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The Folly of Robert Bly

Updated on December 12, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

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


Evelyn Underhill


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.

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.

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


Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes 23 months ago from U.S.A.

    If you look up the term "Schadenfreude" in a German-English dictionary, you find the term "gloating."

    You meant "losing" not "loosing" end, but I shall entertain no Schadenfreude over your error.

    Thank you for your interest and your comments about the topic.

  • profile image

    Setank Setunk 23 months ago

    My claim on universal subjectivity comes from a life time of studying history. Your reference to "all is subjective" being "subjective" is absolutely correct. This was the point I was trying to make. HOWEVER, you have convinced me that poetry, not unlike oral traditions, transmit ideas and concepts rather than raw data. We can agree that these things transcend language.

    Schadenfreude encapsulates pleasure and misery or suffering in a specific context. Gloating is no where close to this.

    I have enjoyed this exchange but feel I am on the loosing end of it: Please do not gloat. LOL.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes 23 months ago from U.S.A.

    Actually, the word "gloating" is a fine English word for "Schadenfreude." I would argue that it is quite accurate. I'm not aware, however, that any classic poet such a Goethe or Schiller has used it in a poem.

    The claim that "all is subjective" renders itself meaningless reflexively. If all is subjective, then the statement "all is subjective" is just one more subjective statement. It's the kind of statement that purports to put a cap on the conversation without adding any useful conclusive information.

    Setank, you have made a useful point that translation is dependent on certain parameters, and I certainly agree with that claim. I, nevertheless, maintain that translation is not impossible; however, it does require an insightful, skillful translator. I think we agree on that.

  • profile image

    Setank Setunk 23 months ago

    Here is an example of what I mean.

    There is no word in English for the German word Schadenfreude. There are many words like this as well as many that have been defined "closely" but not accurately. To accurately translate a poem with schadenfreude in it, you would have to ruin the tense and meter by implanting the lengthy definition of the word itself. The only other option is to translate using words with approximate meanings. English to German is easy compared to English to Hindi. This is not a proscription of historic literature but an acknowledgement that it is all subjective.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes 23 months ago from U.S.A.

    Sedank, it is not accurate to say, "a poem cannot be translated into English." Or, "To understand it's true meaning you must learn and fully comprehend the language it is written in." While it is certainly preferable to understand both languages,, both meaning and nuance can be translated if the translator is conversant in both languages.

    What an abhorrent idea that poems cannot be translated! Imagine all the wonderful poetry that would go unrealized if such were the case—not to mention all the religious scripture that must be translated. The key to meaningful and accurate translations is simply the skill and ability of the translator.

  • profile image

    Setank Setunk 23 months ago

    MST, What I meant to say is that this poem cannot be translated into English, only interpreted. To understand it's true meaning you must learn and fully comprehend the language it is written in. Even then you still cannot directly translate the poem into English. All translations are flawed to some extent. But it is always good when people draw attention to the perpetrators of fraudulent excess.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes 23 months ago from U.S.A.

    I agree with you, Stella! It is a mystery how writers can take pleasure of accomplishment from such activity. Just the act of using a legitimate translation and then claiming the revision as your own work is foul enough---but then making your revision misrepresent the original is totally heinous.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image

    Linda Sue Grimes 23 months ago from U.S.A.

    Yes, Setank -- It is truly necessary for translators to speak, read, and write the language from which they purport to translate. Otherwise they are merely plagiarizing the work of those who have actually done the translating, and that is exactly what Bly does.

    I know this first hand because I attended a workshop at Ball State University in 1977, wherein he led the group in this very endeavor. Essentially, he was showing the workshop attendees how to steal the work of others.

    Thank you for your comment.

  • ladyguitarpicker profile image

    stella vadakin 23 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

    I have a hard time trying to figure out why anyone would want to mess up another person's work. The works of other poets should never be distorted. There seems no satisfaction in this.

  • profile image

    Setank Setunk 23 months ago

    Written language does not translate across the Indo-Iranian and European language groups. Accurate translation within the latter group, between Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages is difficult. Unless one can understand Hindi or Urdu or which ever language this was written in then interpretation is all one can know. That being said, Bly's translation seems a bit left field. Nice Hub by the way.


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