In the first hemistich of the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic, ša nagba īmuru, the term nagbu has been interpreted in two different ways: the totality or the abyss. Most of the translators have chosen the first meaning. Stephanie Dalley, for instance, proposes: “[Of him who] found out all things”. Among those who prefer the meaning “abyss” I would mention Leo Oppenheim, who translates: “[Let me make kn]own to the country him who has seen the abyss,” but gives no explanation for his choice. Though Tournay and Shaffer choose the first meaning — “Celui qui a tout vu” — they explain briefly in a note that the term may have been intended to imply a “jeu de mots”, a pun, so that it could also be understood in the sense of “abyss”. Finally, Anne Kilmer has written an article in which she proposes the rendering: “He who saw the depths”. It seems to me worthwhile discussing the problems involved in these two translations.
Let us begin with the nuances of each interpretation. Nagbu in the sense of “totality” (CAD s.v. nagbu B) may be taken in either a concrete or an abstract sense. In a concrete sense this totality can be understood as the whole of the lands and seas, and the narrative would thus portray a hero who says about himself: “I … went through all countries … and crossed to and fro all seas.” If so, the phrase “the one who saw everything” refers to Gilgamesh's wanderings, which led him to the extremities of the world. If we take the term nagbu as conveying instead an abstract concept, then it can be understood as the trials that Gilgamesh suffered, a proposition which gives a psychological edge to his travails.