Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Meeting Gilgamesh

Gilgamesh: A New English VersionWhen I picked up Gilgamesh, I was not expecting this ancient text to be such a pleasurable and meaningful read.  I assumed the book would be a fascinating lens into a pre-Greek, pre-Biblical world, but I couldn't imagine that this ancient pieced-together epic would actually hang together as a narrative, much less have a deep sense of poetry in both its imagery and its themes.  What a wonderful surprise!

I am sure one reason I love this book--which I will talk about in more detail in the next few posts--is Stephen Mitchell's masterful introduction and translation.   If you are a mature reader unconcerned about some relatively graphic sexual scenes, this is absolutely the version to read, if only for its amazing introduction.  (One warning, though: when I say it has some relatively graphic scenes, I'm serious.  Here's one fairly minor line: "Let me suck your rod, touch my vagina, caress my jewel.")

Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English VerseIf you are bothered by this language, or if you are recommending the story to a relatively young person (or your mother), you might look at David Ferry's translation instead.  His version of the above passage reads, "Touch me where you dare not, touch me here, touch me where you want to, touch me here."  Certainly this version is just as sensual and just as lusty, but it is a bit more subtle in its language.

Ferry's translation overall is quite beautiful.  Sometimes I even prefer his poetry.  And some scholars prefer his translation because he sticks a little more closely to the actual text we have handed down, rather than imaginatively filling in holes as Mitchell does.  (If you are looking for a literal translation, neither Ferry nor Mitchell will be the translator for you.)  But accuracy and poetry aside, the extensive foundation that Mitchell sets in his long introduction makes the Mitchell translation my clear favorite.  I think Eva at A Striped Armchair is exactly right to suggest reading the first seven pages of the intro, then reading the poem itself, and then going back to the introduction after you've finished the original text.

Gilgamesh the King (The Gilgamesh Trilogy)If you are planning to share this story with a very young person, I highly recommend the stunningly beautiful trilogy put together by Ludmila Zeman: Gilgamesh the King, The Revenge of Ishtar, and The Last Quest of Gilgamesh.  They were my first introduction to the Gilgamesh epic.  If you can get copies of these gorgeous books, you'll fall in love with them even if you have no children with whom to share the books.

Zeman's retelling does of course change the explicit sexual scenes.  It also mediates the violence and deep grief which appear in the narrative.  But the author does not throw out the baby with the bath water--that is, she does not erase these important themes along with the adult content.  Instead, she finds subtle translations that convey similar deep meanings.

Perhaps the  best parts of the Zeman retellings are their gorgeous illustrations.  Both colorful and delicately subtle, they echo the traditions of Sumerian or Babylonian art.  The illustrations are lit with a golden hue that highlights the mythic storyline.

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Finally, don't miss Michele's visual casting of Gilgamesh over at A Reader's Respite.  You'll never see the story the same way!

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In the next few posts I'll explore both the history of the Gilgamesh text and my reactions to reading it.  I would love for you to find a copy of this short read and join me.  Please feel free to comment, to disagree, to raise questions--that is, to participate in this Great Conversation.

22 comments:

  1. I admit I had a preconceived notion Gilgamesh would be a very hard to relate to work-more a historical curiosity than a work art we can relate to much as we could relate to a contemporary work-I plan now to read several works by Euripides this month, all of which are on my own life time reading plan-I really enjoyed reading your very well done post

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  2. If you want a more unorthodox interpretation of "Gilgamesh," there is Zecharia Sitchin's book "The 12th Planet," which discusses the poem as a historical source.

    Sitchin's views aren't for everyone--many would be offended by them--but they certainly are interesting!

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  3. Mel U: I've heard Euripides called the "first modern"--but I must say that at least in both the Ferry and the Mitchell, Gilgamesgh--that most ancient of texts--fits the bill as well.

    Undine: I'll see if I can find a copy today! Thanks for the lead.

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  4. Hm, that Mitchell translation sounds too modern and incongruous to me. I read an early 70s translation from someone named Herbert Mason. It was better than I expected (the book, not necessarily the translation), but left very little impact on me over time...

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  5. the naughty bits in the book were the best bits as far as i'm concerned back in those days it was the real age of free love.

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  6. Amanda: As I read them out of the context of the book, they do appear a bit incongruous--but I did not feel that way at all when I was reading them initially. If you ever read this version, I'm eager to see if you like it better in the text itself.

