Assyriologist Andrew R. George (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin, 1999) translates the relevant passages as follows
(page 3; an almost indentical passage occurs on the following page):
He has no equal when his weapons are brandished,
his companions are kept on their feet by his contests
The young men of Uruk he harries without warrant,
Gilgamesh lets no son go free to his father.
By day and by night his tyranny grows harsher,
Gilgamesh, [the guide of the teeming people!]
It is he who is shepherd of Uruk-the-Sheepfold,
[but Gilgamesh] lets no [daughter go free to her] mother.
In BBC 4's podcast In Our Time podcast Epic of Gilgamesh, originally broadcast on 03.11.2016,
Andrew George summarises the relevant part of Tablet I as follows:
(...) when the narrative gets going, we have Gilgamesh as a king in Uruk who's abusing his power.
It's a period of tyranny, the city can't function as it should. As a result, there's an outcry.
He's preoccupying the people, particularly the young in martial exercises, he's abusing his rights.
And in response, the mother goddess actually creates a wild man, Enkidu, from clay, to be a match to Gilgamesh.
And the idea is that this will therefore absorb his energies, his aggression.
On page xlvi of his introduction, Andrew George points out:
The nature of Gilgamesh's tyranny is not explained by the poet, for it is not necessary to know more than that he is a tyrant.
There are reasons to assume that his tyranny involves the ius primae noctis ("right of the first night"), since on Tablet II,
a man who has been invited to a wedding says (page 15 in George's translation),
He [Gilgamesh] will couple with the wife-to-be,
he first of all, the bridegroom after.
By divine consent it is so ordained:
This practice is not documented in historical sources, as George (page xlvii) and other translators (Stefan M. Maul, page 159; Wolfgang Röllig, page 158) point out.
However, the ius primae noctis is not the whole story; it does not explain in what way Gilgamesh "lets no son go free to his father" and "lets no [daughter go free to her] mother" (unless one assumes that every daughter is a bride).
Wolfgang Röllig thinks the tyranny refers to statute labour.
However, the passage also contains something of a crux:
the italicised word contests in George's translation is left untranslated in Röllig's translation: pukku.
Stefan M. Maul translates the word as "Spielball" (playing ball), whereas Benjamin R. Foster translates it as "game stick".
Both Maul and Röllig point out that the meaning of "pukku" has not been established beyond doubt.
The word is also used in the Sumerian poem "Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld", where the word "mekku" is also used.
Perhaps "pukku" and "mekku" refer to a ball and a stick or mallet used in a ball game with vague similarities to hockey (Maul, page 156; Röllig, page 156).
In Gilgameš, Enkidu and the nether world, both the pukku and the mekku are made from the wood of a ḫalub tree:
As for himself, from its roots, he manufactured his ball (?) and, from its branches, he manufactured his mallet (?).
However, the ball game takes up so much time and energy from the people that they start complaining about it:
the widows' accusation and the young girls' complaint caused his ball (?) and his mallet (?) to fall down to the bottom of the nether world.
In conclusion, it is possible that in the Standard Babylonian epic, Gilgamesh is wasting people's time with a ball game or requiring too much statute labour, or both (in addition to the ius primae noctis).
Sources (in chronological order):
- The Epic of Gilgamesh: The Babylonian Epic Poem and Other Texts in Akkadian and Sumerian. Translated with an introduction by Andrew George. London: Penguin, 1999.
- Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Neu Übersetzt und kommentiert von Stefan M. Maul. München: C. H. Beck, 2005. Sixth edition, 2014.
- Das Gilgamesch-Epos. Übersetzt, kommentiert und herausgegeben von Wolfgang Röllig. Reclam Bibliothek. Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun. Stuttgart, 2009.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated and edited by Benjamin R. Foster. Second Edition. Norton, 2019.