2017-07-12
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.

Of all the different texts that you've translated, which lines linger in your mind? Which do you find yourself coming back to and repeating to yourself in daily life?

Nothing lingers. Once I'm finished, it's as if they have been assimilated to the point where they don't exist anymore. If somebody asks me about them, I have them at my fingertips, but I never think of them. It's like having a friend who is so intimate with you, you never have to call or write if you're away from that friend for a day or week or a year.

If you could talk to one writer you've translated--Rilke or the author of the Book of Job or the singer of the Psalms--to ask them if you've gotten their translations right or gotten the spirit of their text right, who would it be?

I wouldn't have to. I know I've gotten it right for me, and the rest doesn't matter. It would be nice to have a latte with Rilke or with the author of the Book of Job, if they were interested.

What would you ask?

I would just chat. I would like to know if they like foam on their latte or not. In my book "Meetings With the Archangel," my narrator winds up where Blake is sitting at an outdoor café chatting with Michelangelo and Isaiah. There's a long chat I have with Blake and that was great fun. Blake might or might not be one of the first 10 choices.

What's the best fan letter you've ever received?

Each of the books has gotten its share of very enthusiastic fan letters, and the "Gospel According to Jesus" got its share of hate letters too. It was kind of touching to read them. These were people who felt their whole world was threatened by that book. I remember there were dozens of letters where the writers had not even felt safe enough to write that I was going to hell, but cut out letters from newspaper and pasted them together.

Like a ransom note?

Oh yes, at great length, what a terrible thing I'd done. How I was going to burn in hell because I was blasphemously attacking the sacred. They couldn't even write it down, they had to paste in these letters from newspapers. That's what happens when people have these rigid religious structures they feel are threatened.

When you give readings, do you ever feel called upon to justify Eastern concepts to Christians or vice versa?

I don't justify anything to anybody. If somebody who is a Christian asks me what my feeling is about one of these texts, I will tell them honestly and leave them to fit it into their world or not. I just tell people what my experience is and leave them to sort it out themselves.

What are you working on now?

A book that will be out next fall that will present the work of a woman named Byron Katie. "The Work" is the most powerful thing that I have encountered to help people end their suffering.

When you say "end their suffering," what do you mean?

What all these sacred texts are about is ending human suffering. From Job to the Gita to the Tao Te Ching, it's helping people live with a clear mind without the endless mental projections and fantasies that we unconsciously get stuck in. Byron Katie has found a method--simple, accessible, extremely powerful--to help even the least aware of us to live this way, and it's amazing. What the Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and all the rest want to do is to help people live in the clarity that all the masters have lived in.