Stephen Mitchell is one of America's premier translators of sacred texts. His free-form, contemporary-language versions of the Book of Job, the Psalms, the Tao Te Ching, and other works have received enthusiastic praise from scholars and lay readers alike. They've also come under fire for drifting too much from the originals, or for reinterpreting religious texts too radically. Beliefnet's religion producer Laura Sheahen talked to Mitchell about his translation of Hinduism's great epic, the Bhagavad Gita.

You've translated so many sacred texts. Was it inevitable that you would come to the Gita?

SM: I've been interested in the Gita since 1972 or 1973. I've had it in mind for a dozen years that someday I might do it, because I've felt that what's out there at best has been mediocre. There are lots of good literal translations, but I never felt that there was any music in any of them. Without music, the whole power of it is to some extent lost.

Do you think the Gita says something that no other sacred text out there does?

I don't. I think it says some of the essentials in a way that no other sacred text does and puts it in a dramatic context.
The whole setting of the Gita and the life and death struggle makes it passionately attractive in a way that a more serene or contemplative setting might not be. Some people are drawn to it, people who might not be drawn to the Tao Te Ching, because the whole devotional side is central in the Gita. It's pretty lacking in the Tao Te Ching because there is nothing to be devoted to. There is no God language. So it's not that it says anything new. All of the supreme sacred texts are coming from the same insight. But anybody will find something to recognize and something to work with. You mentioned in your notes that many people, including Gandhi, have had problems with the second part--particularly Krishna's logic where he convinces Arjuna to kill his kinsmen. I think the part that's revered is the part that so deeply comes from the essential place. That essential place has nothing to do with advocating violence or the caste system or all the cultural paraphernalia that are attached to the poem. The poem does come out of a specific cultural context. I think people intuitively understand that that really isn't central. A lot of women, for instance, find the Gita extremely important and maybe central in their spiritual life. They're willing to overlook the fact that it is completely male-oriented. I have noted places where it could be extremely demeaning to women, but that's just the cultural context it comes out of. People recognize how pure and how open-hearted and marvelous the poem is. It comes out of consciousness which is really transparent. People can get tied up into mental knots about these other issues if they want to, but it's really secondary.

A central tenet of the Gita is that "you have no right to the fruits of your actions." Is that a stumbling block in a capitalist society?

Not only is it not a stumbling block, it's an enormous help and opportunity. On this particular point, the Gita is totally in harmony with the Tao Te Ching, with Zen, and with any of the clearest spiritual traditions. The central insight is that if you let go of results, if your mind is open enough not to get stuck in any concept of the future or the past, you will be a lot more effective as a capitalist or as a husband or as a mother, or as a chess player or anything.

Of all the sacred texts you have translated, which was the most difficult? How does the Gita stack up?

The Gita wasn't difficult at all for me. The difficulty at the beginning of the project was simply finding the music. Once I had found that, everything fell into place. I finally found the rhythm when working on one line in Chapter 9. There was something so right to that in my ear. I knew that it would accommodate the power and the beauty of the text.

How would you describe that rhythm?

It turns out to be the same rhythm that I used in the Book of Job: a loose three-beat line. It's like the detective stories where the criminal hides something in the most obvious place where people won't find it. Suddenly, it was the most obvious thing in the world. Once I had that, everything unrolled, as opposed to (for instance) the Book of Job, which took me 17 years from beginning to end. But it's really not a question of the text. It is a question of my consciousness. When I started Job, my mind wasn't clear, and I was very confused in my life.

By the time I came to these other texts, my mind was clear, there was no effort involved.