Saturday, December 6, 2008

Robert Bly No Habla Español

Below, a guest blogger on his frustration over Robert Bly's translations of Antonio Machado.


soberbios: pride, arrogance, haughtiness
bendita ilusion: blessed illusion
ciencia: knowledge, learning

Robert Bly: worst translator ever? I can’t make that claim since I haven’t read every translation in every language. But I wonder if any other readers out there have encountered translations as exploitive and distorted as Robert Bly’s?

In his translation of Machado, the Spanish poet of the early 20th century, check out these lines (even if you don’t know Spanish):

En todas partes he visto
caravanes de tristeza,
SOBERBIOS y melancholicos.

Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve seen
excursions of sadness
ANGRY and melancholy ...

Ignoring the clumsiness of "excursions" instead of "caravans of sadness," why does Bly use "angry" instead of "pride" or "arrogance"?

Anoche cuando dormia

Last night, as I was sleeping,

"Marvelous error" instead of "blessed illusion"?

corazon maduro
de sombra y de CIENCIA.

a heart made mature
by darkness and ART.

Obviously, the primary meaning of "ciencia" is "science." A secondary meaning is "knowledge." I could even see translating it as "wisdom." But "art"? Clearly, Bly is exploiting Machado for his own purposes. Unfortunately, he is one of the most prolific translators of Spanish-language poetry. Before I could read much Spanish, a teacher warned me off Bly and told me Alistair Reid was the much more reliable and artful translator.

- Mouse (Raton)


My thoughts: I don't envy anyone who takes on the work of trying to preserve the nuances, inflections, and even the sonic qualities of poetry in another language. Even with the best of intentions, the result will always be its own new creature; a translator can't help but leave a fingerprint, and some things are truly untranslatable. And given Bly's prolific work as a translator—he's translated vast reams of poetry not only in Spanish, but in many other languages as well—we likely have him to thank for exposing many English-speaking readers to works they never would have otherwise encountered.

That said, go back to "many other languages" note: Bly's taken on poetry in Spanish, French, Norwegian, Persian, Urdu, German, and Swedish. Does he speak all of these languages with anything resembling fluency? I know many translators work with assistants who are more fluent than they are (Robert Hass actually worked directly with Czeslaw Milosz, a hell of an aid in translating his own work). Maybe Bly had a good native-speaking guide for all of these. But where's the line between translation and creation? Should we celebrate the fact that we can read these authors, or that we can read a Bly-toned version of these authors?

The results of his work on the Machado poems cited above remind me of stories about changelings, those substitute babies in folklore. Brought by fairies to replace a stolen child, they bear a resemblance to the original, but something is creepily off.

Thoughts on this tricky art? Ever tried it? Ever been frustrated by a tainted translation, or are you more grateful that any version of these writers is accessible?


M. C. Allan said...

Oh, and Mouse: You mentioned that you think Bly's Machado translations are "exploitive" -- I'd love for you to expand on that a little bit!

JeFF Stumpo said...

In a roundabout way, I have to thank the horrible translations by Ben Bellitt for the smartest thing I've yet written.

In college, I picked up a copy of Neruda translated by Bellitt. Even with my inexpert Spanish, I could tell that he'd handled a number of verses poorly, as if he'd had a thesaurus on hand while translating and was obligated to find the most awkward synonym for Neruda's plainspoken language. I realize that somebody out there thinks he was good, but I can only chalk this up to the fact that his own poetry didn't suffer from this problem that appeared in his translations. I tried my hand at translating Neruda...only to find I was doing a crap job as well. I had to discard something in order to make other things work.

Step two was remixing Neruda. I started doing work that involved literal translation of his lines, metaphorical translation of his concepts, and then throw in stuff that was never there to begin with but was true to the tone/message of the poem. The Fundacion Neruda has explicitly forbidden (in a now-lost email) me to call these translations when I publish them.

Step three was to cast aside even the vestiges of translation-as-dialogue, resulting in my first chapbook. Facing pages mirror each other typographically, but are antithetical statements, or at least contain different views of the same (culturally-charged) event - the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Cortes.

Which is not to say there aren't translations I thoroughly enjoy. Nor is it so say we should stop translating. I'd never have found Borges so early without a translated edition, nor Rilke, nor Neruda, nor various contemporary poets. Hell, it's going to take me years to work through an untranslated Inferno since I don't read Italian. But I would like to advance the possibility that "based on" or "after the work of the same name by" might be a better conceptual framework than "as close as possible to the same words in another language."

M. C. Allan said...

That's really interesting, Jeff. What's your chapbook called? Can I order it somewhere? I'd love to get a look at the Cortes material, which is ripe for "miming." :)

I was noticing as I was looking up Bly's translations that he has one book of translations of a French-speaking writer, Francis Ponge. He's paired the ten translations with his own poems "inspired by Ponge." Made me think that maybe he should have described the Machado pieces the same way -- not as translations but as riffs on his themes and imagery.

