translated by David Ferry
Have in the Library? No
As a lover of mythology, I have had “Gilgamesh” on my to-read list for years. A Mesopotamian heroic poem from 1250 BCE, this is literally the oldest story ever told, at least in written form! There are many translations of “Gilgamesh,” but the one I happened upon was David Ferry’s from 1992. I started it only to realize that it was billed as “not a translation, but a transformation,” that is, not a literal and scholarly text per se, but rather Ferry’s own poetic vision of the epic.
And I loved it. Ferry’s lines are are simple, allowing the bare bones of the story to shine through with little embellishment: the King Gilgamesh (believed to be an actual historical figure), has been terrorizing his people, so the Gods create another man named Enkidu to match him “stormy heart with stormy heart.” The two become close, and in this interpretation at least, romantic companions who go on many adventures together. The poem ends however in Gilgamesh’s solitary journey to the underworld to learn the secret of immortality. The poem is especially spare and haunting during this sequence:
Weeping and fearful, struggling to keep breathing.
he made his way and finally struggled out free
into the morning air and the morning sunlight.
He emerged from the mountain into a wonderful garden.
Gilgamesh looked at the garden and wondered at it.
The fruit and foliage of the trees were all
the colors of the jewels of the world,
carnelian and lapis lazuli
jasper, rubes agate, and hematite,
emerald, and all others gems the earth
has yielded for the delight and pleasure of kings.
And beyond the garden Gilgamesh saw the sea.
The holes in the narrative are intriguing. Parts of his journey are barely sketched and full of names not explained. What is meant, for example, by this description of the boatman of underworld: “He guards the Stone Things and he searches out/ there in the island forest, the Urnu-Snakes”? We never find out, we only hear that Gilgamesh later defeats these things and stows them in his boat, yet this is later held against him by the Gods. With a story so old, it is tantalizing to wonder what information has been lost, and I loved having the sense of a larger world in which the story is taking place: a whole universe of names, things and places that in ancient Mesopotamia must have been well known.
Though I’d like to explore other translations to gain a better understanding of the history, I found myself ultimately not caring about the accuracy of Ferry’s work. I simply appreciated it as an impressive piece in its own right and an entirely lovely door into the world of Gilgamesh and Mesopotamian mythology. After all, translation is art far beyond conveying the meaning of foreign words. To me, Ferry’s rendering achieves exactly what it should: it engages readers in a story that is more than 4,000 years old by making it timeless and moving. That’s immortality to me!