Tag Archives: B A van Nooten


Mahabharata by William Buck, introduced by B A van Nooten, illustrated by Shirley Triest, a 4th printing of the 1981 paperback from University of California (Berkeley) Press, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

William Buck Mahabharata from University of California Press

“In 1955 Bill Buck discovered an elaborate nineteenth century edition of The Sacred Song of the Lord, the Bhagavad-Gita of Lord Krishna, in a state library in Carson City, Nevada. Immediately captivated, he plunged into a study of Indian literature which has resulted in this rendering of the Mahabharata, one of the Ramayana, and an unfinished manuscript of Harivamsa—unfinished because of the death of Bill Buck in 1970 at the age of 37.

His discovery of the Bhagavad-Gita moved Bill Buck to read the Mahabharata, and he would be satisfied with nothing but the full translation, an eleven volume set of which was then being reprinted in India. So determined was he that he subsidized the reprinting when it became apparent that the publisher had insufficient funds to complete his task.

Midway through his reading of volume 3, Buck decided the Mahabharata should be rewritten for a modern English-speaking audience. In his own words, ‘Mahabharat was about 5000 pages, and Ramayana much shorter. When I read these translations I thought how nice to tell the story so it wouldn’t be so hard to read. We talk about all the repetition and digression of the originals, but as you read all that endless impossible prose a very definite character comes to each actor in the story, and the land and times are most clearly shown. I wanted to transfer this story to a readable book.’

To this end, Bill Buck began years of reading and rereading the translations, studying Sanskrit, planning, and writing. One of his approaches to his task was to decipher all the elaborate appellatives used for heroes and gods, kings and princesses which were used in the original text, often in place of names. These were qualities related to the characters, of which Buck compiled lists. He later used the adjectives interlaced with descriptions to preserve the mood and meanings of the characters in his own renderings. He also read all available English translations and versions of the two great epics, later saying of them, ‘I have never seen any versions of either story in English that were not mere outlines, or incomplete, except for the two literal translations.’ He was always aware that the epics were originally sung, so reading aloud both the original translations and his own work became part of the Buck family life. But the writing was done in seclusion, many hours at a time, with only the finished chapters presented to the family.” — from Publisher’s Preface