Nancy Katharine Sandars, FSA, FBA (29 June – 20 November ) was a British archaeologist and prehistorian. As an independent scholar, she was never a university academic, she wrote a number of books and a popular translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh. James Fenton chooses between versions of Gilgamesh. Classics translation by NK Sandars, first published in , which is in prose. from the Epic of Gilgamesh REVIEW SKILLS translated by N. K. Sandars Look for examples of the following literary LITERARY FOCUS: EPIC HERO device as.

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The new English version of Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell Profile Books has this, at the very least, to be said for it. It is very readable, and indeed I found that having picked it up casually one evening I quickly read the poem from beginning to end. Hitherto I had only possessed the old Penguin Classics translation by NK Sandars, first published inwhich is in prose. Now I went out and bought two rival translations: Both of these are set out as poetry. Both volumes contain gilgamrsh Akkadian and Sumerian texts.

And both of them are translations rather hilgamesh versions – they are the work of scholars. Of the four Gilgameshes in front of me, the first I would replace on the shelf is the prose version by Sandars. Why read an epic in prose when it was set out in lines? They were good for a crib, but they were never a good read, and never felt like poems. Mitchell tells us how he arrived sancars his version. Not reading sndars and having no knowl edge of Akkadian, he was dependent on literal translations by scholars, and on other literary versions.

With the help of nine of these, he put together his own prose version.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: N. K. Sandars: : Books

Once my prose version was completed, I began the real work, of raising the language to the level of English verse. What he seems to have done, from this account, is construct his own EV Rieu-style prose version, which puts him at one remove from his sources other people’s cribs.


Then he sets about elevating the language – the essence of poetry in this schema being that it is raised above the level of prose. He uses a simple four-stress sandard, and he has the good sense to vary it so that no two consecutive lines have an identical rhythm.

He also likes one line to run on to the next, so that the verse ends up organised in paragraphs. As I say, the result is very readable. The reason why I immediately went out and bought two other versions was that Mitchell’s does not read quite like an ancient poem, let alone like a very ancient poem indeed. Among the “quirks of Akkadian style” Mitchell has removed, as being tedious “for us”, are “word-for-word repetitions of entire passages”.

Nancy Sandars

But these might be not quirks but characteristic features of primitive poetry. Mitchell also tells us he has changed images that were unclear, added lines, cut fragmentary passages and occasionally reordered them.

So it is that whenever something in Mitchell surprises us, inspires mistrust, confuses us, we have to wonder whether the problem lies with the original or with the translator.

There gilgzmesh also, in the introduction, an unwelcome desire to inject relevance into the epic, with talk of crusades hilgamesh jihads, of superpowers and “polarised fundamentalisms”. I would much rather approach a 4,year-old poem without making such crude demands for political payback.

But above all there is that procedure of creating the prose version before elevating it to poetry, as if the difference between the two modes were one of height.

The crucial quality lost, in this process, is that sense of the organisation of the poetic material within the line itself. Turning to Andrew George’s Penguin translation, we find that the unit of Akkadian poetry is the end-stopped line, that the lines tend gilgsmesh be organised as couplets and that the couplets in most cases seem to organise themselves into four-line stanzas.


This is not a matter of abstract form. It is a matter of the way the meaning develops from line to line, the way the narrative gilagmesh set forth.

Stephanie Dalley’s Oxford translation does not resolve itself into stanzas in this way, but it does give a very powerful sense of what the ancient lines are like, and, unmistakeably, of the fragmentary nature of the available text. There are more gaps in the page, more queries and brackets, and some readers may find these a distraction.

But a distraction from what? The more interested we are in the poem as a poem, the more we will wish to understand how it works. The scholarly translator begins with the tablets themselves. He or she must come to a decision about every mark on the clay.

Is it a sign? If so, does it stand for a word, or a syllable, or a half-syllable, or a silent grammatical “determinative”. The poem springs to life directly from that sense of decipherment. We get the sense that gilfamesh held the clay tablet and turned it to the light, made drawings of it, pondered each word in its proper position in the line, puzzled over every lacuna.

Every question asked was a question about poetry. George’s Penguin translation makes the best poem of the three. Dalley’s Oxford volume is excellent. But of course it was an interest provoked by Mitchell that gillgamesh to these happy purchases.