As I read the news of the passing away of Robert Bly, the American poet, critic, translator, and scholar, on 21st November 2021, I went back to my early days of translation and my encounter with his work, “The Eight Stages of Translation”. It was through this work that I was first introduced to the works of the man who wore many hats. So, today when I was trying to locate the various discarded drafts of my translations, I thought it will be apt also to speak of my journey with Bly in my early days.
The process of translation is one of continuous refining. Read, re-read and refine is the mantra that guides a translator’s task. The first draft or the earlier ones are always a more lexical attempt for me. It is only by keeping away the text and reading the translated work repeatedly that the flaws of the first draft become visible. In the case of translating poetry, the task becomes all the more onerous. When I started translating Englandey Bangamahila, which is a nineteenth-century travel writing by a Bengali woman, I had to deal with both prose and poetry. Though the work is written in prose format, it includes three poems too. My first instinct was to render a prose translation of the poems – giving priority to the meaning over form. And that’s how it remained for quite a long time. It was only when I revisited my translation after a gap of quite a few months that the problems of readability of such a prose rendering of the poem became visible to me. The dilemma between form and content became stronger as I went back to all the theories of translation that I had read regarding fidelity and readability to support my own arguments. Ironically, I found enough on each side and that deepened my quandary even more. A chance encounter with Robert Bly’s 1982 article helped me then decide my course of action. What Bly said, I reoriented to suit my requirement and what followed was a flowchart that read somewhat like this –
Step 1 – The Literal Translation
Step 2 – To look for the poem lost in literal translation
Step 3 – Redo the Literal translation and try to get into the Target Language
Step 4 –Listen to how the current translation sounds in the Target Language
Step 5 – Turn the ear inward and try to listen to the meaning of the poem
Step 6 – Try and check if the tone of the translated poem matches with that of the original
Step 7 – Make a reader of the Source language, also well versed in Target Language, read it
Step 8 – Read back all the drafts and incorporate smaller changes as required
This flowchart is neither unique nor exceptional. But to a novice, just starting, it became a base to fall back on. The two excerpts below are two versions of my translation of the last poem in Englandey Bangamahila (A Bengali Lady in England). The first one is what appears in the book A Bengali Lady in England, published by Shambhabi in 2020. The one later is a previous version of the same. I have not included the whole poem, but only the first few stanzas of it.
The Published Version –
Oh ma! To England, a free country
I have arrived, with a hopeful heart
to find everlasting peace.
Yet Mother India! Where can happiness be found?
Songs of freedom in the air
and happy people all around,
shatter my heart to a hundred pieces,
and I drown myself in my tears.
Look at England, your daughter like
so small in size yet such prowess
in strength, courage, spirit, terrifies the world
all human beings are scared
to encounter her brave sons.
But no one is scared of us,
finding spineless, they chase us away.
Ma, they take away all your wealth
and bind your hands in chain.
And then to see these spirited souls
their happiness, wealth and fame,
this life appears hateful
in this disgraceful bonded state.
An Earlier Draft –
Oh mother! Here, I had come to England, a free country / with a lot of hope that/ I shall find everlasting peace here./ but oh Mother India! Where is happiness?
The more I listen to the songs of freedom here, / the more I see the happy people all around, / the more my heart breaks into a hundred pieces, / and I drown myself in my tears.
Look at England here, small enough/ to be your daughter. But by her prowess, / strength, courage and spirit, makes the world tremble / and all the human beings are scared/ of her brave sons.
But no one is scared of us. / Finding us to be gutless, they chase us away. / Oh mother! They then take away all your wealth and put you in fetters.
That is why when I see these spirited souls/ their happiness, wealth, and fame, / I hate to continue living/ in this lowly state of disgraceful bondage.
Works cited –
Bly, Robert. “The Eight Stages of Translation.” The Kenyon Review, vol. 4, no. 2, Kenyon College, 1982, pp. 68–89, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4335270.
Das, Krishnabhabini. A Bengali Lady in England: Annotated translation with a Critical Introduction to Krishnabhabini Das’ Englandey Bangamahila. Trans. Nabanita Sengupta. Shambhabi, Kolkata & New Delhi, 2020.