Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gilgamesh in translation

In my mailbox not long ago appeared a brochure from The Free Press, publisher of Stephen Mitchell's 2006 translation of Gilgamesh. Along with the usual rave reviews (Harold Bloom's is quoted twice), there is, more interestingly, a gathering of well-known English versions of the poem's first lines—from N.K. Sandars (1960), Herbert Mason (1970), and David Ferry (1992). "Compare the same passage as translated in other versions," the brochure says, "to Mitchell's clearly rendered and striking lyricism."

I like the publisher's willingness to put this new translation up against the competition. I like clearly rendered and striking lyricism too. And I prefer Mitchell's version of these lines to Mason's and Ferry's. But I still prefer N.K. Sandars' prose rendering, which is itself not a fresh translation but a "straightforward narrative," as she calls it, synthesized from various source materials. Here's Sandars:

I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.
And Mitchell (the ends of lines one, two, four, and five are indented so as to accommodate various font sizes):
He had seen everything, he had experienced all
from exaltation to despair, he had been granted a
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood. He had
to the ends of the earth and made his way back,
but whole.
My thoughts about these lines don't have to do with fidelity to fragmentary cuneiform texts. I'm thinking instead about the ways in which each version gives a reader (most likely a high-school or college student) ways to engage the narrative. Here Sandars' version has at least three advantages. It foregrounds the role of the poet as memorializer and cultural spokesman; it shows Gilgamesh as the bringer of knowledge to his people ("he brought us a tale"); and it makes good use of biblical repetition, drawing the reader into the context of an ancient story.

Mitchell's version, in contrast, seems lacking. To my ears, the first line has the overblown tone of a movie-trailer voiceover. The reference to "the great mystery" (is there only one ?) also seems overdone. And the cliché "ends of the earth" seems odd; Gilgamesh's journey could be said to go beyond the ends of the earth, beyond the limits of human life, beyond the limits of reality itself.

There's more to consider than just this opening passage, but for now, I'm sticking with Sandars.

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