Genesis: A New Translation of the Classic Bible Storiesby Stephen Mitchell, Stephen Mitchell
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It would be no exaggeration to say that Stephen Mitchell is the preeminent translator of our age. His Tao Te Ching has been called "definitive for our time," his The Gospel According to Jesus "a masterpiece of immense power and permanence," and his The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke "the most beautiful group of poetic translations this century has produced." His translation of The Book of Job has been recognized as the greatest since the King James Version.
Now Mitchell has turned his attention to the book of Genesis, one of the most important books in human history. This new translation is published simultaneously with the first telecast of the ten-part Bill Moyers PBS series on Genesis in which panels of noted scholars and writers, including Stephen Mitchell, Karen Armstrong, John Barth, Mary Gordon, Oscar Hijuelos, Charles Johnson, and Elaine Pagels, discuss what the classic stories of Genesis can mean for us today.
In Genesis: A New Translation of the Classic Biblical Stories, Mitchell embodies in English the simplicity, dignity, and powerful earthiness of the original Hebrew. He also gives the text a stunning new clarity by separating into their sources stories that were combined by scribes centuries after they were written and omitting all verses that are recognized as scribal additions. This immeasurably strengthens the original stories; it is like removing coat after coat of lacquer that has obscured the vibrant colors of a masterpiece. The scribal additions are fully translated in an appendix and extensive textual notes, In his introductory essay, Mitchell puts the historical Genesis in context and explains its importance as a central story of the human spirit.
Genesis: A New Translation of the Classic Biblical Stories is an extraordinarily beautiful book that is readable in a way that no other Genesis has ever been. It will shed new light on your understanding of this seminal work of sacred scripture.
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I had no intention of translating Genesis until, on the day before the Fourth of July, 1994, Bill Moyers called and invited me to participate in his PBS series. I told him I would think about it and get back to him in three days.
Actually, it wasn't thinking that I did during those three days. It was a kind of alert waiting.
Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the
water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by
I knew that much of Genesis spoke to me without intimacy, in the tones of a stranger; much of it didn't speak to me at all. If the fellow inside who makes my decisions required a wholehearted love for the book as a prerequisite, I would have to say no.
I soon realized that this was a matter of affinity. If I could find even one passage in Genesis where I had the kind of umbilical connection that I felt with the Job poet, or with Rilke or Lao-tzu, that might be enough. During the first hour of musing on the question, I found five. There was the verse at the end of chapter 1 when God calls the world "very good": a verse that had lit up for me in the mid-seventies, after several years of intensive meditation, as the perfect metaphor for the spaciousness of a mind in which repose and insight are synonymous. Then, Abram's response to the call in chapter 12, a paradigm for every spiritual departure. There was the story of Jacob and Rachel, especially 29:20 ("And Jacob served seven years for Rachel; and they seemed to him just a few days, so great was his love for her"), a verse that described a crucial aspect of my own inner practice and was'is'for me the most moving verse in the entireBible."Jacob and the (So-Called) Angel," an enormously important story while I was training with my old Zen master, showed me that not only wrestling with but defeating God is a necessary rite of passage to spiritual freedom. And finally the great"Joseph and His Brothers," a story of descent, transformation, and mastery, with an insight-filled, all-embracing forgiveness at its core. In addition, I had long been fascinated with Adam, Eve, and the serpent, and with "The Binding of Isaac": profound, brilliant stories that rise from the depths of the unconscious mind, uncensored, unfiltered, dark, rich, unassimilable, compelling, and dangerous if taken at surface value'the first one, as interpreted by the Church, a catastrophe in the history of our culture; both of them crying out for midrash, creative transformation, to make them true.
So the deep connections were there, and I knew that I could accept the invitation with a sense of integrity. But the process felt incomplete, as if one more step was necessary. That step appeared at the end of the second day. If I agreed to talk about Genesis, I would first have to translate it: to confront it in its entirety, immerse myself in it, live with it in the kind of intimacy that the process of translation requires. Once I had done that, I would know it through and through, the way Adam knew Eve. Even if there were things about it that I disliked, it would have become part of me, and I could dislike these things from the inside.
