Dr. Sally Sutherland Goldman is Senior Lecturer in Sanskrit and Dr. Robert Goldman is William and Catherine Magistretti Distinguished Professor of Sanskrit at the University of California at Berkeley. They are the authors of The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India, Volume VII: Uttarakāṇḍa, published by Princeton University Press (2017) and winners of the 2020 AAS A.K. Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation.
To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.
The book is a translation, extensive introduction, and dense annotation of the seventh and final Book (the Uttarakāṇḍa) of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Rāmāyaṇa of the sage-poet Vālmīki. The work marks the culmination of a decades-long consortial translation of the Baroda Critical edition of one of Asia’s most beloved and influential works and one that has had a profound impact on the literatures, religions, and social structures of the nations of South and Southeast Asia ranging from Afghanistan in the west to the Philippines in the east.
What inspired you to research this topic?
We had long been fascinated with the beauty and emotional depth of this seminal poem, regarded in the Indian tradition as the first work of poetry. We also were struck by the work’s enduring influence, through the 2,500 years since its composition, on the religion and social consciousness of India and surrounding regions. Its heroes, heroines, and villains have served as powerful examples, both positive and negative, for generations of readers and audiences of its written and performative renditions in Sanskrit and, indeed, virtually all the languages of South and Southeast Asia.
What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?
A unique feature of our translation of this volume as well as the six that preceded it is our bringing to the attention of our readers the substance of the numerous medieval and early modern Sanskrit language commentaries the text has inspired. Several of these works are unpublished, and our efforts to secure manuscripts and transcripts of them from various scholarly institutions in India would make a subject of yet another volume.
What was easier was the production of the manuscript of the work in light of developments in computer and printing technology over the long course of the entire translation project. As one of the first large-scale digital humanities projects in the field, we had encountered, especially in its early stages, many frustrating technical problems.
What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?
One of the more interesting and perhaps amusing (not necessarily at the time) aspect of working on the translation in India was our unexpected engagement with the natural world. Once while working late we were persistently dive-bombed by bats and had to wear our motorcycle helmets for protection. Another time our work was interrupted by an earthquake that sent our office chairs rolling around the room as our numerous texts slid to the floor. Nervous about such events, we were later startled when crumbled plaster began raining down on our work. But it turned out to be only the work of some geckos fighting in the receptacle of our ceiling fan.
We also took a saṃkalpa, or vow, to complete the translation of the monumental epic poem at the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi before the great Rāmāyaṇa hero and greatest of Rāmabhaktas, Lord Hanumān.
What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?
A great inspiration was Charles Singleton’s monumental 1970 translation and dense commentary of Dante’s Divina Commedia. We felt that a work of the immense significance of the Rāmāyaṇa deserved that sort of scholarly treatment.
A great scholarly work to be read along with our translation is John Brockington’s 1998 study, The Sanskrit Epics.
What are you working on now?
We are working on a new translation of an understudied and often ignored Rāmāyaṇa-themed drama of the great 8th-century Sanskrit poet-playwright, Bhavabhūti.