Stephen Mitchell would have license to be frazzled. On the same day he meets PW for an early morning interview, he is scheduled to hop a plane for an extended European book tour. The next day, his newest book, a contemporary verse translation, from the Sanskrit, of the Bhagavad Gita (Harmony), will hit bookstore shelves. But when we rendezvous at Black Oak Books, a Berkeley institution, Mitchell is calm, cordial and keenly focused, casually dressed in khaki pants and a forest-green short-sleeved Izod T-shirt. From the bookstore, we walk a block to Caffe Bel Forno, where soft jazz plays and late Matisse prints adorn the walls. It's been five years now since Mitchell has lived in Berkeley, but the counterman takes one look at him and smiles, saying, "One lattè" Clearly, wherever he goes, there Stephen Mitchell is: cheerfully low-key and at home in his surroundings.
Translation is an invisible art. But Mitchell stands out, having blazed a wide trail with accessible translations of such classics as the Tao Te Ching, The Book of Job and Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, a trail that other writers--and their publishers--have followed (Seamus Heaney's Beowulf, Ted Hughes's Ovid, Robert Fagles's Odyssey). The volume of the 57-year-old's output is itself impressive--in addition to his translations, Mitchell has published his own p ms and fiction and edited anthologies; and yet what characterizes these diverse efforts is his search for the spiritual. Indeed, amidst a burgeoning diversity of New Age titles, his body of work represents the presence of bedrock.
Having chosen to sit outside on this gloriously sunny California day, Mitchell rests one arm on the edge of our small round table, gesturing gracefully with the other or stroking the absence of his recently shaven-off beard. As he talks, his brown eyes are bright, positively glowing. A private individual who doesn't teach or lead workshops, he's given today's interview advance thought and starts out with the first of many stories.
Born in Brooklyn, he grew up in "a Jewish family where the arts and science took the place of religion." There he encountered "examples of art as a possibility," and cultivated an early attraction to wisdom. A shelf of G the at his grandfather's fascinated him. "I'd sometimes just sit on the floor," he reminisces, "thumbing through Faust or Selected P ms, miniature editions in German, rapt, though not understanding a word."
Mitchell studied literature and philosophy as a pre-med at Amherst College, then in Paris, 1962-63. In Paris, he met a woman who introduced him to Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet in French translation. Returning to Amherst, he learned German to read Rilke. The love affair (with the woman, not Rilke) ended painfully in 1965, when he was studying comparative literature at Yale.
"I began to immerse myself in the Book of Job, because I felt that in the Voice from the Whirlwind section, the poet had seen something earth-shattering. I felt that if I could somehow understand that answer, I would be able to deal with the pain in my heart. I learned Hebrew; then textual scholarship. Six years later, I had gotten very close to a music that satisfied me." His Book of Job was the first rendering of the Biblical text in English verse. But beyond aesthetics, the answer he sought remained a mystery.
"And so I began to study Hindi, and was going to go to India and try to get a teacher. But before I left I bumped into a zen master, and I saw the answer in his eyes." And a book emerged--a compilation of his teacher's talks, dialogues and correspondence titled Dropping Ashes on the Buddha (Grove, 1976). More importantly, after a year of intensive zen training, he finally found himself "in the center of the whirlwind" and saw what Job had seen--the serene, loving, pitiless intelligence that is the source of everything in the universe." Once his translation of Job was complete, Mitchell sent the manuscript out, over and over again, to no avail--until 1978, when it was read by an editor at Doubleday, Jack Miles. Author of the recent God, A Biography, Miles had a background in Semitic languages and accepted it with much excitement.
"So I first got involved with literature," Mitchell confesses, "because of my own hunger for the insight that I felt resonating at the heart of that book. It wasn't literature, it was a desperate need for understanding. And all the books that I've been involved with since have happened as a result of falling in love with a consciousness or a story. The Rilke, or the Tao Te Ching, or the Bhagavad Gita--each translation has always felt to me not like a literary project but like falling in love with a woman and wanting to become intimate with her."
While he was working on The Book of Job, Mitchell moved to Berkeley, where, one day at Cody's Books, he picked up a little book of Rilke's late p ms that he'd never seen before. He took them back to Maui, where he was spending six months of the year studying zen with Robert Aitken, and grew enthused imagining how he might actually translate them himself. He finished the translation back in Berkeley, using a garage as his workspace. "Uninsulated. I worked during the winter with legs stuck in a sleeping bag and with hands in fingerless gloves." This time, he found a publisher thanks to poets Robert Hass and Robert Pinsky. Jonathan Galassi was his first editor at Random House. Mitchell's translations of Rilke not only brought him wider recognition (the Chicago Tribune called his selected p ms of Rilke "perhaps the most beautiful group of poetic translations this century has produced"). "They also provided me for the first time in my life with a small but steady income," and thus gave him the first inkling that he might be able to support himself in the world of letters. (His first advance seemed at the time like "a king's fortune.")
Sending his Rilke to the woman who'd introduced him to the German poet's work 18 years ago "was a marvelous fulfillment." His Rilke also introduced him to an audience who today might read Rumi--an audience extending beyond regular readers of poetry. "Rilke had an extraordinary perception of things that is rare even among the great poets of the world. At the same time, it has to be said that he didn't live it very well." What was Rilke's perception? "Of the depth of things, the wholeness of things."
