Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation: Stage 8, far more than the back of a rug

from Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation

      Our last stage is making the final draft. We read back over all our earlier drafts—perhaps a half line we said better in one of them. We have to make our final adjustments now. […] During this stage we allow ourselves, at last, the pleasure of examining other people’s translations of the poem. That is fun we can’t deny ourselves after all our work, and we can sympathize with each translator.


      Well, then, after studying once more all our earlier drafts, and making our final sound and rhythm adjustments, and after taking in what we can from other people’s translations and commentaries, we are ready to set down the final draft. We know that we haven’t captured the original: the best translation resembles a Persian rug seen from the back—the pattern is apparent, but not much more.

But I think that Bly’s image of the back of the Persian rug dismisses the accomplishment his own essay reveals. If we attend to syntax and tone and tenor and meter and body rhythm and spoken speech and deep understanding of poetry, and we recreate a poem from one language into our own language, that product is more much than the back of a rug. It is—well, what is it? I need to work on my own concrete image. How’s this? “A well-translated poem is a dish made from an immigrant’s beloved family recipe, using the new local foods—different, but satisfying to the longing soul AND capable of teaching the old and new cuisines about each other’s possibilities.

How’s that working for you?

translating is so much more than this


Bly’s 8 Stages of Translations: Stage 7, the very painful stage

from Robert Bly’s Eight Stages of Translation

      We are nearly finished now. During what I will call the seventh stage we ask someone born into the language to go over our version. Perhaps we go back to the native speaker who helped us in the first draft; if we did not get such help then, we do now; we ask him or her to find errors that have crept in.

      For beginning translators, this stage is very painful. As beginners, we tend to give ourselves permission to veer away from the poem’s images, pulled away in fact by our private mental horses, and dismay sets in when we realize that some of our best solutions are simply wrong. […] Once I remember he found in a single Jimenez poem that I had already worked over for months, and that contained only twenty lines to start with, twenty-two errors that could not be allowed to stand. The error sometimes was in tone, sometimes in image, or slant of image, or I had picked up a South American coloring the word had rather than its Castilian coloring, or I had gotten the rhythm or vowels wrong. None of us can learn a foreign language well enough to pick all these things up.

      […] we should take this stage on by will, and consider it as important as any of the earlier stages. We have been slowly possessing the poem and making it ours—we have to do that to bring it alive—but is is possible that we have kidnapped it instead.

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!

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.

“footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers”

Vladimir Nabokov, cited in Andre Lefevere Translating Poetry: seven strategies and a blueprint

I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that pages so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity.

In which I let Rabassa and Barnstone duke it out about memory, error, and the ethics of translation

In his book If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, Gregory Rabassa asserts lots of interesting and valuable stuff, then this clinker on pp. 61-62:

The completion of work is best done in translation, where the translator can work at things denied the author in his own language, even the way Saint Jerome mistakenly implied the cuckoldry of Moses which Michelangelo then wrought in enduring stone.

In case you don’t spend hours a day considering the history of Christian Anti-Semitism, Rabassa is referring to St. Jerome who mistranslated the Hebrew word for “ray” to mean “horns,” leading to a tradition of picturing Moses with horns coming out of his head, which Michelangelo then made flesh (marble flesh) in his famous statue of Moses. Horns on the head are, in some pagan traditions in Europe, understood to mean than the man wearing them has been cuckolded—that is, his wife has had sex with other men.

That cuckold charge, which is not common when discussing Jerome’s “horns,” is not as important to me as Rabassa’s assertion that the mistranslation which came to be both a statue and a common, enduring myth that Jews had horns was a good thing, a “completion” of something the original text could not say. Huh?? The issue is that the Hebrew “couldn’t say” that Moses had horns, or that his wife/wives were not faithful? Are you kidding me? And that’s without understanding that plenty of Christians see those horns as images of the devil, not images of a cuckold.

While translations do build on each other across time, this is not, by far, always a positive thing. Mistranslations, for nefarious, controlling, purposes, can be introduced into texts and mutate from there until the product people “know” is more a history of prejudice or ignorance than a translation. For a crystal clear example of this, I turn to translator Willis Barnstone’s The Poetics of Translation, to his sub-chapter “How through False Translation into and from the Bible Jesus Ceased To Be a Jew.” While his argument, incredibly well-documented, is lengthy, these little excerpts carry the spine of it:

Since early Christian leaders, saints, and followers were both Jews and gentiles, pursuing the Jewish dream of an announced Messiah, how could two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism be based largely on their Scriptures, that is, on the New Testament, a collection of revolutionary texts born from the depths of the rabbinic tradition?

