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Spring 2000

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Spring 00 > Article

Poetic Justice
by Esther L. Benenson

They've been called brutes and barbarians, but now a new image is emerging of the people who lived in the Ugarit kingdom - present-day Syria - more than 3,400 years ago.

They are emerging, in fact, as poets and philosophers, thanks to new translations of ancient clay tablets by Ted Lewis, a UGA associate professor of religion.

Using a large-format camera and newly developed photographic techniques (Research Reporter, Summer 1997), Lewis and members of the Society for Biblical Literature re-examined fragments of Ugaritic tablets discovered roughly 70 years ago. Based on improved readings, they re-interpreted previously published translations of their ancient stanzas. The resulting book, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, not only portrays the original authors as a cultured, caring people, but does so by re-creating the sound and beauty of the Ugaritic verse.

"What we've done is to strive for true literary translations - to 'write' poetry as the ancients," Lewis said. "We tried to pick up on how they wrote the poetry, using assonance, alliteration, parallelism and a concern for meter."

For instance, if a certain Ugaritic letter was used several times in one line, either at the beginning of a word or within it, Lewis and his colleagues chose English equivalents that similarly repeated such sounds.

"When scholars translate, they translate for scholars, not the common man," Lewis said. "They tend to be very precise philologically. Their translations, therefore, tend to be very wooden and dull - devoid of vitality and energy - and falling short of poetic competence. In this volume, we tried to produce real poetry."

Along with members of the West Semitic Research Project, Lewis is now producing a Web site and CD-ROM on the tablets, using photos produced with the new techniques. If approved by Syrian and French officials, the digital reproductions will provide electronic access to the tablets for scholars who cannot travel to museums to view them.

For more information, access http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/wsrp/ or e-mail lewis@arches.uga.edu.


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Ancient Ugaritic tablet