- The Valmiki Ramayana trans. Bibek Debroy, and: The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki trans. Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman
2017 was a banner year for the Rāmāyaṇa. In 2017 Penguin published Bibek Debroy's three-volume Valmiki Ramayana, the latest in its ambitious program of translations. In 2017, Robert P. Goldman and Sally J. Sutherland Goldman published the Uttarakāṇḍa, the seventh and final volume of the Princeton a of Rāmāyaṇa, a set begun three decades ago. Anyone who wants a complete Rāmāyaṇa in English now has a choice.
The Penguin and Princeton sets have much in common. Both venerate the Rāmāyaṇa and its heritage. Both tell the whole story, repetitions and all. Both translate the running text of the Baroda Oriental Institute's critical edition (1951–1975), sifted from oceans of variora.
When first translated into Italian (Gorresio 1870), English (Dutt 1894), and French (Roussel 1903), the Rāmāyaṇa was imported as prose. Debroy and the Goldmans also chose prose, the best way to repackage and preserve it. The homophonies and metrics prized by Sanskrit poetics allow for compound words impossible in Western languages. Take, for example, a single word plucked from a Rāmāyaṇa battle scene:
A literal English translation would string bits together like this:
Debroy gives it thus: "Their necklaces and earrings were strewn around. The roamers of the night, resembling dark clouds [were seen to be continuously brought down]" (3.329). The Goldmans give: "with their necklaces and earrings slipping off, the night-roaming rākṣasas, resembling black clouds [filled the sky]" (7.7.50). What is elegant in Sanskrit is a tangled knot for translators.
The differences in the two new translations are stark. The Goldmans honor the arrangement of the Baroda critical edition, dividing the epic into kāṇḍas (books), sargas (chapters), and ślokas (verses). Debroy retains only kāṇḍas and sargas, combining ślokas into paragraphs. Debroy is flatter: He renders the demon Rāvaṇa's challenge to assembled kings as: "Give me a fight. Alternatively, say that you have been defeated by me. This is my firm determination. If you do not act in this way, you will not be able to escape me" (3.354). That's accurate, but clunky. The Goldmans' Rāvaṇa sounds truly threatening: "You must either give me battle or declare yourself vanquished! This is my resolve.
There will be no escape for those of you who act otherwise" (7.19.2). There is a sober verse recurrent in Sanskrit poetry: [End Page 1443]
sarve kṣayāntā nicayāḥ patanāntāḥ samucchrayāḥ
saṃyogā viprayogāntā maraṇāntaṃ ca jīvitam
The Goldmans recite the verse like a proverb: "All accumulations end in loss, all elevations in falls, all unions end in separation, and all life ends in death" (2.98.16 & 7.51.10). Debroy converts the śloka into clichés: "All stores of riches are exhausted. Everything that rises up must fall down. Any association ends in dissociation. Life ends in death" (3.423).
On every page the Goldmans are more reliable. They say that rishis "know the Vedas," vedavido; Debroy says they "know about" them (3.311). Debroy routinely mistranslates laghuvikrama as "dexterous in valour" (1.54 & 84; 2.147; 3.23, 40, 44, 53, 232), "light in valour" (3.357, 430, 455), or worse, "lost their valour" (2.460); the Goldmans correctly translate it as "swift-striding" or "fleet-footed." The Goldmans say the rākṣasa Lavaṇa did not enter his city after he knocked out Rāma's brother with a tree (7.61.14). Debroy says Lavaṇa did enter his city, adding confusion to the battle...