Bly’s 8 Stages of Translations: Stage 6, paying attention to sound

from Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation

      In the next stage, which I call here the sixth, we pay attention to sound. The question of tone has led to this. If we wonder whether the poem’s tone is enthusiastic or melancholic, there is only one thing to do: memorize the poem in its original [langauge] and say it to yourself, to friends, to the air. No one can translate well from a poem he or she hasn’t learned by heart; only be reciting it can we fell what sort of oceanic rhythm it has, which is a very different thing from analyzing the meter.

[…]

      We can distinguish in a poem between two sound energies, one in the muscle system and one in the ear. That is very roughly stated. The rocking motion we have spoken of is a body motion, which Donald Hall calls “goat foot” because of its association with the Greek drum and dancing. Similarly, in a recent essay, Robert Hass struggles to separate certain rhythms felt in the muscle system from meter. “I have already remarked that meter is not the basis of rhythmic form.” The body motion alerts the mind and builds tension which is later released. Most nineteenth-century translators, ignoring the distinction, imagined that by following the meter of the original poem precisely they would arrive at the rhythm. But it didn’t happen. The translator’s job is to feel the body rhythm of the line, but that may or may not lead to the meter. The rocking motions, or body motion, is primary, not meter. Using Donald Hall’s metaphor, we can speculate that we can understand the meter in a poem without necessarily experiencing the goat’s foot. A flat line, in metered or free verse, may have human feet by not goat’s feet.

According to Hall and Bly, I can get my translations to feel like this!

Tackling Metrics #5 – Variation and The Meaningful Beat

Ciardi – big surprise, huh?

Vital to understanding the metrics of a poem is the balance between the regular meter, the mechanical beat, and the natural stresses of spoken English, the meaningful beat.

The stress of the mechanical beat often works against both the natural stresses of spoken English and stresses created by the poem’s syntax, structure, or meaning (all parts of the meaningful beat). Three points vital to understanding these natural, and necessary, variations:

-A line may have more or fewer meaningful than mechanical stresses.

-The stresses of the mechanical and of the meaningful scansions do not always coincide. The grammatical context, determining as it does the voice emphases of the spoken language (meaningful stress) is never entirely separable from metrics.

-The mechanical and the meaningful stresses may coincide precisely. When this happens in a poem, it is considered a smooth line or a rest line. These lines set the overall beat of the poem, and are often used to create a moment of rest or calm in a poem driven by variations in pace.

Tackling Metrics #4 – Controlling Line Speed

again, from Ciardi’s How Does a Poem Mean?

Common Metrical Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. the more unstressed syllables are brought together between accents, the faster the line will tend to move

2. the more caesuras and the more stressed syllables that occur in a given passage, the slower the pace will tend to be

3. using anapestic instead of iambic unstressed syllables will speed up the line, because, in some ways, the iamb is like an eighth note, while the anapest is like a sixteenth note (Hopkins stretched this even further, setting no limits on the number of unstressed syllables in a foot, thus speeding up his lines to create his often dizzying effect)

Common Non-metric Ways to Control the Speed of the Line

1. sound patterns:
alliteration, vowel and consonant sequences, consonantal clusters, rhyme, internal rhyme, repetition of the same word or phrase
a. using all open vowels slows down a line
b. lines of equal monosyllables slow down a line
c. consonantal clusters slow down a line
d. in general the heavier and more complicated the rhymes, whether internal or at the end of the line, the more they will accelerate the pace
e. monosyllabic feet slow down a line

2. visual patterns:
the isolation of words as single lines, the separation of words from one another by unusual spacings in the line, the breaking off of lines for special effect

3. punctuation:
in one sense punctuation is a special case of visual pattern. Punctuation must be taken to include the capitalization of whole words or of their first letters, and the use of italics

4. grammatical structure:
particularly parallel constructions and balanced antitheses as devices for controlling the voice emphases of the speech rhythms.

Tackling Metrics #3 – Pattern and Variation

culled, quoted, inspired by, and paraphrased from John Ciardi’s classic How Does a Poem Mean?

The mechanical pattern of a poem is the exact, standard, normal beat, as if a metronome were counting out the beats. But poems written in strict mechanical pattern are boring and flat, as is music played strictly by the metronome. The ways the mechanical patterns is stretched, broken, surprised, are all ways that the performance of music and of poetry take on personality, emotion, and meaning.

It is useful to think of the pattern of mechanical iambic pentameter as roughly corresponding to the squares on graph paper: the variations of the drawn graph are meaningful only as they work against the fixed norm of the squares. In poetry the mechanical pattern may be thought of as an expectation. The metric performance of any line happens in the way it works its variations against the established expectation. Ciardi page 923

Common Ways to Work Against the Pattern

1. slipping in extra unaccented syllables

2. displacing an expected accent, as in the reversed foot

3. by increasing the number of stresses, primarily by the use of spondees and monosyllabic feet

4. by grouping stressed or unstressed syllables

5. by the manipulation of internal pauses (caesura), end-stops, and run-ons

Tackling Metrics #1 – getting the basics – beats

Basic Beats


iambic / iamb ta-TUM – /

natural for two syllable English words
unstressed syllable is an 8th note

trochaic / trochee TUM-ta /-
English words with suffixes often trochaic

anapestic / anapest ta-ta-TUM – – /
often preposition-article-noun combinations
unstressed syllables are 16th notes

dactylic / dactyl TUM-ta-ta / – –
reversed anapest

amphibrach ta-TUM-ta – / –
3 syllable foot, considered feminine iamb

pyrrhic ta-ta – –
a foot consisting of two unstressed syllables

spondaic / spondee TUM-TUM / /
a foot consisting of two stressed syllables


Monosyllabic foot one beat, usually TUM

whenever a monosyllabic foot occurs, an unaccented syllable that would accompany the accent in mechanical scansion may be displaced to the preceding or the following foot.

Caesura a strong pause, could take place of unaccented beat //

Distributed Stress ^
both syllables accented nearly equal, but not as strong as a spondee