By sleight-of-hand editing and translating, only certain figures of the Christian Scriptures remain clearly identifiable as Jews—not John the Baptist, not Mary, not Jesus, nor James and Paul: even their names are not Biblically Jewish. This disguise is in place by the time of the Greek Scriptures and is reinforced in translation into other languages. […] The Christian scriptures are different because, in the Jewish world that they describe, all the good people are Christians and the evil ones Jews. […] How could Jewish authors produce such a fearful world of fatal hatreds? They did not. The original stories, in the process of telling and writing, redaction, and translation, were transformed to produce a narrative that excluded Jews from the messianic happenings in their land.

Barnstone continues, showing how yeshua (Joshuah) became Jesus, mashiah became Christ, and rabbi became Master, all intentional mistranslations to erase Jews from the text, and how “Jew” was slyly transformed description to the name of the enemy. Eventually, Barnstone says, the people who are allied with Jesus are just people, while the people who oppose him are “the Jews.” As Barnstone summarizes,

Christian anti-Semitism begins with and derives historically from the New Testament, from the falsifying translations into and out of the Christian Scriptures in which Jesus ceases to be a Jew. The result of this transmission of the history of Joshua the Messiah has been two millennia of hatred and extermination, from diasporas and ghettos to pogroms and holocaust.

So what has that to do with Rabassa’s St. Jerome saying “something” in translating that the original text “couldn’t say”? This: translating matters, and because it matters, it must be aware of culture, bias, social power, linguistic power, prejudice, hatred. To assume that my job as a translator is to say what the author couldn’t say in her/his culture seems dangerously arrogant, especially since I am the citizen of a (declining) superpower and the speaker of a language whose culture is an invasive species, wiping out native tongues and cultures daily. My job is NOT to say what some other culture couldn’t say, but to show, value, bring into my language what their culture CAN and DOES say, know, value, communicate, worship, want, need. The line from scriptural sources to St. Jerome to Michelangelo was not a good thing for my people, the Jews, which is certainly one big understanding I carry into this new skill I am building.

Against Rabassa’s assertion of finishing an author’s work by adding what a different culture knows, I assert Barnstone’s linguistically AND socially responsible analysis of the power of language to be used as a weapon:

The primary method of destabilizing and deracinating a people is to rename them and their land. Consequently, the first strategy of the recorders and translators of the Christian scriptures was to remove Jesus from his Jewishness.

Note from my own political life: one of the first actions of the Zionist government in the new state of Israel was to erase all Arabic village, street, and place names and replace them with Hebrew names, thus trying to physically erase Arab/Palestinian history from the land itself. For more information on this, see the wonderful Israeli activist group Zochrot (Remembering). In the photo below, Zochrot members are restoring the name of a Palestinian mosque in Arabic and in Hebrew.

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.

Robert Bly’s 8 Stages of Translation, part 1

Excerpted (muchly!) from Robert Bly’s The Eight Stages of Translation, Rowan Tree Press, 1983. It’s now out of print and difficult to locate. In the book he goes through the translation process with a sonnet from Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orphesus.” I won’t type out his various versions, but “seeing” how he makes choices and changes them is fascinating. Below I’m outlining the steps, giving his descriptions, advice, and small bits of his commentary.

From the introduction:

In this essay I will not deal with the theory of translation but I will try to answer the question: What is it like to translate a poem? We’ll look mainly at the difficulties. The difficulties are all one difficulty, something immense, confusing, all of a piece. One translates a poem in fits and starts, getting a half line here, weeks later the other half, but one senses a process. I’m going to simplify the process into eight stages. I mean by that the stages one goes through from the first meeting with a poem to its recreation, when one says goodbye to it. As I’ve mentioned above, the stages will often collapse into each other, or a single line will suddenly go through all eight stages in a flash, while the other lines lie about looking even more resistant than before. What I will do then is to pretend that all goes in order; but this is an ancient ploy. When one makes a map, one pretends the earth can be laid out flat. But a map helps us to visualize the territory.

