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Translation or interpretive rendering?
on January 7, 2002
I really like Stephen Mitchell's work, but it's important to know what you're getting.
What you're ordinarily _not_ getting is a straight-up translation of the source text; you're getting Mitchell's attempt to render the source text into a fine English poem that expresses the spiritual insights he wants it to express. (Examples: his excellent interpretive renderings of the Psalms and the Tao Te Ching. They are excellent interpretive renderings; they are _not_ translations.)
Even when the translation _is_ straightforward, he tends to chop the text to bits and just keep the parts he agrees with. (Examples: his translation of the book of Genesis, which includes the entire text but relegates the "spiritually suspect" parts to an appendix, and his rendering of the book of Job, which includes some terrific translation but omits the speech of Elihu and the poem in praise of wisdom.)
And now he's done the Bhagavad Gita. Has he translated it, or has he interpretively rendered it?
Well, the first point to make is that he _has_ included the entire text and limited himself to offering commentary on the parts he doesn't agree with. (Incidentally, I tend to disagree with the same parts and I understand that there have been Hindu scholars who have at least raised the same questions that Mitchell does.) This point alone means that Mitchell's Gita is a landmark: he hasn't chopped up the text in order to leave out the "spiritually inferior" portions.
So how good is his translation? Well, Mitchell says his own Sanskrit is "rudimentary," but that doesn't mean (as some reviewers seem to think) that he doesn't know any at all. (This is a bit different from his Tao Te Ching, in which he admits that he just doesn't read Chinese.) And this _is_ called a "new translation" rather than a "new interpretation."
But I don't know any Sanskrit at all, so I've just done some short comparisons with other translations. Based on spot-checks against the versions of Barbara Stoller Miller and Juan Mascaro, it looks to me as though Mitchell has stayed pretty close to the source. This is of course not an expert opinion of any kind and I'm prepared to be corrected by anyone who knows better. (And it may not even be much of a test, as Miller's translation in particular was one of the handful Mitchell consulted in preparing his own.)
Either way, what Mitchell is up to here is what he's up to nearly everywhere: he uses the traditional text as a medium to convey his own spiritual insights. And it's pretty clear from the get-go that he regards Lao-Tzu (i.e., _his_ Lao-Tzu) as spiritually superior to the author(s) of the Gita. Some readers may well agree with this evaluation (and I may be one of them; you guess). But all readers should be aware that Mitchell isn't trying to present a reverent discussion of the teachings of the Gita; he's sifting through it to see what parts of it measure up to his own Buddhist-Taoist-Jewish insights.
I am _not_ criticizing this enterprise; far from it. I tend to agree with many of Mitchell's insights, I really really really enjoy his poetic renderings, and on the whole I even admire his chutzpah (although in other books I've seen reason to criticize some of his scholarship). And in the present work he does, for example, raise (and to some extent answer) deep questions about the limits of nonviolence.
But, y'know, caveat emptor and all that. If you buy this book, buy it as Stephen Mitchell's work, not as an introduction to Hinduism through one of its central sacred texts. It's not really fair to describe this as a "boutique" Gita, but on the other hand it _is_ primarily a vehicle for Mitchell himself. I think that, like all of Mitchell's stuff, it's well worth reading and owning, but it depends on what you're looking for.