The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, unlike the epics of Homer or Virgil, has been frequently turned into English by readers who enjoy the story but who do not read the original language. Perhaps this condemns Assyriologists for not making their own translations more readable; perhaps it is wishful thinking that this wonderful poem should be more understandable and better preserved than it presently is. In any case, Lombardo’s version reads well and smoothly, the sober, elegant, and compelling style reminding the reader of translations from Greek and Latin by Richmond Lattimore or Robert Fagels. There are many inspired turns of phrase. Lombardo gives ample credit to the great 2003 text edition by Andrew George, but, strikingly, makes no reference to George’s own translation of all versions of the Epic, including the Sumerian Gilgamesh poems, readily available in the Penguin Classics, not even in the “Suggestions for Further Reading,” although this would surely be an obvious port of call for someone interested in knowing more about the Epic and its forerunners.1
The reader familiar with the problems of the text will soon find himself wondering to what extent Lombardo actually made use of George’s edition and commentary to which he pays tribute. All of us who have translated the Epic have been obliged to give up treasured renderings of the past in the face of George’s work, so it is disconcerting to see the extent to which Lombardo hangs on to old translations that, since George’s edition, have to be abandoned, however reluctantly, unless the translator believes that he has very good epigraphic reasons to maintain an older reading. In Tablet I line 7, for example, “carved” seems no longer possible, so too “gleaming like copper” in line 11, however appealing and hallowed by repetition they may be. Such instances of paying no heed to progress are liberally strewn throughout the work, e.g., Tablet VII line 87, where C. J. Gadd’s old reading of “vomit,” the basis for Lombardo’s “puke,” seems now ruled out, in favor of “dust,” the meaning being that the harlot will lie down in the dirt even for a passing drunk, not that her client will throw up on her, or Tablet IX lines 31ff., where George’s demonstration that the twin mountains were not in the same place has been ignored. In fact, one has the impression that older translations have more presence in this rendering than they should, given that none is acknowledged save Alexander Heidel’s careful but now 70-year-old treatment.2
This reader, therefore, found himself admiring Lombardo’s accomplishment in making a fine, readable new English poem out of the Epic but wishing, throughout, that his rendering had made better use of the authoritative modern edition of the text in doing so. This nicely designed and produced book is an attractive and tasteful addition to the imposing number of modernized versions of a great story, so should serve to bring more appreciative readers to the Epic of Gilgamesh.
1. Andrew George, The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003; The Epic of Gilgamesh, A New Translation. London: Penguin Books, 1999.
2. Alexander Heidel, The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels. 2 nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.