Monday, May 23, 2022


Back in 1988 I published one of the earliest articles on the alignment of translations with their originals (see Sources below). I was not the only one to think of it about that time but I did have one distinction: I proposed a term for it, namely bitext. More precisely bitext was defined as

bilingual hypertext stored in such a way that each retrievable segment consists of a segment in one language linked to a segment in the other language which has the same meaning.”

 This technique soon turned out to be of great practical importance because it provided the data required for the statistical machine translation that made MT popular. However, the psychological implication of bitext which had been mentioned in the 1988 article, that is to say the simultaneous presence of the two texts in the working translator’s mind, was overlooked.


According to the natural translation hypothesis (NTH) and some  semioticians, language translating is not a basic human competence but a specialisation of a more general competence that in NTH we call conversion. Conversion is the ability to transform any form of expression of ideas and sentiments into any other form and moreover to conduct operations on it, such as summarising, during the conversion. Since conversion ability is universal, it is predictable that there are other forms of expression that can be organised in a way analogous to bitext. One of them is music.


Music in this post is shorthand for western classical music.  That kind of music has been recorded for centuries in a code or notation with a rich vocabulary of symbols like breves and crotchets augmented with a few natural language words, mostly Italian, and a syntax displayed on staves for joining them. We will refer to it here simply as notation. Notation offers an advantage over the natural language wording of bitext. Whereas language wording has to be chunked into convenient translation unit segments by complicated computing, music notation already has its chunking prescribed into units called bars.


These days conversion from notation to MIDI sound in the form of a MIDI file can be performed automatically by software like ScanScore (see below); moreover ScanScore is reversible. But in this post we are concerned only with human conversion.


The human conversion from notation to sound is not direct. First the notation must be perceived and decoded. Then, more important, it must be converted to muscular code. This code directs the performer’s fingers, lips, feet, etc., and vocal tract in the case of singers. There’s a developmental progression in which the conversion begins consciously but becomes internalised and intuitive with practice. Here’s Werner Goeble’s description of how it works in the case of pianists:

“Pianists achieve extreme levels of virtuosity on their instrument, requiring a combination of talent and decade-long continuous and deliberate practice, training, and experience. As with all musical behaviors, body movements in piano performance are goal directed, aiming at producing intended sounds with utmost precision and accuracy in expressive parameters such as timing, dynamics, timbre, and articulation. Body movements in piano performance may also serve communicative purposes such as to express emotional states or to coordinate with co-performers. Pianists control the timing and chain of velocities of the individual piano hammers by varying the forces applied to the piano key surfaces, as well as to the three pedals through their feet. The key forces are accomplished by coordinating the kinematic chain from their shoulders to the fingertips aligned with feet movements to manipulate the pedals. As kinematic properties such as finger velocity covary with performance parameters (tempo, dynamics, etc.), pianists have to stabilize several parameters of movement kinematics and musical expression simultaneously. The intrinsic way the fingers arrive at the piano key surface, referred to as piano touch (i.e., pressing versus striking a piano key), yields different tactile and other sensory percepts to the pianists themselves and the audiences alike, making this parameter an important one in accomplished piano performance.”


Finally the music arrives at the outcome of the chain of conversions as structured sound. Note that music is not just sound but structured sound. That’s the other half of bi-music. We need to have it in a stable form that can be recorded, stored and processed. One such medium is MIDI files but there are others.


So now we are ready to offer a definition of bi-music. It would be as follows:


Bi-music is music in standard music notation and chunked into bars, coupled with a MIDI or other sound recording of the same music and stored in such a way that retrieving any bar of the notation automatically retrieves also the corresponding MIDI segment; or vice versa.


Would it be of any practical use? Perhaps more to musicologists and copyright lawyers than to musicians. However, when bitext was introduced, though it had a practical purpose it was not immediately obvious how very useful it would be.