A heavy truck clatters by as Mitchell takes another sip of his lattÃ©. He laughs, considering the next giant step in his odyssey. "During the early '80s, I was doing intense inner work on my attitude toward money. Through my 20s and 30s, I had an aversion to money and didn't want anything to do with it." Then a "dear friend" pointed out that "aversion is simply the flip side of greed" and that this aversion to money was "as much an obstacle to clarity and to being in the world" as attachment to wealth would be.
Subsequently, in 1986, during a 100-day zen retreat, an intense vision of Yoda, from Star Wars, came to him persistently, night after night. "I paid no attention to it, since in meditation practice even the most sublime experience is looked upon as simply mind-stuff, equivalent to anger or boredom or pain in the knees. But after the hundred days were over, I asked myself, What is this telling me? Maybe what I should do is a very free version of the Tao Te Ching, call it The Book of the Force, translate 'the Tao' as 'the Force,' and have a commentary by Yoda. This would be a terrific amount of fun. It would also be commercial. So that's how I started the Tao Te Ching. I know it sounds silly, but it was what got me started, and allowed me to be as free or as literal as I needed to be."
Through Buddhist friends he'd met Michael Katz, a West Coast literary agent with an intentionally small client list, who supported his idea. Midway along, Katz showed it to an associate of George Lucas. But Lucas didn't want his characters associated with any spiritual tradition. So "the Force" became "the Tao," and Yoda's commentary became Mitchell's own. With book designer Dave Bullen, who'd worked on the revised Job at North Point, the book was sold as a package to Hugh van Dusen at HarperCollins.
Eight years and 550,000 copies later, Mitchell has proved his friend's wisdom that "if you want your books to have the audience that they deserve to have, you need to be in the position where you can gracefully accept the money that comes back to you as well." Most of all, he's pleased it's touched many lives. Yet Mitchell maintains an almost monastic equanimity when it comes to the hurlyburly of publishing. He doesn't read reviews, a lesson initially learned from Rilke, "not to be concerned with what people say, because that's none of my business. Actually this is straight from the central teaching of the Gita. You're entitled to the work but not the fruits of the work."
This ethic was tested with The Gospel According to Jesus (HarperCollins),a milestone placing of Jesus in an interfaith context, which sparked over 100 hate letters from Christian fundamentalist extremists. "The Gospel According to Jesus is a portrait of Jesus as an awakened Jewish teacher. It collects and translates what I consider to be the authentic passages in the Gospels and also points out the similarities between Jesus--his clarity and depth of insight--and the great masters in the Buddhist, Jewish, Sufi, and Hindu traditions. The hate letters were amusing, in a way, like standing in front of a funhouse mirror. But I could sympathize with these people's fear and pain at what they considered desecration of the holy. I did get many more letters of deep appreciation, not only from Christians but also from Jews who were able to admire Jesus now for the first time. Of all my books, this one has probably changed the most lives--not that that was my intention."
After the publication of the allegorical fiction Meetings with the Archangel, his last title with HarperCollins following its "internal reorganization," Mitchell produced The Frog Prince: A Fairy Tale for Consenting Adults (1999). Harmony publisher Linda L wenthal (founder of One Spirit book club), is keeping it in hardcover through Valentine's Day; it's also being developed for a Broadway musical.
If Mitchell is on a roll, it's one that began with his first book and simply and steadily continued. His passion is unchanged, but instead of a garage he now works in a spacious converted horse barn. Does he put in an eight-hour day? "If I sit down and something wants to come, then I write and if it doesn't, then I don't. When the writing starts to lose its freshness, I put down my work and don't go back for the rest of the day. That's my method.
"The Gita, for example, required three longhand drafts and two more on computer, with most of the time taken for the first draft, going through the Sanskrit with an analytical version, comparing this with a couple of dozen versions." With all his books, Mitchell spent additional time reading them for the audio editions, except for Job, which was read by Peter Coyote. "It takes just a little time, and I love to read," he says.
Michael Katz remains his agent, valued by Mitchell for his instincts as well as publishing savvy. He helped guide all Mitchell's books, and even suggested such projects as the quintessential wisdom anthology, The Essence of Wisdom, and Mitchell's next book--a collection of the teachings of a remarkable woman named Byron Katie. "Michael discovered her last summer, got very excited, sent me a videotape, said, 'You must go see this woman.' It was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. Katie had a profound awakening in 1986, not knowing a thing about 'spirituality,' thank God. Out of this came a method she calls The Work. It's one of the most powerful methods ever devised to ease human suffering. It's simple, radical and life-changing. And it can lead to a way of being in the world that only the great spiritual masters have known: a life of complete freedom and joy. In that sense, since the point is to end human suffering, we're closing the circle with Job and with the Buddha."
And with the Gita? "Yes," says Mitchell. "That great p m, too, was written by someone who knew the radiance of pure mind and had attained the place beyond sorrow."
Meanwhile, Mitchell has that plane to catch. But, the sun at zenith, what better thing to do than lunch--at Saul's Delicatessen.
Gach edited What Book!?--Buddha P ms from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award winner, 1999) and is author of the forthcoming Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Buddhism (Macmillan).