I think "translation" sets up the expectation that the translator is trying to be as true as possible to the original text. If Bly's translations were described as "based on," I'd have fewer concerns; they'd seem more like riffs/updates on older themes that so many authors do. Right off the bat I think of Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" and the recent "Story of Edgar Sawtelle," both updates on Shakespeare plots that I'm sure both authors would acknowledge ... but I'm sure there are plenty of others in the poetry vein.

JeFF Stumpo said...

The chapbook is called El Oceano y La Serpiente / The Ocean and The Serpent. I wish you could still order it. Had a limited edition (200 copies, letterpress) for its first run with Zenane Independent Media. Sold out. I have just a couple left. Made a run of about 20 by myself for a class here at A&M (was required reading for "Imagined Americas").

Want me to send you a .doc file or whatnot? Not as cool as the actual book, but you can get the general idea. I have a couple sample pages up at my website - - but I'll drop you the whole thing electronically if you want.

I really like the idea of that Bly volume, the Ponge one. What's the title?

I really like the idea of riffing, but it does set up its own set of problems. Translation, for all its inaccuracies/impossibilities, does suggest a rigorous effort on the part of the second(ary) poet. To write something "based on" or "after" - does that invite sloppiness? The question comes on the heels of your other discussion about historical accuracy :-)

Anonymous said...

hi, carrie. you asked why i think bly is 'exploitive.' i think it is inherently exploitive simply to use another poet's work as a rough draft for your own work.
i agree that if a poet says 'after,' as in 'after baudelaire,' it's all fair game. justice does this beautifully.
and i agree with Jeff and you that translation is frightfully difficult. especially because literature tends to anchored to its place and time.
i pity the poor german who tries to translate huck finn. or the finn who tries to translate shakespeare.
in those cases, i think the translator can only hope to be faithful to the spirit of the work.
that is all i expect from an english translation of tu fu.
bly does not convince me he is faithful to the spirit of machado or neruda or vallejo.
when i read spanish there are many words i don't know. with most translators, i can consult their version on the opposite page and find a reliable translation. you can never count on bly for even an approximate equivalent.
i think he's dishonest, or exploitive. maybe he thought his reputation would be burnished by association with the spanish-language poets.
hope this answers your question.
-- mouse

M. C. Allan said...

The Bly/Ponge book has the incredibly creative title "Ten Poems of Francis Ponge Translated by Robert Bly & Ten Poems of Bly Inspired by Francis Ponge." Or something like that. I think it's still in print. Yes - send me the Ocean/Serpent doc! Would love to check it out - carrie.allan AT

Mouse: Justice is a great example of the "after" model. It's interesting to me that someone like Bly, who obviously cares enough about these poets to dedicate time and energy to getting their work translated and into print would be so slapdash about preserving the intent of that work. Seems very odd!

Anonymous said...

hi, carrie
i doubt bly was slapdash with his translations. i just think he superimposed his own poetic sensibility on theirs, which i think is criminal.
-- mouse

M. C. Allan said...

interesting. I'd have more pity for him if he just didn't get the Spanish right. I think the changing of science/knowledge into "art" is an obvious tonal exploitation, but then things like "marvellous error" are not only tonally wrong, they sound awful!

Anonymous said...

my spanish teacher, who introduced me to machado writes (translation is hers):

La verdad que ese tio no deberia estar traduciendo, no solo no traduce bien sino que su ortografia es un verguenza, el machetea a diestra y siniestra.

This guy shouldn't be translating, not only his spelling is shameful but he butchers the language.( literally: he kills it with a machete left and right )
-- spanish teacher

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Translation is so close to hopeless business. If the words are right, the poem disappears. If the poem is there, so of the words will be missing.

The music, more so than the meaning, have to be dead on. And that's close to impossible.

worddrunk said...

You raise interesting questions concerning Bly's choices, particularly where, it seems, he has not used a meaning that the word would have in a Spanish dictionary. But you also seem to misunderstand the translator's craft when you ask if you are getting Machado in Bly or Bly-toned Machado. Of course, the only genuine Machado is Machado in Spanish--otherwise, as the saying goes,_traduttore traditore_: "the translator is a betrayer." All translators betray, literally, the letter of their originals; the question to ask is whether they bring over some of the original spirit. This means asking whether they have constructed a genuine poem in their own mother tongue that still keeps faith with the original. What constitutes this keeping faith will be a matter for interesting argument among informed and bilingual readers, but it will not be resolved merely by pointing out moments where the translator's choice seems to be less literal than other options. "Caravans of sadness," for instance, is archaic in a late twentieth century English language context whereas the image was likely contemporary in an early twentieth century Spanish context. Thus, if Bly translates it as "caravan" he brings a fustiness to the poem that was not part of the original and never intended by the poet. In short, adherence to the letter can kill the poem's spirit and this is why translation is a very subtle craft, if always, a contaminated one. But then perhaps translation teaches us to distrust purity and given the horrific history of that word from the inquisition to the death camps, such a distrust might be very health indeed. (And just for the record I have a friend who is a fellow poet and completely fluent in both English and Spanish and he loves Bly's translations; the question of the value of the translations thus cannot be dismissed by referring to Bly's lack of fluency in the original.)