Stephen Mitchell

Dubbed the “rock star” of the world of translation by The Wall Street Journal, STEPHEN MITCHELL has won lavish praise and a huge readership for the luminous clarity of his translations of Pablo Neruda, Yehuda Amichai, and especially book after book by Rainer Maria Rilke. W.S. Merwin praised Mitchell’s Rilke for its “extraordinary combination of formality, power, speed and lightness.” The Chicago Tribune called his Selected Poetry of Rilke “a miracle of a book, perhaps the most beautiful group of translations the twentieth century has ever produced.” Beyond his masterful interpretation of Rilke, Mitchell has also created fresh and inspired translations of the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, the Bhagavad Gita, The Book of Job, Genesis, Psalms, and The Iliad and The Odyssey. And this is only a partial list.

Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Jewish tradition, Mitchell was educated at Amherst College, the Sorbonne, and Yale, after which he had decades of Zen training. In addition to his work as a translator, he has also written poetry and fiction of his own, and seven or eight children’s books; he’s also edited anthologies of sacred writing, including The Enlightened Heart, and co-authored several best-selling books of nonfiction with his wife Byron Katie.

Mitchell describes translation as “falling in love with a book or a consciousness,” wanting to dive in and have as intimate an experiences as possible. This pursuit for intimacy with the words and spirit of the work has long been the driving force behind his work. Once that intimate connection exists, Mitchell’s process is guided by his inner ear, listening for the essence of reality and rhythm, listening closely and deeply until his listening creates exactly what feels right. After years of study, Mitchell developed what felt like “an umbilical connection” to the Tao Te Ching, which he calls one of the wisest books ever written. Early in his career, without a word of Chinese, but sensing that the existing translations (over a hundred of them, by linguists, scholars and theologians) were missing something, he consulted a Chinese scholar who supported many of his somewhat radical interpretations. The resulting translation became a literary sensation, selling over a million copies and establishing him as an important literary voice.

Mitchell has an eye for the genuine and the awareness that distilling the essence of things means going beyond the words. As with many of his adaptations, he took unusual liberties with his translation of Homer’s Iliad, cutting about 1,100 lines of dialogue and infusimg the work with modern dialogue. This enormous freedom of expression comes of his belief that his work must adhere to the spirit of the text over and above the literal meaning, that allegiance to the beauty and music of the original text gives him the space to make something come alive. Mitchell illuminates the tone, clarity, lyric intensity, and rhythms of the great poetic masters for today’s audience, creating the most accessible and exciting translations to date, praised on multiple occasions by The New York Times Book Review, Book Sense, The Quill Award Society, The New Yorker, and the Academy of American Poets. Our culture is surely richer for his work.

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2015

Half the People in the World

Half the people in the world
love the other half,
half the people
hate the other half.
Must I because of this half and that half
go wandering and changing ceaselessly
like rain in its cycle,
must I sleep among rocks,
and grow rugged like the trunks of olive trees,
and hear the moon barking at me,
and camouflage my love with worries,
and sprout like frightened grass between the railroad tracks,
and live underground like a mole,
and remain with roots and not with branches,
and not feel my cheek against the cheek of angels,
and love in the first cave,
and marry my wife beneath a canopy
of beams that support the earth,
and act out my death, always
till the last breath and the last
words and without ever understanding,
and put flagpoles on top of my house
and a bomb shelter underneath. And go out on roads
made only for returning and go through
all the appalling stations—
cat, stick, fire, water, butcher,
between the kid and the angel of death?

(Translated from the Hebrew)
from THE SELECTED POETRY OF YEHUDA AMICHAI (University of California Press, 1996)

The Second Elegy

Every angel is terrifying, And yet, alas,
I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,
knowing about you. Where are the days of Tobias,
when one of you, veiling his radiance, stood at the front door,
slightly disguised for the journey, no longer appalling;
(a young man like the one who curiously peeked through the window).
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars
took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating
higher and higher, would beat us to death. Who are you?

Early successes, Creation’s pampered favorites,
mountain-ranges, peaks growing red in the dawn
of all Beginning,—pollen of the flowering godhead,
joints of pure light, corridors, stairways, thrones,
space formed from essence, shields made of ecstasy, storms
of emotion whirled into rapture, and suddenly, alone,
mirrors: which scoop up the beauty that has streamed from their face
and gather it back, into themselves, entire.

But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we
breathe ourselves out and away; from moment to moment
our emotion grows fainter, like a perfume. Though someone may tell us:
“Yes, you’ve entered my bloodstream, the room, the whole springtime
is filled with you…”—what does it matter? he can’t contain us,
we vanish inside him and around him. And those who are beautiful,
oh who can retain them? Appearance ceaselessly rises
in their face, and is gone. Like dew from the morning grass,
what is ours floats into the air, like steam from a dish
of hot food. O smile, where are you going? O upturned glance:
new warm receding wave on the sea of the heart…
alas, but that is what we are. Does the infinite space
we dissolve into, taste of us then? Do the angels really
reabsorb only the radiance that streamed out from themselves, or
sometimes, as if by an oversight, is there a trace
of our essence in it as well? Are we mixed in with their
features even as slightly as that vague look
in the faces of pregnant women? They do not notice it
(how could they notice) in their swirling return to themselves.

Lovers, if they knew how, might utter strange, marvelous
words in the night air. For it seems that everything
hides us. Look: trees do exist; the houses
that we live in still stand. We alone
fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind.
And all things conspire to keep silent about us, half
out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope.

Lovers, gratified in each other, I am asking you
about us. You hold each other. Where is your proof?
Look, sometimes I find that my hands have become aware
of each other, or that my time-worn face
shelters itself inside them. That gives me a slight
sensation. But who would dare to exist, just for that?
You, though, who in the other’s passion
grow until, overwhelmed, he begs you:
“No more…”: you who beneath his hands
swell with abundance, like autumn grapes;
you who may disappear because the other has wholly
emerged: I am asking you about us. I know,
you touch so blissfully because the caress preserves,
because the place you so tenderly cover
does not vanish; because underneath it
you feel pure duration. So you promise eternity, almost,
from the embrace. And yet, when you have survived
the terror of the first glances, the longing at the window,
and the first walk together, once only, through the garden:
lovers, are you the same? When you lift yourselves up
to each other’s mouth and your lips join, drink against drink:
oh how strangely each drinker seeps away from his action.

Weren’t you astonished by the caution of human gestures
on Attic gravestones? wasn’t love and departure
placed so gently on shoulders that it seemed to be made
of a different substance than in our world? Remember the hands,
how weightlessly they rest, though there is power in the torsos.
These self-mastered figures know: “We can go this far,
this is ours, to touch on another this lightly; the gods
can press down harder upon us. But that is the gods’ affair.”

If only we too could discover a pure, contained,
human place, our own strip of fruit-bearing soil
between river and rock. For our own heart always exceeds us,
as theirs did. And we can no longer follow it, gazing
into images that soothe it or into the godlike bodies
where, measured more greatly, it achieves a greater repose.

(Translated from the French)
From THE SELECTED POETRY OF RAINER MARIA RILKE (Vintage, 1989)

XXIX

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face

grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.

In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

(Translated from the French)
From THE SELECTED POETRY OF RAINER MARIA RILKE (Vintage, 1989)