Stephen Mitchell

Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Stephen Mitchell in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]


| January/February 1995



“All of my books have been the results of falling in love,” says Stephen Mitchell of the many translations he’s produced in a nearly thirty-year career. “They’re encounters with consciousnesses that I’ve been able to meet in the depths.” 

And what imposing consciousnesses! Rainer Maria Rilke, the Evangelists, and the unknown authors of the book of Job and the Tao Te Ching, among others, have all found fresh voices in Mitchell’s energetic English. And Mitchell, 51, has found psychic and spiritual renewal “in the depths” through loving intimacy with texts that some see as mere cultural monuments. 

“My first serious love affair blew up in 1965, when I was a first-year graduate student in comparative literature at Yale,” he says. “The pain in my heart was so great that I didn’t have any way to deal with it.” So Mitchell, who was also discovering that an academic career was, as he puts it, “not where my passion lay,” began to driftand to read the Book of Job. 

He wrestled for seven years with the Hebrew of the great tale of unmerited suffering and steadfast faith“to try to get a handle on my pain. But I couldn’t get what I needed from the text,” he recalls. So he reset his spiritual compass from West to East and spent six years practicing Zen under the Korean master Seung Sahn, whose teachings are the subject of Mitchell’s first book, Dropping Ashes on the Buddha (1976). “In those years I did very little writing and reading. I went cold turkey,” he laughs. 

And then a curious thing happened. Everything Mitchell had let go during those six yearsliterature, his Jewish past, the habit of loving struggle with foreign tongues“came back of itself,” he says. “It had all been ripening in the dark.” 

He re-encountered the luminous poems of Rilke, which he’d tried without success or satisfaction to translate in grad school. “I met Rilke like you meet an old high school friend after ten years. You see yourself in that friend, and I saw in Rilke things that I had experienced in Zen practice.” (The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, published in 1982, is a generous sampler of Mitchell’s work as the German poet’s definitive English translator.)