Brian Harris. Bi-text, a new concept in translation theory. 1988. Available at




Werner Goebl. Movement and touch in piano performance.  In B. Müller and S. I. Wolf (Eds.).Handbook of Human Motion, Berlin: Springer, 2017, pp. 1-18. Available from

For the Natural Translation Hypothesis and conversion, enter tenets in the Search box on the right.


MIDI keyboard

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

School Translation Prizes


The Queen's College, Oxford

Despite the pandemia another year has passed of translation competitions for secondary school students.


The biggest of these competitions, which we have reported on several times in this blog, is the Juvenes Translatores, organised and funded by the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Commission across the whole European Union.


“The Commission has been been organising the Juvenes Translatores (Latin for ‘young translators’) contest every year since 2007. Its aim is to promote language learning in schools and give young people a taste of what it is like to be a translator. It is open to 17-year-old secondary school students and takes place at the same time in all selected schools across the EU. The contest has inspired and encouraged some of the participants to pursue their languages at university level and to become professional translators.


The judges are drawn from the Commission’s professional translators, so the standard required is high. Contestants can choose any combination of EU official languages. The organisation required is necessarily elaborate since there are 27 countries in the Union and all the countries submitted entries. However, there’s a striking absence this year. It’s the United Kingdom, previously a strong supporter but now a victim of Brexit.


Yet the British are perhaps not losing out, because now they have their own annual competition since 2020. It’s the  Anthea Bell Prize for Young Translators based at The Queen’s College, University of Oxford. (Anthea Bell, an Oxford graduate, was a well-known literary translator who gained popular recognition for her ingenious translations of the Asterix comics.) The Oxford prize has an advantage over the European one: it’s open to students from age 11 to 18. On the other hand the languages are more restricted: namely French, German, Italian (new), Mandarin and Spanish. The texts can be poetry, fiction or non-fiction.


And there are other school translation competitions that we don’t have space to describe here, for example the ones at the University of Sheffield for Year 12 and Year 13 students. In fact such competitions are becoming fashionable in the UK now that translation has once again become part of the General Certificate of Education.


We can draw several conclusions from these competitions.


a)      Their aim is not translation in itself but as an aid to language teaching.  “By providing teachers with the tools they need to bring translation to life, we hope to motivate more pupils to study modern foreign languages [MFL] throughout their time at school and beyond.”

b)      For the Anthea Bell prize, “over 500 schools from across the UK registered for the prize resources in the first year (2020-2021), with 200 selected to take part in the final competition phase.” This is astonishing. It means that translating is still widely used in language teaching in schools in spite of the strictures against it.

c)      There seems to be no difficulty recruiting contestants for either the British or European competitions. This suggests that translating is seen as a pleasurable activity by many teenagers – perhaps as a game akin to solving crossword puzzles. One teacher says, “These are my first thoughts about the benefits of teaching translation - I have been developing translation with my classes and most of my students love it - nearly as much as I do!

d)      It should not be thought that these students are naïve natural translators. They are teen-age students, many of them in the top years of secondary schools in their respective countries. As such, and as I know from my own school days, they have undoubtedly had some elementary instruction and exercises in translating as part of their language courses.




The Queen’s College Translation Exchange. The Anthea Bell prize for young translators. 2021.


European Commission.  Jovenes Translatores, a competition to reward the best young translators in the European Union. 2022.J

Friday, February 25, 2022

Translating Atmosphere and Tone

In previous posts we have discoursed briefly on emotion and forcefulness in translating. (To find the posts, enter affective and forceful in the Search box on the right.) This post will deal with a third quality of text or speeches and their translations, namely atmosphere.


Atmosphere differs from the first two in that it is never attached to a single word or expression but is diffused over the whole. It has partial synonyms like tone that we may need to use in order to find examples.  


It's important most in literary translation, but not only there. Here’s an example.


