Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation: Stage 5 the ear turned inward

from Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation

      In what I’ll call the fifth stage we need the ear again–not the ear turned outward toward human speech but the ear turned inward toward the complicated feelings the poem is carrying. Each poem has a mood. Harry Martinson remarked that to him a poem is a mood. A poem did not come to him out of an idea, but a poem marked a moment when he was able to catch a mood.

      To succeed at this stage I think it is very important that the translator should have written poetry himself [sic]. I mean that he or she needs the experience of writing from mood in order to judge accurately what the mood of a stranger’s poem in. We need accurate judgment on mood now because in finding spoken phrases to replace the written we may have thrown the tone off. We may have the wrong “tone of voice” in the new phrases. The spoken language has dozens of tones available; sometimes in American, hundreds. […] Many translators stop before this stage; they translate a poem into spoken American and then quit. […] The younger we are, the easier it is to make mistakes in tone.

[…] All language has two levels at least: an upper and a lower. We recognize the “upper” in Shakespeare’s sonnets; language high-flown, ethical, elaborated, capable of concept, witty, dignified, noble in tone.

      We might speculate that in the American language now only the “lower” level is alive. It flows along on earth; it is a physical language that everyone contributes to, warm, intense, with short words, well connected to the senses, musical, capable of feeling. This sensual language is the only one we have; William Carlos Willams used this language by principle when he wrote, and Brecht used the lower level by choice in his German poems. In America the “noble” stream died out around 1900, against the will of Henry James, and since that time, as Williams declared, the writer has had no choice.

      We notice that this problem of “noble language” causes a lot of trouble to translators in their efforts to translate Rilke into English. Rilke translations have frequently been nobly dead. The translator, in the effort to rise to the upper or resonating level he senses in Rilke, abandons our living language and resorts to old cloudlike phrases that are now only scenery. He tries, from the best intentions, to to retrieve and revive dusty clauses and high-flown diction and stuff them into the poem, with the result that the living language dies, both languages die, and Rilke seems ridiculous.

       Summing up, then, in this stage we move to modify the errors that may have come in with the emphasis on the spoken. Most of all we open ourselves for the first time to the mood of the poem; we try to be precise about what its mood is, distinguishing it from the mood of nearby poems. We try to capture the poem’s balance of high and low, dark and light, seriousness and light-heartedness.


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