When Is a Viper Just a Snake?

Detail, “Blue Gate,” oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in., (JMN, 2014),

I share my neck of the world with rattlesnakes, water moccasins, copperheads, coral snakes (red-on-yellow, kill a fellow) and cottonmouths. I can’t tell a moccasin from a cottonmouth — they frequent water, and I don’t. When I see one of the others, I know its name. On rare encounters with any of them, the first word that comes to mind is Snake! — followed by a respectful parting of ways by a magnificent creature left to live out its destiny in the natural order, and me.

The Arabic title of “Gilgamesh’s Snake” (1) is ‘af^ā kalkāmiši.

‘af^ā kalkāmiši.

Hans Wehr (2) gives possible translations of ‘af^ān as: adder, viper, asp. Website http://www.wordhippo.com lists the following possibilities: boa, serpent, adder, worm.

The translation “snake” appears in two other Wehr entries: ḥayyaẗun (snake, serpent, viper) and ṯu^bān (snake).

ḥayyaẗun | ṯu^bān.

Why didn’t Ghareeb Iskander title his poem ḥayyaẗu kalkāmiši or ṯu^bānu kalkāmiši? I’m not equipped to know if the question is valid, much less answer it. The Arabic-speaking poet chose his word. Due respect.

As for the the English version of the title, if the choice is adder, viper, asp, boa, serpent or worm, why choose snake? In the translator’s shoes, I would think like this: Worm is an outlier. Serpent carries too much biblical baggage. Adder, asp, or boa would titillate a roomful of herpetologists. Why not Gilgamesh’s Viper? Viper has poetry power, a two-pronged, sonic bite plus lots of innuendo. That’s the problem, however; it’s too aggressive, too front-loaded for the poem’s trajectory. I can see why snake was chosen. Dictionaries guide, translators decide.

May I pose a quibble that turns on structure, not lexicon? The phrase “Gilgamesh’s Snake” uses the mainstream English possessive construction. But English can express a relation of ownership (or origin) with a prepositional phrase, as well. “The Snake of Gilgamesh” reflects the Arabic genitive: ‘af^ā kalkāmiši. I’m given to reflect on the virtues of mirroring source language structure where possible when translating a poem. A translated text need not always have a comfortable, vernacular vibe. If it sounds offbeat to the reader, there’s this to consider: Poetry often takes the path less traveled.


(1) Gilgamesh’s Snake and Other Poems, Ghareeb Iskander, Bilingual Edition, Translated from the Arabic by John Glenday and Ghareeb Iskander, Syracuse University Press, 2015.
(2) Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Edited by J. Milton Cowan, Cornell University Press, 1966.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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