A freshly minted graduate from the school at the University of Ottawa went to work at trainee grade in the translation bureau of the Canadian government. At that level, new translators are supervised by an experienced translator or revisor. The first task she was given was to translate letters from members of the public to one of the ministers. She did her best and was dismayed when her revisor called her in to give her a dressing down.

“Look,” he said, brandishing a letter. “Here’s a letter written in uneducated French, full of mistakes. And what have you done? Your translation is full of low-grade English. There are even bits that are insulting. Why?”

“Because,” explained the unfortunate trainee, “I was taught to preserve the style of the original.”

“Oh no,” the supervisor went on, speaking partly in French, “Le traducteur ne doit jamais oublier qu’il est le porte-parole de l’État. [Our translators must never forget that they are the mouthpiece for the state.] That’s the atmosphere that must be maintained.”


 Now to our main topic, literary translation.


One of the most famous atmospheric poems in English is Poe's The Raven. Famous not only for the poem itself but because Poe gave a full, clear, conscious account of his aims and techniques. Extraordinary also because it has not one but two famous translations into French, one by Mallarmé and the other by Rimbaud.


There is only space to consider one of them here, Mallarmé’s, but they have one striking feature in common: they are both prose translations. Prose and blank verse translations have their usefulness as introductions or elucidations; not knowing Italian, I first read Dante in the blank verse translation of the Inferno by William Michael Rossetti. But rhyme is a powerful poetic tool that echoes in the mind and Poe consciously exploited it. The long vowel in evermore is not only evocative in itself, it's all the more so because of its rhyming with the same vowel in other line endings. However, Baudelaire and Mallarmé could not or would not emulate him and they lost out thereby. And insofar as that long ô evokes the tone of the poem, they lost in that respect too.


And so we come to the tone or atmosphere of the poem, about which Poe was explicit in his The Philosophy of Composition, where he states that its highest manifestation is the one of sadness or melancholy, which “is thus the most legitimate of all the poetical tones.” 

Without more ado, here’s an evaluation of one verse of the Mallarmé translation.


A symbolist, Mallarmé obsessed over evocative language. And like Poe, he had a penchant for the supernatural. In 1875, he decided to translate Poe's poem into French—and, in the process, draped an even more chilling cloak over Poe’s already creepy masterpiece.


The opening lines of "Le Corbeau" provide a stylistic sampling of how Mallarmé used French to make "The Raven" even spookier. The familiar “midnight dreary” we associate with Poe’s version becomes the more funereal and morbid “minuit lugubre” in French. The nervous narrator’s book collection, described by Poe as “quaint and curious,” is transformed by Mallarmé into “curieux et bizarre,” infusing the lines with an even stranger, more unsettling tone.


Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping—rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.


Une fois, par un minuit lugubre, tandis que je
m'appesantissais, faible et fatigué, sur maint
curieux et bizarre volume de savoir oublié—
tandis que je dodelinais la tête, somnolant
presque: soudain se fit un heurt, comme de
quelqu'un frappant doucement, frappant à la
porte de ma chambre—cela seul et rien de plus.


And the poet didn't just use language in his translation: Mallarmé’s 1875 edition of "Le Corbeau" is made even more enchanting by the illustrations adorning the text. The shadowy black smudgings belong to none other than French painter Édouard Manet. Mallarmé and Manet had been friends for years (according to the Musée d'Orsay, they would meet every day to discuss painting, literature, and cats), and Mallarmé would write an impassioned article that would proclaim Manet’s influence “sways all the painters of the day.”

Mallarmé called the illustrations “so intense and at the same time so modern ... completely imaginative in their reality.


So it was not only an interlingual translation but also an equally atmospheric intersemiotic one. Manet’s visualisation of the raven, which can be seen at the head of this post, is haunting.


In addition, there is a secondary atmosphere in what is a complex poem. It is heralded by the opening words, Once upon a…, the typical opening of fairy stories in their mythical settings, partly echoed by Mallarmé’s Une fois derived from Il était une fois. It continues throughout, for instance in Poe's constant use of chamber instead of the modern word room, which has an effect lost by the French chambre. It’s a gothic atmosphere, in the sense of “a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents.”


