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In No Way Challenged by Roebuck's Newer Penguin Translation
on January 25, 2008
After some Sanskrit studies years ago, I decided I'd like to read the principal Upanishads in an accurate (so not the laughably loose Mascaro version) but readable (so not the painfully literal and commentary-heavy tome of Radhakrishnan) English version. It soon became apparent that the choice was between Olivelle (the volume reviewed here) and Valerie Roebuck's Penguin Classics edition of 2000/2003. The academic book reviews were quite ambivalent, so I got the two rivals out from the library and made my own comparison.
I was surprised to find the Oxford superior in every way. Most importantly, Olivelle's translation (while plenty literal) is simply in much more natural English. Roebuck is fond of unnatural word order. Her version includes many footnotes on each page, without which her text would sometimes make no sense; Olivelle manages to translate just as literally, but so that you don't NEED to consult his equally voluminous notes in the back. Looking at the Sanskrit text in cases of notable differences, I found that I was almost always more satisfied with Olivelle's version as scrupulously & clearly reflecting the original, too. (In any case, there's no question that Olivelle is the more authoritative scholar; Roebuck needs to cite several of his books in her bibliography and apologize for the "temerity" of offering a new version, but there is no important scholarly work of Roebuck's that Olivelle can cite in his extensive bibliography.)
Publishing is a business. Roebuck freely admits that she relied heavily on Olivelle's version in making her own. The surprise is that she did not manage to stand on his shoulders and make something better in any way. (The reviews and marketing blurbs that suggest Roebuck's version has any more "devotional" value boils down to some pretty superficial and unimportant differences, like including the invocations before and after each upanishad--which are in no sense a part of the actual text or teaching.) In a sane world, there is no need for the Penguin. The chronology is clear: Penguin realized Mascaro was an embarrassment in need of replacement; they contracted Roebuck; while she was working Olivelle's version came out, making hers otiose. Penguin can't let its Mascaro version be totally eclipsed by Oxford, so we have this choice to confuse us. Don't be confused--get this Oxford edition.
Finally, the Oxford volume is much better-designed. The notes are clearly indexed by page numbers at the top; the upanishads themselves have much clearer running head-numbers; the upanishads are usefully prefaced by a short, clear outline; etc.