Listening For God

Translator Stephen Mitchell on east and west, the psyche, and the divine.

          Stephen Mitchell first gained a measure of popular attention in 1991 owing to the controversy over his book The Gospel According to Jesus, an ambitious and deceptively contentious translation of and commentary on what Mitchell deemed the "authentic" teachings of Jesus. It scandalized fundamentalists and academics alike--by stripping away many New Testament passages (which Mitchell, following numerous Biblical scholars, ascribed to later authors), and by placing the figure of Jesus in the tradition of great eastern teachers.

          By that time, Mitchell had already published 14 books, most of them translations of poetry (chiefly Rilke) and of major religious texts (The Book of Job, the Tao Te Ching). An eclectic and well-read Buddhist, he's been called one of the greatest translators of his generation, but that aspect of his work has always been the means to an end for Mitchell. The animating force behind most of his books is a voracious curiosity about the common threads connecting the world's great spiritual traditions. His latest book, Genesis, is yet another new Biblical translation, which arose from his participation in a Bill Moyers PBS series. Last week I spoke to him on the phone at his Sonoma, California, home.

          City Pages: Why and how did you become a translator in the first place?

          Stephen Mitchell: Well, it's a long story, but I'll tell you the outlines of it. When I was 22, I was at Yale graduate school, and my first love affair ended quite painfully. I couldn't find a way to come to terms with the pain in my heart. I found myself over the next year or so gravitating to the Book of Job with a magnetic intensity. I felt that there was some deep spiritual experience at the core of the Voice from the Whirlwind's answer to Job--that there was something absolutely genuine about that that I was hungry to understand. I felt that somehow if I could understand what kind of answer the Voice from the Whirlwind had given Job, then I would have a way of dealing with the pain in my own heart.

          And so that led me to immerse myself in it in English and then to learn Hebrew so that I could get even closer to it. And eventually, once I was committed to the project, I discovered that I'd have to learn textual scholarship and a few other Near Eastern languages and a whole slew of things that I had no idea I'd have to do. But I was already committed to the project. And so this continued for six years, at the end of which I had gotten very close to a music that satisfied me a lot. The aesthetic part of the project was to recreate the music of the Hebrew verse in English, which had never been done.

          But the answer still was a mystery to me, and at the end of six years--this was already 1973--I realized that I wasn't going to get it from words on the page, even the most magnificent and profound words, and that I would have to seek the answer in the flesh. And so I began to study Hindi, and I was going to go to India and try to get a teacher. And on the way, I bumped into a Zen master, and I saw the answer in his eyes. A year later, after a year of incredibly intense practice, I found myself in the center of that whirlwind.

          This is all part of a much longer story, but actually it was--it didn't have to do with wanting to be a translator, but being hungry for that spiritual experience at the core of Job, and I felt that if I didn't understand, I was just going to strangle. It was that intense.

          CP: You write at one point in the introduction to Genesis that the stories "have much to teach us about the soul but little to teach us about what the soul longs for." Can you elaborate on that distinction?

          Mitchell: I could have said nothing to teach us about what the soul longs for, and that would have been fair, I think. Although there's a hint of it in the Joseph story. These stories are not about God. They're about conflict and suffering and the muck and trouble of the soul in its growth.

          I have a friend who's a Zen teacher and writing a book about a distinction that I think maybe [psychologist James] Hillman makes, between soul and spirit. It's a useful distinction: The spirit is that part of us that longs for wisdom and light and whose path is upward. The soul is that part of us which wants to get immersed in mud and conflict and pain as a way of transforming itself. As a kind of grounding in the things of this world and human relations. It's not a monkish part of us. It's a very gutsy part. In terms of that distinction, these are really soul stories. The only hint that we get of spirit is in the kind of transformation that Joseph undergoes, which is through the darkness, through the pit and the mud and the suffering of slavery, toward and into a kind of character who is transparent in the end: transparent in the sense of letting the light of God shine through him, and forgiving terrible acts on the part of his brother. That's some of what's at issue anyway.

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