For the rest, I’ll leave it to native French speakers to judge subjectively whether Mallarmé, and for that matter Baudelaire, succeeds in preserving the melancholy atmosphere.


To sum up the three posts in this trilogy: Next time you want to judge a literary translation, don’t start by nitpicking whether each chunk accurately repeats the information in the original. Rather, ask yourself, “Does the whole express convincingly its emotions? Does it do so with the same forcefulness? Does it maintain the same atmosphere?” 


Edgar Poe [sic].  Le Corbeau. Translated by Stéphane Mallarmé with illustrations by Édouard Manet. Paris: Lesclide, 1875.


Edgar Poe.  Le Corbeau. Translated by Charles Baudelaire. In Histoires grotesques et sérieuses, Paris, 1865.


Poe, Edgar A. The Philosophy of Composition. Graham’s Magazine,1846.


Siavish Bakhtiar. Charles Baudelaire et Stéphane Mallarmé, traducteurs d’Edgar Allan Poe. Available from:'Edgar_Allan_Poe.

Jared Spears. How Poe's French translator made "The Raven" even spookier. Mental Floss, 2018.


Dante Allighieri. The Comedy of Dante Allighieri ... Translated into blank verse by William Michael Rossetti, with introductions and notes. London ; Cambridge : Macmillan, 1865.


Gothic. Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 2022.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Literary Translation in India



Surprising though it may sound, I dare to say, though I don’t have the statistics to prove it, that the country with the most literary translation into English is not the UK nor the USA but India.


Two of the most popular posts on this blog have been the ones by Prabha Sridevan. (To retrieve them, entern sridevan in the Search box on the right.) She is representative of the current Indian translation scene. Like most literary translators everywhere, she is one of the category that we call Native Translators, that is to say translators who have not trained formally as translators but have picked up how to do it by example and by reading original literature. As she says herself, “I wandered into ‘translation’. I did not know it had a technique; or that it was both a science and an art.” But she knew Tamil literature and she knew impeccable English.


In the discussions of whether the Raj was beneficial or detrimental to India, an element that is generally left off the balance is the widespread and profound knowledge of the ruler’s language. By chance it provided India with a language of international communication and, even more important, it bequeathed the country a language that was not tied to any of its competing ethnic communities. We need to bear in mind that India has 22 regional languages. In spite of all the political pressure to make one of these, Hindi, the national language, use of English as a lingua franca persists: “The business in the Indian Parliament can only be transacted in Hindi or in English. English is allowed to be used in its official purposes.”


The success of translators like Prabha has been supported by Indian publishers, notably the Indian branch of the Oxford University Press, publisher of her Chudamani translations, and Ratna Books with its Translation Series under Dhanesh Jain. But this is not enough. A recent study concludes thattranslated Indian works must be more visible to Anglophone publishers, and this also requires promoting writers and translators, and inviting publishers to India to engage with the publishing and literary ecosystem.”


Ratna is the publisher of Prabha’s latest volume of translations, Meeran’s Stories. It’s a collection of Tamil short stories by Thoppil Mohamed Meeran (1944-2019). Both Chudamani and Meeran are skilful short story writers. The first story in the Meeran collection has a surprise ending worthy of O. Henry. However, there’s a major difference between the backgrounds of Chudamani and Meeran and it’s that the latter was a Muslim. Here we come up against a major Western misconception about the Indian subcontinent: it’s that India is all Hindu and it’s Pakistan that’s Muslim.  The fact is, India contains a large Muslim minority, about 14% of its population. So here we have two authors writing in Tamil and brought up in Tamil Nadu with backgrounds that are in large measure the same but with a noticeable difference.

