Friday, January 14, 2011

"That Mesopotamia of Our Love"

GilgameshAfter you've read traditional translations of the Gilgamesh, you might enjoy Derrek Hines's modern version of the poem.  Many readers, expecting the book to be an updated but fully authentic representation of the original epic, have been radically disappointed in the book.  Part of their expectation comes from the author's mention of other modern poets faithful reworkings of other early texts (such as Seamus Heaney's Beowulf and Ted Hughes's Tales from Ovid--both of which I am looking forward to reading).  But as Hines emphatically states, his poem "is an interpretation of the Epic of Gilgamesh, but is in no sense a translation."  This is a contemporary meditation on an ancient work--an original poem inspired by the powerful original--an attempt to make the poem as full of "vigour and excitement" as it must have been to its first listeners.

Some of Hines' writing is exquisite, such as this early passage where the author acknowledges the unimaginable newness of writing and poetry occuring in the creation of Gilgamesh:
For the cut of every thought here
is new for our race, and tart with novelty.

Then look: footprints of the mind's bird
in its take-off scramble across wet clay tablets.
He continues:
Have there been two such
as Gilgamesh and Enkidu
who released our first imagination
to map the new interior spaces we still
scribble on the backs of envelopes, of lives?
There are other sections that amuse me with their combination of the timeless and the technological, the ancient and the new. Take this section discussing the temple prostitute's efforts to civilize Enkidu through sex:
Finally Shamhat gasped a full-throated
praise of male hydraulics,
entering her like the stiff shaduf
that lifts night's constellations off the river's face,
spilling the wet start-seed into the splayed canals.

Many of his images hold an even greater contrast of old and new, such as his description of the "high-velocity blip on the radar screen" when a goddess appears, or his versions of the very twentieth-century military battles against Humbaba.  Hines twists the traditional picture if the temple prositute and turns Shamhat into a very different image more in line with modern stereotypes of prostitutes.  And he explains magical elements in the story through more believable means--drugs.  Some of these twists are highly effective, and some are less so.  

Hines's deliberate dating of this timeless story left me somewhere between fascinated and--well, honestly, kind of irritated.

*  *  *

Although overall I enjoyed Hines version, it is in no way a substitute for reading a more traditional translation such as Mitchell's.  I suspect you will appreciate this version far more if you've first thought through the themes and characterizations of the ancient epic.

What fascinates me most is how much such ancient texts as Gilgamesh can innervate contemporary poets.  The oldest of our stories express what we consider most deeply human--and most completely relevant.


  1. What an interesting idea! I haven't heard of this version of Gilgamesh. I do think it's amazing that such an ancient story can still be relevant thousands of years after it was first set down. However, at this point I might still be too attached to the Mitchell translation to enjoy anything else! At some point down the road, though, I'd be interesting to try Hines's take. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. I haven't read Heaney's Beowulf but did enjoy Hughes' Tales from Ovid. In general, if I am reading a piece, I would much rather read a translation than an interpretation. I think that, although you may have to move away from a literal translation to make it readable and "literary" enough for a modern readership, the more you move away, the more you start to lose the integrity of the work.

  3. I'm charmed to be introduced to the word "innervate," which means exactly what people usually think "enervate" (its opposite) means when they first hear it. The latter I learned in high school; the former is new to me. Thank you!

  4. Erin: It is a fascinating adaptation. Mitchell's translation makes Gilgamesh so fresh and immediate--but Hines plays with the traditional in wholly new ways.

    Falaise: This book is definitely not meant as a substitute for translation. "Integrity" is not what the author is shooting for, I would say. Instead, it is about play, about echoes, about exploring how old the new can be (or how new the old can be). Definitely read the more literal translation first.

    P.J.: It is a good word, isn't it? I'm kind of a word nerd who loves homophones and near-homophones. (Pair of pared pears, anyone?)

  5. This is so freaky. I find the juxtaposition of old and new fascinating, but I can see how it may come across as frustrating.

  6. not read this, but am deeply interested in different interpretations of classical text, so these appeals deeply, thanks

  7. I'm struggling to find the time to read just the Ferry, but if I could I'd definitely read it in more than one translation. Amazing what a huge difference a translator makes.

    I'm reading the poem slowly, noting as I read along how it's similar to what I know of the Bible, and how it differs. I also notice the roles of women, and am still struggling to figure out how Enkidu was made more civilized after having sex with the whore. Then there are the goddesses, of course, at the opposite end of the spectrum. All really fascinating.

  8. Trisha: I love the idea of the juxtaposition and there are many moments where it is highly successful. There are other times when it felt a bit too constructed for me. I'd love to hear what you think if you read it.

    Parrish: I'm fascinated by adaptations of the classics and am in fact getting bogged down in take-offs and translations of the Iliad and Odyssey as I read for and start planning upcoming posts.

    Bluestalking: Absolutely. Different translators, perhaps especially of ancient literature, can make texts seem radically different. And in this case, the author is playing off a text rather than translating. I love to see how different people try to bring old stories to new life.

    The role of women and the place of gods and goddesses are both fascinating issues in Gilgamesh. I've been thinking a lot about the portrayal of divinity in Greek vs. Mesopotamian literature and hope to post on it at some point after I am into my Homer readings. Hope you'll share your ideas.


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