Stuart Kendall’s New Translation of Gilgamesh Restores Poetic Strangeness to an Ancient Epic

Somewhere in his big and often laborious book The Western Canon, Harold Bloom defines canonical literature as that which possesses a “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange.” Gilgamesh strikes me as exemplary of that second clause: It’s a foundational epic that has assimilated its readers such that we can no longer easily perceive its strangeness. In many of the prose translations we encounter, Gilgamesh becomes smoothed-out, a document in which we find universal symbols, characters, and themes, all ordered into a narrative scheme that resonates with our conceptualizations of story-telling. And while Gilgamesh and his wild-man companion Enkidu are clearly archetypal figures, the version of their story most of us read in our high school English class is overtly familiar, fitting too-neatly into a literary tradition with Homer, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

Stuart Kendall’s new translation of Gilgamesh reintroduces us to the strangeness of Gilgamesh, juxtaposing the epic’s irreconcilable eruptions against the archetypes it helped to originate. By using language reminiscent of Modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Kendall’s version calls attention to the strange discontinuities of Gilgamesh, even as it paints for us a bold, concrete vision of action. Kendall’s Gilgamesh highlights the psychological dimensions of the epic, situating its heroes’ dramas of consciousness against a physical world that blends into metaphysical spaces.

Here’s a sample of Kendall’s precise language; the scene is from late in the narrative, after the death of Enkidu, as Gilgamesh searches for Utnapishtim—and immortality:

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The language here forces us to recontextualize, and thus perhaps understand anew, a scene so archetypal as to have become commonplace in even the most banal Hollywood adventure film (that is, the hero seeking admittance to a sacred space). Kendall’s language points to the narrative links between the physical and metaphysical worlds, an unstable opposition that frames the existential crisis at the heart of Gilgamesh.

I interviewed Kendall last month, where he posed the psychological stakes of Gilgamesh more aptly than I am able to:

As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes.

Elsewhere in our interview, Kendall remarks that,

The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos. This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.

Kendall’s translation highlights the radical instability of human experience, an instability that first-person consciousness often attempts to organize (or otherwise give meaning to) through narrative. As such, Kendall’s translation is often far more ambiguous than many of the textbook versions we might have read. In particular, his ending refuses to specifically point toward redemptive wisdom or reconciliation with death. In this version, Gilgamesh’s quest does not stabilize his identity and square his relationship with mortality; rather, we see strange and discontinuous responses to the (unresolved) problem of death.

Kendall’s translation is an excellent opportunity to rediscover a text many of us assume that we already know and have mastered. His introduction and end notes are enlightening, but it’s the poetry that will surely engage readers’ sustained attention: it’s by turns energetic and mystifying, filled with strange adventure, pathos, and even humor. Recommended.

Gilgamesh is new from Contra Mundum Press. Read my interview with Stuart Kendall.

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