Ancient Versions Separate poems or songs about Gilgamesh were first written in Sumerian, and several of these have been discovered. These songs were probably performed for the entertainment of the king and his guests at the royal court. The material for the poems or songs was probably based on ancient traditions about Gilgamesh that had been passed on for generations. No doubt the oral versions of stories about the famous king continued to circulate throughout the time when the poems were written down. Ancient Babylonian scribes translated the Sumerian poems into their own language, the Old Babylonian dialect of Akkadian. At some point the poems were joined in a regular order producing the first version of the epic. It became known as the “Cycle of Gilgamesh.” Several tablets of this Old Babylonian have been discovered.
The Standard Version Ancient scribes who copied cuneiform documents usually gave their name at the end. Sin-leqiunninni, who produced what became the official standard version, was evidently not just a scribe but an author. Scribes who copied his work included his name as the author with their names as scribes. Sin-leqi-unninni added the prologue in tablet I, the visit with the survivor of the flood, all of tablet XII, and a few scenes to the old epic. He followed the old stories but composed them in poetic Babylonian. His additions transformed the old epic from an entertaining tale to a serious meditation on the meaning and purpose of life. Thus, he was more than a translator, editor, or scribe. Like all authors of epic literature, he used old material to create his own poem with a unique meaning. A new critical edition of the Standard Babylonian version was published in 2003 by A. R. George. It includes transcriptions of the cuneiform text, introductions, a translation, and commentaries. This magnificent edition will undoubtedly prompt renewed study of the epic, and the next decade will likely see new translations in English. The editor of our textbook, the Norton Critical Edition, mentions that he was given advanced access to George’s work in preparing his own translation.
English Editions There have been many translations of the Gilgamesh epic, in English and other languages, since its discovery in the 1800s. George Smith discovered the story among Akkadian tablets that had been excavated and archived. He was first struck by the story of the flood in tablet 11, and translated it in 1880 as The Chaldean Account of Genesis. John Gardner, a notable American writer of fiction and criticism, consulted with Assyriologists to create a new translation, with helpful notes and introductions. It was published posthumously (after Gardner’s death in a motorcycle accident) in 1982. Other recent English versions available on the internet are mentioned below.
Translating any poetry is an art. Translating ancient poetry, especially from a lost civilization and language like Akkadian, presents special difficulties. Translations range from scholarly, literal versions to poetic literary renditions. The basic problem is this: Does the translator try to produce an accurate English word or phrase for each word or phrase in the original, or does the translator seek to provide a version that will give some of the poetic feeling of the original? How can poetic features such as alliteration and word plays be reproduced without distorting the meaning? Another issue deals with problems in the text. What does the translator do when words are blurred or when portions are omitted (as when part of a clay tablet is broken)? Does the translator indicate all these difficulties with brackets, ellipsis marks, and footnotes? Or is it better to produce a clean readable text without technical distractions? If the latter course is chosen, does the translator try to compose appropriate words for the missing or obscure original? Here is one simple example of a translation problem. The opening line of the Standard Babylonian version of Gilgamesh (which was considered the ancient title) in Akkadian is ša naqba imuru, “He who saw the Deep.” The word “naqba” which means “the deep” can refer to a well or a hole in the ground. Since Gilgamesh was associated with the underworld, however, some believe that is what naqba refers to. Should it then be translated “the underworld,” “the Netherworld,” “the grave,” or even “hell”? Some translators choose one of these words, others stick with a literal “the deep.” Another issue in translation deals with matters such as sexual descriptions (i.e., Enkidu’s introduction to Samhitu, the prostitute). Should a translator use euphemisms, clinical language, or vulgar terms from the English vocabulary? One part of the issue is the meaning of the original. Would the language have been offensive or shocking to the original readers? Were other terms available to the author? A different issue is the sensibilities of modern readers. Should translators use restraint even if the original is fairly explicit? The Norton Critical Edition uses restrained language, but some modern versions do not. A less important but potentially confusing issue is the spelling of ancient names. There were variations even in the original. Gilgamesh is actually Bilgamesh in Sumerian, but in Akkadian it was sometimes written Gishgamish and sometimes Gilgamesh. The monster Humbaba is also spelled Huwawa. Other words have sounds with no exact equivalent in English, or sounds that are spelled differently in English. For example, in English ‘q’ is not used without a following ‘u,’
but we find Akkadian words like Naqba. The sound ‘sh’ in Akkadian is one consonant, sometimes represented by š. Should the hero’s name be spelled Gil-ga-meš? Some translators may vary the spelling of the names. The translation in the Norton Critical Edition is fairly literal. You will notice that it indicates where words or passages are missing in the cuneiform tablets. Others are more poetic. Read the online essay on translating listed below, then compare a few passages from the Norton Critical Edition with the two other translations listed.