Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation: Stage 4 “we begin to need the ear”

from Robert Bly’s The Eight Stages of Translation


We translated the poem into English in the third stage. In the fourth stage we translate the poem into American…. that is, if we speak the American language. In England, we would translate it into spoken English. It’s the spoken quality that this stage aims at. The idea that a great poem should be translated every twenty years is rooted in an awareness of how fast the spoken language changes. We need the energy of spoken language as we try to keep a translation alive, just as we need the energy of the written.

[…] The aim is not street language, not slang as such nor the speech rhythms of half-educated people, but rather the desperate living tone or fragrance that tells you a person now alive could have said the phrase. Robert Frost believed in such rhythms and wrote of them brilliantly; he called the fragrance “sentence sound.” Perhaps one in one hundred sentences we hear or read has “sentence sound.” […] it isn’t the rational mind that understands these distinctions but the ear and the ear’s memory.

So during the fourth stage we begin to need the ear. […] Asking the ear about each phrase, asking it, “Have you ever heard this phrase spoken?” is the labor of this draft. The ear will reply with six or seven new phrases, and these act to shake up the translation once more and keep it from solidifying. The language becomes livelier, fresher, lighter. Many translators stop before this stage; some of them have an exalted idea of the poet and think Rilke uses written German; others associate literature with a written language, with written English—many academic translators have this habit—and it never occurs to them to move to the spoken. Nineteenth-century translators in general rarely took this step; it was Whitman, Pound, and William Carlos Williams who sharpened everyone’s sense for spoken English and spoken American. The marvelous translation that is now being done in the United States, work that has been going on for thirty years or more, is partly a gift of these three men and their faith that poetry can be composed in spoken rhythms.