Standard texts for many ancient works were established long ago, but The Epic of Gilgamesh is an exception to that rule. Only in the mid-nineteenth century did stories of this ancient king resurface, thanks to pioneering Assyriologists whose project of recovery and decipherment was wrapped up in Orientalist thinking and politics of the time. Modern editions tend to present texts based on twelve tablets found in the ruins of the library of a seventh-century B.C.E. Assyrian king. Yet this “standard” text incorporates fragments from other places and times, and itself existed in multiple versions, in countless fragments still being discovered throughout the Near East. This article explores how modern editions negotiate the borders of what comprises this work. Even more basically, it proposes that the very process of deciphering a forgotten language in an unknown script involves assigning phonetic and semantic equivalents, and explores the role bilingual dictionaries play in structuring the terms of equivalence between ancient and modern languages and cultures alike.

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