I had no illusions about the actual work of translation. Some of it would be interesting. Some of it would be exquisitely dull'the genealogies written by P, the Priestly Writer (that adding machine among poets); the absurd patchwork of "Abram and the Kings," which I would have to translate into an equally clumsy English;the late, shoddy accounts of Joseph in power that are stapled onto what Tolstoy called the most beautiful story in the world. None of the work would have the fascination of what's difficult, the passionate challenge of translating great poetry. But I was sure that I would learn a lot.
The mud had settled, considerately on schedule. I called Bill Moyers and said yes.
The great Russian poet Boris Pasternak identified the central issue in the art of translation when he said, "The average translator gets the literal meaning right but misses the tone; and tone is everything." This is just as true of prose as of poetry. Tone is the life-rhythm of a mind. Reading a translation that renders a great writer's words without re-creating their tone is like listening to a computer play Mozart.
My method in establishing the tone of this Genesis was to listen to the Hebrew with one ear and with the other ear to hear into existence an equivalent English. In the process I had to filter out the sound of the King James Version, insofar as that is possible. English-speaking readers usually think of biblical language as Elizabethan: magniloquent, orotund, liturgical, archaic, full of thees and thous and untos and thereofs and prays. But ancient Hebrew, especially ancient Hebrew prose, is in many ways the opposite of that. Its dignity comes from its supreme simplicity. It is a language of concision and powerful earthiness, austere in its vocabulary, straightforward in its syntax, spare with its adjectives and adverbs'a language that pulses with the energy of elemental human truths.
My job was to re-create this massive dignity and simplicity in an English that felt like it was mine. Dignity is not, I think, a quality you can aim at; it is a function of a writer's sincerity, and it arises on its own in a translation if you have listened deeply enough to the original text and have at the same time been faithful to the genius of the English language. Simplicity is a bit easier to talk about. It doesn't only mean using as few words as possible. It is also a matter of finding a language that sounds completely natural, unliterary, in some sense unwritten: the words of a voice telling ancient stories without adornment and without self-consciousness. This biblical style is a creation of the highest literary intuition and tact. No other Western classic has anything like it. It is worlds away from the exquisitely precise, elaborated, gorgeous language of the Homeric poems, the other great texts at the source of Western culture.
The translation of prose, almost as much as of poetry, requires an ear finely attuned to the sound of words. It is fatal when a contemporary Genesis confuses the natural with the vulgar or imitates the cadences of the King James Version. Stiff formality is one extreme, vulgar breeziness the other; in Dryden's terms, you must be neither on stilts nor too low. But finding the right tone is not a question of testing the levels of diction the way Goldilocks tested the mattresses, of finding the midpoint between high and low. You can't measure tone with a ruler or a compass. You have to find the sound of the genuine.
It has to be living, to learn the speech
of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and
The women of the time.
Over the next few months, as I worked on Genesis and began to talk about it, people kept asking, "How is your translation different from other translations?" (I felt I was always responding to the question of the youngest son on the first night of Passover.) I tried to explain by quoting Pasternak on tone. If someone persisted and showed real interest, I would sit him down with three other versions of some central passages and let him compare for himself. This is the most direct way.
In the following excerpts the first entry is from the Revised English Bible, the best of the committee versions; the second is from E. A. Speiser's Anchor Bible Genesis; the third is by Everett Fox; the fourth is mine.
The first passage is the beginning of the dialogue between Eve and the serpent. Here everything depends on the genuineness of the spoken word. The serpent must sound colloquial, offhand, devious almost in passing. He is not asking Eve a question; he is, delicately, insidiously, arousing her curiosity; his first speech is nothing but a raised eyebrow. Eve, on the other hand, has to speak with the syntax and the innocence of a child.