Stage 1:

During the first stage we set down a literal version, we don’t worry about nuances—English phrases that are flat, prosaic, dumpy are fine. We only want the thrust. […] As we read the literal, our first reaction is: What happened to the poem? Where did it go? So we read the original again and it’s still marvelous; so evidently something has been left out—probably the meaning. Before we go further with a translation then, we have to deal with the issue: What does the poem mean?

Stage 2:

         To find that is what I call the second stage. Some translators just print the literal version; they turn away from this stage. If we enter it, we will need everything we have learned in literature courses, or from our own writing, and all the (language of the original poem) we can scrape up in order to penetrate the “problems.” Often friends are helpful at this stage, to bring up quirky details that we haven’t noticed.

         [when wrestling with the deepest levels of the poem] we feel ourselves drawn here into areas we do not feel confident in, even to ideas we cannot accept. If we cannot accept them, we will resist them as a translator and do a poor job translating the poem. During this stage, then, we test how far we are willing to go. It’s clear that the poet is ahead of us, otherwise the poem would not be worth translating; it would have nothing “to say.” […] In a good poem, which violates certain secret assumptions, this second stage may take several hours. I spent a long time on this stage alone, some of it arguing over the text with other students and translators.

         […] The more one talks, the more clear Rilke’s beliefs become, and so his meaning. He is certain of it, and so the German has a lovely enthusiasm, expressed in lifting, joyful rhythms. If that store of feeling is beyond the translator, he or she should leave them poem be. At the end of this stage, the translator should ask himself whether the feelings as well as the concepts are within his world. If they are not, he should stop. […] In the second stage, we decide whether to turn back or go on.

Stage 3:

         If we decide to go on, we return to our literal version and see where it lost the meanings just found. We redo the literal and try to get it into English this time. We think of the genius of the English language, what its nature is. I’ll call that the third stage.

         During this stage, we use all we know about the structure of the English language. During the composition of the literal version we followed the word order of the original German, and by doing that found ourselves drawn in the whirlpool of the delayed verb. German gains energy at times by delaying the verb, and even the main noun, so it appears late in the sentence. English gains energy the opposite way, by embarking the main noun immediately and the verb soon after. Most sentences in English that begin with prepositions, with “into” or “upon the” or “for the” tend to be weak in practice; this is not a doctrine but something we observe in reading or writing English.

         […] Leaving the word order of the original poem behind is often painful; beginning translators especially resist it. They feel disloyal if they move the verb, but each language evolves in a different way and we cannot cancel a thousand years of language evolution by our will. Moreover, if we are disloyal to German, we are at the same moment loyal to English. The word order of Spanish is closer to that of English, and this stage is usually less painful when translating from Spanish. So then, after redoing later lines, thinking solely in this stage of the sentence and clause structures natural to English, we would arrive at a new draft. We ignore the sentence structure of the German original, and try to move all sentences bodily into the genius of English.

more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary, translation is a spiritual exercise

from Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, introduction to 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese poem is translated Asphodel Press, 1987 (sadly out of print!)

      In its way a spiritual exercise, translation is dependent on the dissolution of the translator’s ego: an absolute humility toward the text. A bad translation is the insistent voice of the translator—that is, when one sees no poet and hears only the translator speaking.

      The point is that translation is more than a leap from dictionary to dictionary; it is a reimagining of the poem. As such, every reading of every poem, regardless of language, is an act of translation: translation into the reader’s intellectual and emotional life. As no individual reader remains the same, each reading becomes a different—not merely another—reading. The same poem cannot be read twice.

Great poetry lives in state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation

      Poetry is that which is worth translating.

      For example, this four-line poem, 1200 years old: a mountain, a forest, the setting sun illuminating a patch of moss. It is a scrap of literary Chinese, no longer spoken as its writer spoke it. It is a thing, forever itself, inseparable from its language.

      And yet something about it has caused it to lead a nomadic life: insinuating itself in the minds of readers, demanding understanding (but on the reader’s own terms), provoking thought, sometimes compelling writing in other languages. Great poetry lives in state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go.

      The transformations that take shape in print, that take the formal name of “translation,” become their own beings, set out on their own wanderings. Some live long, and some don’t. What kind of creatures are they:? What happens when a poem, once Chinese and still Chinese, becomes a piece of English, Spanish, French poetry?

Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, introduction to 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese poem is translated Asphodel Press, 1987 (sadly out of print!)