    Pattaya Girls: Ha! Love it! I'll be talking a little bit more about other examples of free love in Gilgamesh on Monday, too.

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  7. A poet friend of ours who has done some translations from Catullus was once at our home to meet other very good friends of ours, and I prepared a statement for our poet friend to read (and which all of us signed) from GILGAMESH. It came, I believe, from Tablet X. So much depends on translation! I will have to search for this historic household document and see which one contributed to the poetry of our summer evening.

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  8. I read an older translation of it in 2009 and was astounded by how much it resonated with so much of the later literature I've enjoyed.

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  9. Hmm, now I'm vacillating between the Ferry and Mitchell translations...I suppose I'll just read a few pages of each and see which one grabs me. Thanks for the run-down of these three versions of the story. I'm definitely motivated to read it based on you and Jenny both being surprised by the strength of your reactions.

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  10. P.J: What a great story! Sounds like an amazing evening.

    Beverly: Yes! I was amazed at how relevant Gilgamesh seemed, in its themes and poetry but also in its connection to what follows.

    Emily: The books are so short that you could read both in a long afternoon. If you choose Ferry, see if you can lay your hands on Mitchell's introduction afterwards. There are also a few other choices, one of which I will discuss next week.

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  11. Haha! I couldn't help but giggle at your example. I've read excerpts from this before and thought it was interesting, if in a somewhat strange way. I'm eager to hear more of your thoughts.

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  12. IngridLola: I'll be posting about my project on (roughly) a M-W-F schedule, with a few extras--like the Literary Blog Hop and books I read outside the project that I want to post about--on other days. Or at least that is my plan right now... I'm so glad to have you here.

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  13. I sincerely appreciate that you're focusing on the various versions out there--because a main idea I gleaned from Fadiman was the importance of a good translation.

    I went with Andrew George (1999)for reasons I can't recall now (I bought the book a few years ago).

    I'm so happy to find some kindred spirits here!

    I also posted about joining in with your readings--thanks for organizing!
    http://learningasigo.typepad.com/learning_as_i_go/2011/01/reading-to-last-a-lifetime.html

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  14. Nancy: I've heard that the Andrew George translation is supposed to be quite accurate and scholarly, although not the most poetic of translations. I'm going to the bookstore today and will see if I can look through a copy!

    Thanks so much for the post! I'm off to read it right now.

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  15. Thank you for the heads up on the edition. As I am quite the prude, I think I will go with the Ferry translation.

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  16. The Mitchell translation is the version I have on audio. I'm not sure my audio includes the intro; I'll have to make sure, and if not, I'll have to get a paper copy from the library.

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  17. I LOVED this, and I think Mitchell's translation was just wonderful (thanks for the link, btw). Funnily enough, I'd forgotten about the 'rod': I think in context, it doesn't sound as shocking. ;) I just remember being surprised at how easily I identified with the whole thing; a surprise echoed in my reading of Carson's translation/new version An Oresteia today. You'd think by now I'd realise that ancient classics are almost always accessible, but I must subconsciously have 'musty' expectations.

    I can't wait to see the rest of your project play out. :D

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  18. Iris: That makes sense to me. I'm kind of a prude myself and managed not to be too rattled by the Mitchell, but it definitely pushed against my boundaries at moments! Most of it is utterly proper.

    Erin: Wonderful! Can't wait to see what you think of the audio.

    Eva: I too am a bit shocked by how modern the ancients seem. I see links between what those authors are doing with what postmodern authors are trying to do sometimes. What a shock. We are much more closely linked to the past than even this historian sometimes imagined.

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  19. I read Gilgamesh once before and I must have at least one copy around here somewhere. I'll try to follow along the best I can.

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  20. This is one of the choices on one of the challenges I'm doing this year but I was never really sure what it was. Sounds like I might like to give it a try after all--it had kind of scared me off!

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  21. Bluestalking: It will be wonderful to have you! I'll be posting a few more posts about Gilgamesh. If you write about it, please link up in the comments!

    Lisa: I hope you love it. It definitely isn't a "scary" read--quick and short, and extremely accessible.

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  22. I read the Herbert Mason interpretation, and enjoyed it. I have just ordered Stephen Mitchell's interpretation, and am very much looking forward to his perspective. I have Mitchell's new translation of The Iliad coming too, as I've heard that this is really something special. I'm going to look up your other Gilgamesh postings right now. Keep up the good work! Cheers! Chris

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