If God Spoke English
by Anneli Rufus
If all those books purporting to be the word of God really are, then He is one heck of a polyglot — equally fluent in Arabic, Sanskrit, Chinese and more. And, if you'll pardon the blasphemy, he has a knack for self-contradiction.
Stephen Mitchell translates God into English. That's his job. He's done it a handful of times — with the Book of Genesis, the Tao Te Ching, most recently India's Bhagavad Gita. Compared to almost anything it's a portentous task for the California poet who calls himself, "God help us, a sort of Buddhist-Taoist-Jew."
Having studied at the Sorbonne and immersed himself in Zen during the early `70s, he was groomed to be the successor to his master, the Korean sage Seung Sahn. His master taught Mitchell about universal truth by explaining that "in a cookie factory, different cookies are baked in the shape of animals, cars, people, and airplanes. They all have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same dough... In the same way, all things in the universe — the sun, the moon, the stars, mountains, rivers, people, and so forth — have different names and forms, but they are all made from the same substance... Energy, mind, God, and matter are all name and form."
The idea of giving mainstream readers access to the world's spiritual classics — and their universal truths — proved irresistible.
Language wasn't a problem (At last count, he was comfortable with eight.) But how does a self-made oracle decide which words of God to deliver? (See our "Spiritual World Tour" map.) Mitchell calls it "a question of a deep sympathy" with certain texts, sort of like falling in love: Feeling instantly, innately intimate with a book, he then revels in the process of discovering its nuances, honing its high points, and broadcasting its greatness to the world.
The approach reads like a primer to faith itself. Meaningful engagement — with any tradition — involves an intermingling of discipline and love.
Mitchell's most recent achievement is the Baghavad Gita — the translator calls the 2,000-year-old epic, a battlefield dialogue between the god Krishna and a quizzical warrior-prince, "a love song to reality."
His instructive style is apparent throughout. It's a deceptively simple style, lyrical but clear as running water with the requisite flashes of blinding insight. It's an ace that has bagged him more brushes with a celebrity crowd than you'd expect a translator to have, including the adulation of TV legend Norman Lear and a stint onscreen discussing Genesis with Bill Moyers. Writerly matters such as deciding how many beats per line to use and how to pick diction that is "loose and natural and unforced enough for a great text," Mitchell says, "is a matter of not struggling but just waiting in the dark until it appears."
Very Zen. Or is it very Vedic?
It's true about the cookie factory. Occasional contradictions notwithstanding, Mitchell marvels at the similarities he finds among diverse sacred texts, even those from opposite ends of the earth. One similarity, of course, is godly self-promotion. Krishna in the Baghavad Gita echoes Yahweh when he calls himself "the father of the universe ... the beginning and the end ... the heat of the sun ... and all that is." Another nearly universal truth — a "central lesson," Mitchell says — is about acting from the heart without yearning for a payback.
"Nothing's more powerful," he says, "than just surrendering to the intelligence of the universe. Every artist knows that."
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