The first line is a digital recreation of the cuneiform script. Note that this reproduction does not correspond to a real text or manuscript. Each manuscript of the poem writes the text slightly differently—skipping some signs, adding others, substituting one cuneiform sign with an equivalent one, and sometimes just making mistakes, such as forgetting or miswriting a word. By examining these manuscripts and comparing their differences, philologists build up an idealized text, and that is the text you find here. Major variants (where the manuscripts differ significantly from each other) are noted in the commentary.
The second line gives a transliteration of the cuneiform signs into Latin letters. Each cuneiform sign can be read in several different ways: for example, the sign KA, 𒅗, which shows a human head with the mouth highlighted, could have the meanings ka, “mouth,” du11, “to speak,” inim, “word,” kiri3, “nose,” zu2, “tooth,” and many more. The surrounding signs help readers identify which sense is meant, and that is reflected in the transliteration. For that reason, you will see the same cuneiform sign transliterated in different ways.
Conversely, the same sound could be written with different signs, often indicating its different meanings. That is why you see subscript numbers in the transliteration: they identify which of these possible signs is meant. For example, the cuneiform sign du2 means “to give birth,” du3 means “to create,” du6 means “ruin mound,” du7 means “to charge,” du8 means “to open,” du10 means “to be sweet,” and du11 (the sign KA) means “to speak.” If a sign appears in CAPITALS, it means that we are unsure of how to read it.
A note on hyphens
In the transliteration, single hyphens link up signs that make up a word. For example, the word “scream,” zapaĝ, is written za-pa-aĝ2. The single hyphens also connect a word to its suffixes: za-pa-aĝ2-zu means “your cry,” za-pa-aĝ2-zu-še3 means “at your cry,” and so on.
Underscores are here used to link words that correspond to a single English phrase. This is not standard practice in Sumerology, but it makes it easier to follow the relation between the transliteration and the word-by-word translation below. For example, in l. 5 of the Exaltation, the Sumerian phrase šu sa2 du11, literally “hand equal speak,” forms a phrase that means “to seize.” So here, they are linked up with underscores, šu_sa2_du11, to show that they correspond to one English word.
Here, each word in the transliteration is translated into English, in the order that they appear in Sumerian. When a word has several meanings that are relevant for the passage, they are noted in the commentary. The glosses indicate nominal suffixes (such as -a, “in”), but do not engage with the complexities of the Sumerian verbal chain.
As in the transliteration, hyphens are used to link a word to its suffix. For example, a frequently recurring phrase in the Exaltation is nin-ĝu10, “my lady.” In the word-by-word translation, this appears as “lady-my.” The example given above, za-pa-aĝ2-zu-še3, becomes “cry-your-at.”
Once again, underscores are used to link up an English phrase that corresponds to a single Sumerian phrase. The word me-lam2, for example, is translated as “terrifying light.” But since these two English words correspond to one Sumerian word, it is given as “terrifying_light.”
This is the most speculative part of the translation. Sine Sumerian has been a dead language for four millennia, our knowledge of how it sounded is extremely limited. This reconstruction is merely a suggestion of how the signs might have come together to form a spoken sentence.
The letter š represents a sound like English sh, while the letter ĝ represents a sound like ng as in sang (also when it stands at the beginning of a word, as in ĝal, “to be”). We know little about the pronunciation of the vowels, but generally, we believe that a is to be spoken as in father, e as in rein, i as in mini, and u as in durum.
It is likely—but again, far from certain—that stress fell on the last syllable of the word. One major unknown factor is whether Sumerian used different tonalities, like modern Chinese: If it did, we have no way of reconstructing what they were.
The last section describes various aspects of the line that are worth noticing, such as alliterations, verbal patterns, or double meanings, as well as aspects that are unclear, such as obscure signs, words whose meaning is debated, or difficult sections. It also indicates where other recent translators render the line with a significantly different understanding of the text in mind. As noted above, different manuscripts could write the same text in various ways: the commentary notes those variants that substantially change the meaning of the text, but not those that merely spell the same words in different ways. Finally, the commentary unpacks references to gods, ancient customs, and allusions to other Sumerian texts.