“Meeran’s stories give us a glimpse, a once, of the inner life of two entities, two identities. First, of South India. Second of Muslim South India. They are about a particular people but more, they are about people. They are about a particular place but more, about the place of feeling in the desert of custom.”



Translated Indian works must be more visible to Anglophone publishers: Study. New Delhi: Devdiscourse, 2022. 


R. Chudamani. Seeing in the Dark. Translated from Tamil with translator's introduction by Prabha Sridevan. New Delhi: OUP India, 2015.


Thoppil Mohamed Meeran. Meeran’s Stories. Translated from Tamil by Prabha Sridevan. Delhi: Ratna Books, 2022.


Gopalakrishna Ghandi. Rear dust jacket of Meeran’s Stories.

Religion in India. Wikipedia, 2022.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Natural Translation Hypothesis is 50


To all readers of this blog

A belated Happy New Year and Better 2022!

The blog has been desultory in the past few months due to an effect of ‘long Covid’, but I hope to get it back on track before long.

2022 marks an anniversary. It’s just 50 years since the inception of the concept and term Natural Translation (NT). To most people the inception came with publication of the paper The Importance of Natural Translation in 1977. However, the term and concept had already appeared in 1973, not in English but in French as traduction naturelle. It was in French because it was in a paper read at a conference at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), a French-speaking university. But even that wasn’t quite the beginning, because although the French paper wasn’t published until 1973, the conference had taken place the previous year, 1972. It was a conference at which several of my colleagues of the machine translation project at the Université de Montréal (TAUM) also read papers and it was my final academic contribution before moving to Ottawa. Hence 1972-2022, fifty years.


In the beginning encouragement mainly came not from translators but from psychologists: Wallace Lambert (pioneer of Canadian bilingual education) invited me to his graduate seminar at McGill, Kenji Hakuta (educational psychologist at Stanford) supervised the thesis of Marguerite Malakoff, David Gerver (clinical psychologist) invited me to the fabulous 1977 NATO conference in Venice. But then some bold translatologists joined in: Gideon Toury invited me to write something for Target; Fritz Pöchhacker and colleagues in Vienna were advisors for the thesis of Petra Beckmannova; Raffaela Merlini (Trieste) and Cecilia Wadensjö (Linköping) were advisors for the thesis of Diana Cossato; Ricardo Muñoz invited me to Granada; María Jesús Blasco organised a conference in my honour at Castellón; María Gracia Torres sponsored my honorary doctorate at Malaga, and Boguslawa Whyatt produced a developmental model of translation competence quite similar to mine.


If I had to distinguish a turning point in all that has happened so far, I would unhesitatingly pick the First  Conference on Non-Professional Interpreting and Translation (NPIT), which Rachele Antonini organised at Bologna in 2012. The number and scope of the papers showed that NPIT was an area that could no longer be considered maverick. The ensuing NIPT conferences have confirmed it, although NT has never obtained the primacy – with everything else in translatology being “the icing on the cake” – that I polemicised for it in my spat with Hans Krings in Target.


Meanwhile there are two important aspects of NT that are still little recognised and therefore  under-researched. The first is its innateness; for this the abundant proof that children can start to translate very young is important but not sufficient. Anyway innateness is a bone of contention in all linguistics. The other is the place of translating in the broad spectrum of transfer of information and emotion from any form of human expression to another, a process not necessarily linguistic that I have called conversion.



Bibliographic references for all the publications mentioned above can be found in the Annotated Bibliography of Natural Translation Studies at


Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Translating Forceful Language



A recent post on this blog dealt with the translating of emotional language (to retrieve it, enter affective in the Search box on the right.) Among the less studied attributes of language there's another that can pose a problem for translators: its force. The same information, even the same emotion, can be imparted with varying force.


The most obvious modulators of force are the so-called intensifiers, of which the most frequent in English is very. But very also shows us that there are different degrees of force. Compare he is rich / he is very rich / he is extremely rich / he is a billionaire. Literal Spanish translations are possible, e.g. es muy rico / es extremadamente rico or (perhaps stronger because more compact) es riquísimo. Simple cases like this one are not a problem for the expert translator, so let’s turn to something more subtle.


In Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion there’s a famous scene in which the transformed flower girl Eliza blurts out, “Walk! Not bloody likely. I am going in a taxi.” At the first night of the play in 1914,”Not bloody likely” on the lips of the famous actress Mrs Patrick Campbell brought the house down. It had a shock effect on the Edwardian audience that it wouldn’t have today – which also illustrates how force of language changes over time. But Shaw’s wording was deliberately chosen for dramatic effect, and a translation that’s not equally forceful and shocking could be said to betray him. So Miguel Cisneros, the most recent Spanish translator of Pygmalion, instead of  a relatively inoffensive translation like puñatero, opts for puto coñazo. Puto is very vulgar.


Don’t think, however, that language force comes only from vocabulary. Consider the most famous passage in the most famous speech by Winston Churchill, a speech that inspired a nation:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…


The linguistic force of the passage comes from its syntax, its short simple sentences, and from the hammering of the parallelism. This structure can be reproduced in French:

Nous irons jusqu'au bout, nous nous battrons en France, nous nous battrons sur les mers et les océans, nous nous battrons avec toujours plus de confiance ainsi qu'une force grandissante dans les airs, nous défendrons notre Île, quel qu'en soit le coût, nous nous battrons sur les plages, nous nous battrons sur les terrains d'atterrissage , nous nous battrons dans les champs et dans les rues, nous nous battrons dans les collines ; nous ne nous rendrons jamais… 


Indeed it’s a structure already used by Georges Clemenceau in a speech he gave in Paris in 1918 and which Churchill had heard:


Oui les Allemands peuvent prendre Paris, cela ne m'empêchera pas de faire la guerre. Nous nous battrons sur la Loire, nous nous battrons sur la Garonne, s'il le faut, et même sur les Pyrénées ! Si nous en sommes chassés, on continuera la guerre sur mer, mais quant à faire la paix, jamais ! 


However, notice too Churchill’s use of shall, which is stronger as an indicator of intention than the more everyday will. This distinction can not be reproduced in French, so it poses a problem.



George Bernard Shaw, Pigmalión, ed. and translated by Miguel Cisneros Perales. Madrid: Cátedra, 2016.

We shall fight on the beaches. French Wikipédia, 2021.


A scene from the original 1914 production of Pygmalion. Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza on the left.

Source: The Times.

Friday, September 17, 2021

George Smith, Translator of a Civilisation


It’s been some time since there’s been a historical post on this blog, so here’s one.


There are translators who are justly famous for introducing an author or a work into another culture: Constance Garnett for Tolstoy in England, Rimbaud for Poe in France, Rabassa for García Márquez in the United States, and so on. And then there are translators whose fame is at a transcendent level because they introduced not just a single author but a whole culture or civilisation.  Such were Hunain ibn Ishaq and his colleagues and acolytes at the Bait al-Hikma in ninth-century Baghdad who transferred the wisdom and science of the Greeks to the Arabs; or Young and Champollion, translators at the graphemic level, who unlocked the mysteries of Ancient Egypt; or Sir William Jones, who made the first English translations of several classical Indian works.


One translator in the second category is much less well known today, although in his own day his most important translations drew even the prime minister of England to come and listen to him lecture. Yet curiously enough he isn’t mentioned in the otherwise admirable Translators Through History. And if you are looking for him with a browser you have to distinguish him from the dozens of others with the same very common English name: George Smith.


He was a native, self-educated translator with excellent mentors.