The serpent, which was the most cunning of all the creatures the LORD God had made, asked the woman, "Is it true that God has forbidden you to eat from any tree in the garden?" She replied, "We may eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except for the tree in the middle of the garden. God has forbidden us to eat the fruit of that tree or even to touch it; if we do, we shall die." "Of course you will not die," said the serpent; "for God knows that, as soon as you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God himself, knowing both good and evil." The woman looked at the tree: the fruit would be good to eat; and it was pleasing to the eye and desirable for the knowledge it could give. So she took some and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, and he ate it.
revised english bible [3:1-6]
Now the serpent was the sliest of all the wild creatures that God Yahweh had made. Said he to the woman, "Even though God told you not to eat of any tree in the garden . . ." The woman interrupted the serpent, "But we may eat of the trees in the garden! It is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God did say, `Do not eat of it or so much as touch it, lest you die!'" But the serpent said to the woman, "You are not going to die. No, God well knows that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be the same as God in telling good from bad."
When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eye, and that the tree was attractive as a means to wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate; and she gave some to her husband and he ate.
e. a. speiser, Genesis
Now the snake was more shrewd than all the living-things of the field that YHWH, God, had made. / It said to the woman: / Even though God said: You are not to eat from any of the trees in the garden . . . ! / The woman said to the snake: / From the fruit
of the (other) trees in the garden we may eat, / but from the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, / God has said: You are not to eat from it and you are not to touch it, / lest you die. / The snake said to the woman: / Die, you will not die! / Rather, God knows / that on the day that you eat from it, your eyes will be opened / and you will become like gods, knowing good and evil. / The woman saw / that the tree was good for eating / and that it was a delight to the eyes, / and the tree was desirable to contemplate. / She took from its fruit and ate / and gave also to her husband beside her, / and he ate.
everett fox, The Five Books of Moses (the diagonal lines used here do not appear in the Fox version; they indicate where new lines in that version begin, as if the passage were verse)
Now the serpent was more cunning than any creature the Lord had made. And he said to the woman, "Did God really say that you're not allowed to eat from any tree in the garden?"
And the woman said, "We are allowed to eat from any tree in the garden. It's just the tree in the middle of the garden that we must not eat from, because God said, `If you eat from it, or even touch it, you die.'"
And the serpent said, "You will not die. God knows that as soon as you eat from it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil."
And when the woman saw that the tree was good to eat from and beautiful to look at, she took one of its fruits and ate, and gave it to her husband, and he ate too.
My second example is from "The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah." This story is horrifying in several ways, not the least of which is the author's unconsciousness of the casual brutality of Lot's offer; Lot is, after all, considered a righteous man and a paradigm of hospitality, and the prose barely shudders when he volunteers his virgin daughters to be raped by the mob. Here again, for the dialogue to work, the English has to be natural and passionate: Lot must make his offer, in the panic of the moment, with the simplest of words; the mob must sound like a mob, shouting real threats, not phrases that would never be heard except in the soundproof chambers of a translator's mind.
But before they had lain down to sleep, the men of Sodom, both old and young, everyone without exception, surrounded the house. They called to Lot: "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may have intercourse with them." Lot went out into the doorway to them, and, closing the door behind him, said, "No, my friends, do not do anything so wicked. Look, I have two daughters, virgins both of them; let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But do nothing to these men, because they have come under the shelter of my roof." They said, "Out of our way! This fellow has come and settled here as an alien, and does he now take it upon himself to judge us? We will treat you worse than them." They crowded in on Lot, and pressed close to break down the door. But the two men inside reached out, pulled Lot into the house, and shut the door. Then they struck those in the doorway, both young and old, with blindness so that they could not find the entrance.
r. e. b. [19:4-11]
Before they could lie down, the townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old'all the people to the last man'closed in on the house. They called out to Lot and said to him, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may get familiar with them." Lot met them outside at the entrance, having shut the door behind him. He said, "I beg you, my friends, don't be wicked. Look, I have two daughters who never consorted with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please. But don't do anything to these men, inasmuch as they have come under the shelter of my roof." They answered, "Stand back! The fellow," they said, "came here on sufferance, and now he would act the master! Now we'll be meaner to you than to them!" With that, they pressed hard against the person of Lot and moved forward to break down the door. But the men put out their hands and pulled Lot inside, shutting the door. And the people who were at the entrance of the house, one and all, they struck with blinding light, so that they were unable to reach the entrance.
