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


  1. The Noah story is widely believed to be based on the Epic of Gilgamesh. Or at least relate to the same topic, since many ancient cultures have a flood story.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Yes, you are right of course. The question remains: Was there really such a flood?

  2. Footnote:
    “An ancient clay tablet displaying part of the of a superhuman king has been formally handed over to Iraq by the US.
    Known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, the 3,600-year-old religious text shows a section of a Sumerian poem from the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is ]one of the world's oldest works of literature and was looted from an Iraqi museum during the Gulf War in 1991. Over the past 30 years, it has been smuggled through many countries, accompanied by false documents. Until just two years ago, it was prominently displayed in a museum [in Washington DC].” – BBC News, 23 September 2021.