The Folly of Robert Bly
Translation is an exacting art, requiring knowledge of the target language as well as the language into which the work is to be translated. A modern plagiaristic scourge is tainting that art.
For a significant part of Robert Bly's literary career, the man has been "translating" the works of poets who write in Spanish, German, Swedish, Persian, Sanskrit, and many other languages.
Bly, however, does not read, write, or understand any of the languages he supposedly "translates." So the result of his so-called "translations is simply the revision of the translations of others.
Robert Bly takes a translation by someone who actually knows both the target language and English, who has actually translated the poem, changes some words, and calls his product a translation.
An extended example of Bly's fraudulent translation scheme is his title The Kabir Book; he has revised forty-four of the translations of One Hundred Poems of Kabir, a title by Rabindranath Tagore, Indian Nobel Laureate, and Evelyn Underhill, renowned spiritual writer and recipient of numerous honorary degrees.
Bly would have his readers believe his revisions of the translations of these outstanding creative thinkers better represent Kabir. Bly's folly leads him astray.
Rabindranath Tagore Portrait
Tagore-Underhill's Translations "Hopeless"
In Bly's introduction to The Kabir Book, he claims that the Tagore-Underhill translations are "hopeless.” He does not explain what he means by "hopeless," but he does claim that his purpose of re-translating some of the poems is to modernize them, put them into contemporary language. However, in his product we find that he has attempted to fix something that was not, in fact, broken.
Instead of merely modernizing the language, he loosens the diction, causing it to descend into a talky, laid-back kind of style that is not appropriate for its purpose. The religious significance that these works have for the yogi- saint Kabir and his followers has changed into a libertine, 1960s-style free-love fest instead of the divine union of soul and God, as is their purpose.
Because the poet Kabir was a God-realized saint, his poems and songs reflect the deep religious significance of his state of consciousness. They essentially perform two functions: the first is to express in words as nearly as possible the saint's devotion to God, and the second is to inspire and instruct his followers.
According to yogic philosophy and training, the yogi who has succeeded in uniting his soul with God has risen above all earthly, physical desires. Such a saint has only two desires left, and those two desires correspond to the above purposes ascribed to Kabir's songs: to enjoy union with God and to share it with others.
T. S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot's Recognized the "Romantic Misunderstanding"
Many Western thinkers, philosophers, and poets such as W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and D. H. Lawrence have attempted to explain Eastern religion to the West. But T. S. Eliot noticed that he had great difficulty trying to understand Eastern philosophy.
And Eliot admitted his difficulty and at the same time observed that what was passing as Eastern philosophical analysis was "romantic misunderstanding.” I suggest that this misunderstanding is evident in Bly's version of the Tagore-Underhill translations.
Comparison: Bly vs Tagore-Underhill
Robert Bly's folly is apparent in the following so-called translation:
Knowing nothing shuts the iron gates;
the new love opens them.
The sound of the gates opening wakes
the beautiful woman asleep.
Kabir says: Fantastic! Don't let a
chance like this go by!
The Tagore-Underhill translation follows:
The lock of error shuts the gate, open
it with the key of love:
Thus, by opening the door, thou shalt
wake the Beloved.
Kabir says: 'O brother! Do not pass
by such a good fortune as this.'
Bly's version has transformed the meaning from God-union to sexual union. Yogic philosophy claims that intense love for God awakens the soul and aids it in its search for God-union. The Tagore-Underhill translation has retained this spiritual significance.
"The lock of error" signifies the human's mistaken belief that he is separate from God. Therefore, "love" opens the "gate" of separation.
By opening the gate, the devotee awakens the "Beloved"—capitalized because it refers to God. Because the yogi's goal is to awaken his desire for God, Kabir as the yogi-guru admonished his follower not to pass by such good fortune as can be found by unlocking his heart of love to God.
In Bly's version, the poem promotes a sexual opportunity. Few readers can pass by "iron gates" without their calling to mind Andrew Marvell's "Coy Mistress." And we have little doubt about what Marvell's speaker was seeking with his coy mistress.
More importantly, "Beloved" of the Tagore-Underhill version becomes in Bly's "the beautiful woman asleep.” This kind of misrepresentation is an example of what T. S. Eliot meant when he claimed that Eastern influence on the West had come through "romantic misunderstanding.”
After transforming the Supreme Being into a beautiful woman, Bly has the yogi-saint cry: "Fantastic! Don't let a change like this go by!” This mind-numbing act is an abomination, revealing an ignorance that would be funny if it weren't so utterly misleading.
Bly's Translation Career Based on Plagiarism
What Bly has actually accomplished in his "translation" career amounts to a large body of plagiarism of the original translators' works. In addition to plagiarism instead of actual translation, Bly has misrepresented, distorted, and vulgarized the works of poets, whose works he obviously has not understood.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes