Thursday, November 29, 2007


In the 80's, i read Robert Silverberg's Gilgamesh the King. This is a novelization of the epic poem. I loved it. To be honest, i hadn't been turned on very much by Silverberg's other works, though my friends like him. Pick up a copy. Amazon is showing it for 2 cents. What's with that? You must have to pay shipping, at least. It's a must-read.

Author Stephen Mitchell has written a modern verse english version of the epic tale of Gilgamesh, entitled Gilgamesh. Kind of an odd thing. I'm pretty sure that i downloaded it from Librivox, but there is no sign of it there now. Perhaps it was mistakenly published there. It is available from LearnOutLoud for about $20. The book is narrated by George Guidall, who has the perfect voice for this work, and provides a competent reading of the book and Stephen's analysis and notes. It is published on four CDs, but takes a bit over three hours.

The book itself is on two CDs. When i reached the end of the book, it was announced that the rest of it was commentary by the author. I thought i'd skip it. I thought of the main book as very short. Silverberg's novel is, well, a full length novel. That should be some eight hours of audio. Yet it was about two. Though i liked it, i thought that the commentary would completely bore me. I know the story. What is he likely to add to it?

And yet, there it was. After a few days, i stuffed the first hour onto my iPod, for consumption on the way to work. If it was terrible, i could always skip to my next podcast. So, it starts out a bit slow, picking apart the details of the story. But instead of basically repeating what was already in the story, he provides insight on why the original author used the structure that was used, why the original author picked the perspective that was used, what the inuendo means and doesn't mean.

OK, so here's where i'm coming from. If you launch an application, say Microsoft Word. But, really, any application will do. Turn on context sensitive help, and point at something, and read what it says. In MS Word, it's under the Help menu, and it reads "What's This". Point it at the icon that vaguely looks like a floppy. It will say something like Saves the active file with it's current file name, location, and file format. Nothing wrong with that, right? Except that it says nothing about why you might want to do such a thing. For Save that is perhaps, not a big deal. But for many more complicated functions, it's everything, and the online help is useless. But Stephen Mitchell's commentary on Gilgamesh covers exactly the why do we care? ideas. It's really very good. It's written by someone who has really thought about it.

Ok, so the book is short, and there's an equal length commentary. It some ways, it's a Reader's Digest or Cliff's Notes version of the epic. Not that i read either Reader's Digest or Cliff's Notes. But in other ways, the work is an attempt to create a translation that captures the spirit of the original. Not easy to do for a work in a dead language. Even if one stands in the footsteps of giants.

(If I have not seen further, it is because I stand in the footsteps of giants. - a wonderful misquote of Newton.)

1 comment:

dqkennard said...

I also read Silverberg's version. I recall that around the same time it was released there was also a new version by John Gardner -- a much more generally respected author than Silverberg, since he was a writer of "literature" instead of being a "genre writer".

The reviews at the time seemed more favorable to Silverberg's version, saying that Gardner's felt too academic and forced in comparison.

Amazon currently rates them about the same (about 4 1/2 of 5), so I guess they've both held up well.

It's funny/odd/unpredictable what seems to work and not work in staying "true" to the original (and at the same time making it relevant/interesting/accessible to readers) when translating -- especially for ancient or classic works like this, and most especially for verse. Translating poetry is hard, and rarely satisfying.