Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Stephen Mitchell in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
“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 drift—and 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 years—literature, 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.)
“All the texts I’ve worked on have come from a similar place of spiritual depth,” he says. “Both the poet of Job and the author of the Tao Te Ching actually saw how the universe works. The Job poet expressed that in a Jewish way. As for the Asian way, I think it can be an easier way for many modern Westerners. It can be a relief to talk about It—the ultimate reality—without the familiar Western imagery and baggage, all the many centuries of concepts.”
Is Stephen MItchell himself a spiritual teacher? “I’ve heard of people learning things through my work,” he says. “But I couldn’t begin to teach until I finished my own inner homework.” He pauses and smiles. “Maybe in a couple of years.”