‘Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems’

Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, by Ghareeb Iskander, translated by Iskander and John Glenday, provides a chance to foreground the act of translation in reviewing the book:

gilgameshThese sorts of paired translations — where one of the translators knows both source and target languages, and the other does not — are a controversial thing, with some disputing that the latter should not be called a “translator.” But, in any case, what comes out clearly in Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems is that the English has been rendered as poetry.

An interview with Ghareeb Iskander, and perhaps also John Glenday, is forthcoming. In the meantime, a review that ran in The National:

Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems lifts characters and themes from one of the world’s oldest surviving literary works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, pulls them out of time and replants them in a space between ancient Uruk and contemporary Iraq. There is then another replanting, as the Arabic poems of Ghareeb Iskander are brought into English, a co-translation by the author and Scottish poet John Glenday.

The bilingual, facing-page Syracuse University Press edition begins with the title poem. Here, we find a lonely, frozen Gilgamesh in the “empty ruin” of Uruk-Iraq.

The original Gilgamesh was an idealised hero in the epic that bears his name, composed around 2100 BC. Back then, he was a fabled builder and creator. In this collection, he wanders not among his accomplishments, but among silence and destruction.

An earlier translation, also by Glenday and Iskander, was used to narrate a 2013 film-poem by Roxana Vilk. It sets Iskander and Glenday’s words against jerky black and white imagery from contemporary Iraq.

In both cases, the translation is not strictly faithful. In both, Iskander and Glenday discussed the works, rebuilt them and repotted them in English soil. Through this process, the poems were reborn.

In Something Began to Talk, the lines “b jadal al-tabi’a / sabah azraq kal bahr / w layl mudi’ kal ‘amal” become “The search for truth in Nature / is like daylight, blue as an open sea; / it’s like a star-shaken night, shimmering with hope”.

Where does “star-shaken” come from, and why has the sea become open? It’s easy to attribute this craftwork to Glenday, whose 2009 collection Grain was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. But these poems don’t read like his other work. Keep reading over at The National.