As Christopher Benfey wrote in the New Republic: "For me, a Nobel for Tranströmer, well deserved, is also a Nobel for his close friend, translator, and collaborator Robert Bly."
Bly's name carries many associations -- from the pensive "Silence in the Snowy Fields," to the anti-Vietnam War movement, to "Iron John" and the men's movement. But one of Bly's most important roles has been as a translator and champion of translation.
American poets, Bly started saying in the 1950s, need to learn from non-English speaking poets. It is not too much of a stretch to say that our present-day multicultural literary awareness is due in no small part to Bly's work.
It was Bly who "discovered" Tranströmer for an English-speaking audience. The two men began translating each other's poems and corresponding in 1964. Bly was then the editor of the essential little magazine The Sixties (later The Seventies), with a press of the same name. Its goal was a "new imagination" in a new poetry, with translation as a cornerstone.
For these two friends and peers, translation was a team effort, with much give and take. About one poem Tranströmer wrote: "Your translation ... seems more persuasive somehow in American than it does in Swedish." Another, he says, is written "in very good Blyish indeed."
"Twenty Poems of Tomas Tranströmer," Bly's translation published by his own Seventies Press, was Tranströmer's first book in English. In the introduction, Bly wrote: "His poems are a sort of railway station where trains that have come enormous distances stand briefly in the same building. One train may have some Russian snow still lying on the undercarriage, and another may have Mediterranean flowers still fresh in the compartments, and Ruhr soot on the roofs."
To support the book, Bly set up a coast-to-coast reading tour for Tranströmer in the fall of 1971, including a stop in Madison, Minn., for the baptism of one of the Bly children, with Tranströmer as godfather. After returning home, he wrote: "I definitely have a better reputation abroad than in Sweden. I am inclined to suspect your translations are better than the original poems. That does not disturb me. What matters is that the texts give people something, [whether] you or I am responsible for their experience is irrelevant." Thus the Tranströmer ball got rolling. (Bly went on to publish three more books of Tranströmer translations.)
Bly has had more than one brush with Nobel Prize winners. In 1969, he published a book of his translations of the Spanish poet Juan Ramon Jiménez, who had won in 1956. In 1967 came his and James Wright's translations of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who won four years later. And, after Bly had begun translating the Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre, he urged Lewis Hyde to continue that process. A few weeks before the appearance of "Twenty Poems of Vicente Aleixandre" (translated by Hyde and Bly) in 1977, Aleixandre won the Nobel Prize. Bly wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review. "How fitting ...! He is one of the greatest poets alive and his work stands for endurance, the roots under the tree of consciousness, the slowly growing trunk ..."
Recent U.S. poet laureate and close friend Donald Hall wrote Bly in the early 1970s: "I repeat what I said a couple of years ago, that I think that you will receive the Nobel Prize. With any luck, they'll wait until you are 82 before they give it to you, so it won't do any harm."
Now Tranströmer, 80 years old, has won. It is only fitting that we also congratulate Robert Bly, 84, and that we take pride in his being among us still.
Mark Gustafson is a writer and teacher in Minneapolis, currently writing Robert Bly's biography.