UC Berkeley researchers complete decades-long translation project

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On Friday, UC Berkeley professor of Sanskrit Robert Goldman and his team celebrated the upcoming publication of the final book of a multi-decade research project the translation of the about 50,000-line Sanskrit epic poem “Valmiki Ramayana” into English.

According to Goldman, the “Valmiki Ramayana” originated thousands of years ago and may possibly be the most influential literary story in South and Southeast Asia due to its continued cultural relevance to those regions.

“It’s almost impossible to overstate how popular and influential it is,” Goldman said.

Goldman said epic continues to be relevant because the culture surrounding it is still very much alive, unlike the cultures other popular myths such as those of the ancient Greeks.

While other translations of the text exist, Goldman and his team are the first to translate the critical edition. According to Sally Sutherland Goldman, a co-translator of the last three books and the associated editor, the critical text is most likely current academics’ best approximation of the earliest version of the poem.

Goldman said that as the poem was passed down orally before being written down, many variations became prevalent. The critical text attempts to remove such alterations.

Goldman said a difficult part of the project was trying to understand the author’s intention to stay true to the text. The translation addresses many common variations and opinions of the text through its multitude of annotations, and it tries to explain every decision the team made.

According to Sutherland Goldman, the text does its best to not only translate the words but also the meaning by giving relevant cultural context while keeping as much of the original flair as possible.

Sutherland Goldman said the text would be accessible to the American public, but some cultural references may be confusing.

“It’s a remarkably accessible text, but it’s also 3,000 years old,” Sutherland Goldman said, “The notes (help) you understand the culture.”

Monali Varaiya, a UC Berkeley alumna, said the story is ubiquitous in India at the symposium held on campus Friday to celebrate the project’s completion.

“If you’re in India as a kid, you hear it,” Varaiya said. “It was always familiar, comic books, movies, … through Sunday schools.”

The “Valmiki Ramayana,” however, is not without controversy — according to Goldman, many find fault with the seventh book, which features explicit sexual violence and reverses the sixth book’s happily-ever-after ending.

Sutherland Goldman said that she feels the new edition will help introduce an incredibly significant work of a different culture with which many Americans may not be familiar.

“Given the current political climate, the more we can emphasize the understanding and appreciation of other countries, the better,” she said.

Contact Michael Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @_HyunkyuL.