyssey and commencing on the Iliad, poor Gil felt rather anemic. The narrative is fragmentary, contradictory, and often sublimely weird, as when Enkidu throws the hindquarters of the Bull of Heaven in the goddess Ishtar's face. Nothing in Gilgamesh reaches the power or complexity of Homer, and that is why I was disappointed. Ultimately, the story seems more of a curiosity than a monument of literature. The remnants of oral tradition are strong and interesting to me. The flood narrative is certainly one of the most archaeologically intriguing passages in ancient literature. But as a powerful expression of the human condition, Gilgamesh is second-class. Sure, the narrative touches upon sexuality, power, and pride. But it ultimately says less than it could. Perhaps sensing this lack, Mitchell goes to great lengths to make the story relevant, ultimately seeing in it a moral lesson concerning American intervention in Iraq. His parallels are mildly interesting, but his analogy becomes tortured the further he pushes it. His move seems unnecessary and detrimental insofar as it will date his translation considerably. Not that dating a work is entirely bad--his reading of Gilgamesh is by the nature historically situated, and I believe he's smart enough recognize this--but he doesn't pull this move off well. He gives a postmodern reading of Gilgamesh that seems self-indulgent and at times a parody of postmodern criticism. Even more embarrassing, he quotes his wife, who appears to be some sort of spiritual pseudo-Buddhist, whom he cowrites with. This has the whiff of self-promotion to me. I'm further worried by Mitchell's tendency to translate rather loosely, as one can see in his Rilke translations. He admits that his Gilgamesh is nowhere near word-for-word and calls this a "version" not a translation. All in all, the book could have used far less from Mitchell and far more from Gilgamesh.
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Nikki Hmm. I've always thought that any translation takes on a lot of the interpretation of the translator (or compiler or adaptor or whatever word might be best to describe what Stephen Mitchell has done). Seamus Heaney's Beowulf is highly individual, if you read his translator's note, and he deliberately set out to have it be so. Heaney's Beowulf is not the same as one by any other translator. I really noticed it most myself when I was translating Wulf and Eadwacer (an Anglo-Saxon poem) -- some lines have four possible interpretations and you have to just pick one and then keep that interpretation consistent throughout the poem.

Literal translations tend to be awful, with no real poetry, and hard to understand.

Charlotte Sofia You should try Andrew George's version. I'm no expert, but I enjoyed it, and it came across as very faithful (but how would I know?). I have yet to read Homer, so I can't comment on the comparison, but I actually found Gilgamesh surprisingly rich -- seemingly the opposite of you. Maybe Homer will change my mind.

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