Dennis Littrell's Reviews > Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation

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Apr 24, 10

bookshelves: the-gita-and-hinduism

Mitchell, Stephen. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation (2000) *****
Intelligent, accessible and beautifully presented

First of all this is a beautiful book. The design by Barbara Sturman in which the text is presented in a handsome wine/purple font set in wide margins with the chapter titles in a contemporary font of soft vermillion suggests reverence for the Gita while hinting of a twenty-first century Western appreciation. There is a ribbon sown into the binder for keeping your place.

Second, the emphasis is on the text of the Gita itself garlanded by Mitchell's brief introduction and his "About the Translation" and a most appropriate and valuable appendix, "The Message of the Gita" by Mohandas K. Gandhi from his Collected Works.

Third, there is the translation itself, which is poetic and easily accessible to the contemporary reader without diluting the sacred essence of this great work of spirituality. Mitchell, who has had extensive experience rendering poetic and spiritual works into English, including a much-admired translation of the Tao Te Ching, worked hard at fusing "the dignity of formal verse" into a "sound like natural speech" (p. 32). Rather than go through torturous artificialities in trying to fit all of the text into metric lines, Mitchell has chosen to present some of the Gita in prose. Thus the opening chapter, which he calls "Arjuna's Despair," in which the scene is set and the participants identified, is gracefully told in prose, as is the introduction of the second chapter until Krishna speaks. The effect is beautiful, since it highlights the importance of what Krishna is about to say in a speech that really begins the poem and the teaching. (Shakespeare used this technique.)

Mitchell has solved the problem of the word "yoga," a long time bugaboo for English translators of the Gita, by sometimes using "yoga" and sometimes using "discipline." I certainty appreciate his discretion, having been annoyed for years by those translators who use only "discipline," a word that in many instances misleads the reader and muddies the text with exactly the wrong meaning and connotation. Restricting himself to the word "discipline" alone, as Mitchell explains, "would be an impoverishment." He adds, "how could one expect the reader to keep a straight face at the image of Krishna as the ?" (p. 33). Krishna is indeed the Lord of Yoga.

Mitchell does not attempt to translate some other terms, like "guna," because, "Attempts to find English equivalents...have been uniformly unsuccessful and confuse more than they clarify" (p. 33). Anyone versed in yoga knows that the gunas--sattva, rajas, and tamas--represent something close to an entire philosophy and cannot be understood without some study. The usual rendering as "qualities" or "strands" is tolerable, but, as Mitchell indicates, impoverished, and sometimes leads to a misrepresentation of the text. (See especially 13.21 and compare it with other translations and to the gloss of Sankara, which can be found in the translation by Swami Nikhilanada (1979) published by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, and elsewhere.) However not all scholars agree with this. Kees Bolle in his translation (1979), published by the University of California Press, insists that "words like , , and must be translated" (p. 226). His concluding essay, "On Translating the Bhagavadgita" is a sharp, candid, and entertaining discussion of some of the problems that translators face.

Where Mitchell runs afoul of some readers is in his worldly attitude toward the Gita as revealed in the introduction, where he uses a story by Borges and a reminiscence by J. Robert Oppenheimer to make a couple of points. He also assumes a somewhat Taoist position. To those not conversant with the Tao Te Ching, Mitchell's statement on page 30, "The healthiest way to begin reading and absorbing a text like the Bhagavad Gita is to understand that ultimately it has nothing to teach," is definitely off-putting. To me Mitchell's position is not a detriment and indeed the only proper stance for a translator is secular. The Gita is a sacred work to Hindus and yogis and others, but to people who practice other religions and who have been raised in other traditions, the Gita, while a great poetic and spiritual work, has to take its place alongside the Bible, the Tao Te Ching, the Koran and other religious works. To others, the Gita is, as it was to T.S. Eliot, simply a great philosophical poem. (Eliot considered it second to Dante's the Divine Comedy.)

Mitchell may also startle some uncritical readers of the Gita with his argument in a footnote on pages 200-202 that the last six chapters are not of the same quality as chapters 1-12. He sees a difference in attitude and finds the last six chapters "much inferior...both poetically and spiritually." I tend to agree, but all venerable religious works are uneven and contain different voices. It is also true that the Gita is repetitious to some extent (although that is not necessarily to its disadvantage as a didactic scripture), and even seemingly contradictory. I believe this is an unavoidable consequence of being complex and of having been passed down through many generations both before and after it was written down.

To those who might find Mitchell not completely qualified to bring yet another translation of the Gita into the English-speaking world because, as he admits on page 30, his "knowledge of Sanskrit is rudimentary," I can only say, his is a fine tradition. I am thinking of the poet W. B. Yeats, who also without much Sanskrit, but with the help of Shree Purohit Swami, wrote a beautiful translation of The Ten Principal Upanishads (1937), and of Christopher Isherwood, also without much Sanskrit, but with the help of Swami Prabhavananda, published a graceful rendition of the Gita (1944).

Bottom line: this is a beautiful and valuable book that would enhance anyone's library, and I recommend it highly.

--a review by Dennis Littrell
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