They had not yet lain down, when the men of the city, the men of Sedom, encircled the house, / from young lad to old man, all the people (even) from the outskirts. / They called out to Lot and said to him: / Where are the men who came to you tonight? / Bring them out to us, we want to know them! / Lot went out to them, to the entrance, shutting the door behind him / and said: Pray, brothers, do not be so wicked! / Now pray, I have two daughters who have never known a man, / pray let me bring them out to you, and you may deal with them however seems good in your eyes; / only to these men do nothing, / for they have, after all, come under the shadow of my roof-beam! / But they said: / Step aside! / and said: / This one came here to sojourn, and here he would act-the-judge and adjudicate?! / Now we will treat you more wickedly than them! / And they pressed exceedingly hard against the man, against Lot, and stepped closer to break down the door. / But the men put out their hand and brought Lot in to them, into the house, and shut the door. / And the men who were at the entrance to the house, they struck with dazzling-light, (all men) great and small, / so that they were unable to find the entrance.
Before they had gone to bed, the men of Sodom surrounded the house, young and old, down to the last man. And they called out to Lot, "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out here, so we can sleep with them."
And Lot went out into the entrance and shut the door behind him. And he said, "Friends, I beg you, don't do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out, and you can do whatever you want to them. But don't do anything to these men, because they have come under the shelter of my roof."
And someone said, "Out of our way!" And someone said, "This fellow just got here, and now he is telling us what to do! Watch out, or you'll get it even worse than them!" And they pressed hard against Lot and moved in closer, to break down the door. But the beings reached out and pulled Lot inside and shut the door. And they struck the men at the entrance with a dazzling light, so that no one could find the door.
The last passage I will quote for comparison is the climactic scene in the Joseph story, one of the most moving passages in the entire Bible. Joseph's reaction is conveyed in the Hebrew with immense power, yet with the greatest delicacy imaginable. An error in tone here, a weak noun, an unconscious rhyme, falsifies the deep emotion and brings the scene perilously close to melodrama or farce.
When Joseph looked around, he saw his own mother's son, his brother Benjamin, and asked, "Is this your youngest brother, of whom you told me?" and to Benjamin he said, "May God be gracious to you, my son." Joseph, suddenly overcome by his feelings for his brother, was almost in tears, and he went into the inner room and wept. Then, having bathed his face, he came out and, with his feelings now under control, he ordered the meal to be served.
r. e. b. [43:29-31]
As his eye fell on Benjamin, his mother's son, he asked, "Is this the youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?" And he added, "God be gracious to you, my boy." With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling for his brother, and wanted to cry. He went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face and reappeared and'now in control of himself again'gave the order, "Serve the meal!"
He lifted up his eyes and saw Binyamin his brother, his mother's son, / and he said: / Is this your youngest brother, of whom you spoke to me? / And he said: / May God show you favor, my son! / And in haste'for his feelings were so kindled toward his brother that he had to weep'/ Yosef entered a chamber and wept there. / Then he washed his face and came out, he restrained himself, and said: / Serve bread!
And Joseph looked at his brother Benjamin, his own mother's son, and said, "This must be your youngest brother, whom you said you would bring to me." And he said, "May God be gracious to you, my son." And he hurried out: his heart was overwhelmed with love for his brother, and he could no longer hold back his tears. And he went to his room and wept.
Then he washed his face, and composed himself, and came out and said, "Serve the meal."
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Stephen Mitchell's many books include the bestselling Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, and The Second Book of the Tao, as well as The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, The Gospel According to Jesus, Bhagavad Gita, The Book of Job, and Meetings with the Archangel.
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