As the son of a working-class family in Victorian England, Smith was limited in his ability to acquire a formal education. At age fourteen, he was apprenticed to a London publishing house to learn banknote engraving, at which he excelled. From his youth, he was fascinated by Assyrian culture and history. In his spare time he read everything that was available to him on the subject. His interest was so keen that while working at the printing firm, he spent his lunch hours at the British Museum, studying publications on the cuneiform tablets that had been unearthed near Mosul in Iraq by the great archaeologists Austen Henry Layard, Henry Rawlinson, and Hormuzd Rassam during the archaeological expeditions of 1840–1855.   These expeditions were part of a mid-19th century initiative by European institutions and governments to fund expeditions to Mesopotamia to find physical evidence to corroborate events described in the Bible. What the explorers found instead, however, was that the Bible - previously thought to be the oldest book in the world and comprised of original stories - actually drew upon much older Sumerian myths.


Smith's natural talent for cuneiform studies was first noticed by Samuel Birch, Egyptologist and Director of the Department of Antiquities, who brought the young man to the attention of Rawlinson, who was a renowned Assyriologist. As early as 1861, he was working evenings sorting and cleaning the mass of friable fragments of clay cylinders and tablets in the Museum's storage rooms. The work of piecing together the thousands of fragments was a colossal jigsaw puzzle.


By 1871, Smith published the Annals of Assur-bani-pal, which he had transliterated and translated, and he had communicated to the newly founded Society of Biblical Archaeology a paper on The Early History of Babylonia, and an account of his decipherment of the Cypriote inscriptions that had been discovered in 1800 (see Sources below).


Smith’s greatest discovery came the following year, 1872,  when he achieved worldwide fame by his translation of the Chaldaean account of the Great Flood, which he read before the Society of Biblical Archaeology on 3 December and whose audience included the Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.  According to the accounts of his co-workers in the reading room of the Museum library, on the day of the discovery, when Smith realized what he was reading he "began to remove articles of his clothing" and run around the room shouting in delight. (This must have happened in Panizzi’s magnificent new Reading room, seated in whose broad wooden armchairs I too did research when I was a student at nearby SOAS.)


The text that excited Smith so much is better known today as the eleventh tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh (/ˈɡɪlɡəmɛʃ/, one of the oldest known works of literature. It had been discovered by Hormuzd Rassam in 1853 on an archeological mission for the British Museum on behalf of his colleague and mentor Layard. He found it in the ruins of the  library of the seventh-century BC Asssyrian king Ashurbanipal. The Epic of Gilgamesh is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, regarded as the earliest surviving notable work of literature. By this translation Smith single-handedly opened up to the West the literature and civilisation of Sumeria from around 2100 BC.


The tablet describes how the gods sent a flood to destroy the world and how one man, Utnapishtim, was forewarned and tasked by the god Enki to abandon his worldly possessions and build a giant ship to house and preserve living things; and how after the flood he sent out birds to look for dry land. It came as a bombshell to the fundamentalist-minded Victorians, for here was an account unmistakably similar to the story of Noah’s Ark in the Hebrew Pentateuch but several centuries older.


A London newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, was moved to finance another expedition. It arranged for Smith to go to Nineveh  and carry out excavations with a view to finding the missing fragments of the Flood story. This journey resulted in the discovery of some missing tablets. Smith spent most of the year 1875 fixing together and translating the fragments relating to the Creation, the results of which were published in The Chaldaean Account of Genesis (1880, co-written with Archibald Sayce).


In March 1876, the trustees of the British Museum sent Smith once more to excavate the rest of the Library of Ashurbanipal. At Ikisji, a small village about sixty miles northeast of Aleppo, he fell ill with dysentery, the bane of many Middle Eastern travellers, and died from it aged only 36.



George Smith (Assyriologist). Wikipedia, 2021.

British Museum reading room. Wikipedia, 2021.

Massimo Perna. Corpus of Cypriote syllabic inscriptions of the 1st millennium BC. Kyprios Character, 2020.

Epic of Gilgamesh. Wikipedia, 2021

Utnapishtim. Wikipedia, 2021.


Gilgamesh, King of Uruk.

Source: Geohistoria