Author: Herbert Lomas

Why translate?

28 January 2015 | Essays, Non-fiction

Down by the sea: Herbert Lomas in Aldeburgh. - Photo: Soila Lehtonen

Down by the sea: Herbert Lomas in Aldeburgh. – Photo: Soila Lehtonen

‘People do not read translations to encourage minor literatures but to rediscover themselves in new imaginative adventures‚’ says the poet and translator Herbert Lomas in this essay on translation (first published in Books from Finland 1/1982). ‘Translation is a thankless activity,’ he concludes – and yet ‘you have the pleasure of writing without the agony of primary invention. It’s like reading, only more so. It’s like writing, only less so.’ And how do Finnish and English differ from each other, actually?

Any writer’s likely to feel – unless he’s a star, a celebrity, a very popular and different beast – that the writer is a necessary evil in the publisher’s world, but not very necessary. How much more, then, the translator from a ‘small’ country’s language.

Why do it? The pay’s absurd, you need the time for your own writing, it’s very hard to please people, and translation is, after all, the complacent argument goes, impossible. I’m convinced by all these arguments, and really I can’t afford to go on; but I don’t regret what I’ve done and, looking back, I can find two reasons for translating Finnish writing, one personal, the other cultural. More…

No need to go anywhere

30 September 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Mirkka Rekola

Photo: Irmeli Jung

Mirkka Rekola was a minimalist before minimalism was invented. Eschewing any poetic flummery, her passion has generally been infused into brief, enigmatic notations of moments: reports of flashes of heightened awareness.

She records ‘the best thing I remember’ – captured as it flies. It may be the sight of someone intensely loved in some very ordinary action – but enhanced by an almost visionary light: a new rug is being hugged: ‘When you were embracing it I / almost felt it was breathing, / that rug, it breathed that autumn’s colours, and this one’s.’ And nature isn’t separate from us: ’embracing a tree we grow.’ Or: ‘You’ll never get such tenderness / ever as from the snowfall’s / thousands and thousands and thousands of moments.’ More…

Our fellow creatures

30 June 2004 | Authors, Reviews

Hannele Huovi

Photo: Tiina Itkonen

Hannele Huovi is a compelling story-teller (see page 98) but, again and again, she makes us realise what a strange place our world is – how easily we can slip out of it into dream or psychosis, or cross some concealed frontier into a parallel universe.

Hers is a readable form of surrealism – the art of defamiliarising familiar things by putting them in anomalous environments. The results are absorbing for children but fascinating and entertaining for adults too, an essential of good children’s literature. Because it can be serious without being solemn and can expand consciousness, the genre has engaged very great wits from Jonathan Swift to Lewis Carroll. Eeva-Liisa Manner’s stories (see Books from Finland 1/2004) are another obvious point of contact, but Huovi is brilliantly inventive and completely original. More…


30 December 2003 | Authors, Reviews

Saila Susiluoto

Photo: Irmeli Jung

Stanza is, of course, Italian for ‘room’, and Saila Susiluoto’s second volume, Huoneiden kirja, is a book of rooms. The 17th-century English poet John Donne said: ‘We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms’; Susiluoto’s poems are prose poems, not sonnets – but imaginary rooms with real feelings in them. They’re not pretty either, but beautiful, furnished with lyrical echoes, echoing with experience.

The protagonist is a girl, but there are many other personae, women, men, children: ‘Sorrow’s walked through me in the shape of people.’ The personae think there are many ways to walk through things, or towards them. They follow the signs they find on their way – from the ground floor (partly underground) of a draughty house up to the sixth floor (fifth in English), which also floats.

Behind the shining mirror twin girls are squealing, they disappeared inside the walls long ago… Inside us there are two hundred girl-embryos, the girls shout….

The girls are hand-made: fashioned by themselves – ‘like us’ – ‘out of pearls, blood, splinters of mirror’. More…

The search for joy

Issue 4/1998 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

‘Thank heaven there are more important things than being right.’

Risto Ahti is a contemporary incarnation of the vates, the poet as a seer or prophet. Prophet of what? Perhaps Jonah’s desire to get out of the whale? Or humanity’s desire to get out of our conditioning.

Let’s say that Theseus has found the Minotaur and, far from killing him, has befriended him. He’d like to lead them both out of the Labyrinth, but Ariadne’s thread has been lost, and the cunning intricacy of the mind-forged walls are baffling. It’ s necessary to get lost – ‘so utterly lost, you don’t know whether you’re coming or going’. ‘The lost wander in their lostness till they come in sight of themselves and finally other people.’ More…

The next nine lives

30 September 1998 | Authors

Ilpo Tiihonen

Ilpo Tiihonen. Photo: WSOY/ C.G.Hagström

‘I was blamed by another translator for working with the early Ilpo Tiihonen,’ writes Tiihonen’s translator, Herbert Lomas; ‘He was supposedly superficial.’

It’s a mistake to confuse lightness of touch or facility with superficiality. Shakespeare himself, who wrote three plays a year and ‘never blotted a line’, must have had facility. And lightness of touch is a sign of intelligence and artistic security. Ilpo Tiihonen (born 1950) carries his intelligence and his reading of the Swedish and Russian classics (Fröding, Mayakovsky, Yesenin) without self-importance, which may not always pass for a paradoxical humility. More…

Mouth first

Issue 1/1993 | Archives online, Authors

llpo Tiihonen was born in the industrial town of Kuopio, in the north of Finland, where his father was a postmaster and his mother a post-office clerk, but he soon evoked the streets and flats of Helsinki, and later the seaport of Hanko, as well as the mystery and nightskies of the country.

Two of his plays, one for adults and one for children, have recently been running to full houses at the City Theatre in Helsinki. His first television opera, Angelika, is due for screening shortly.There has always been a theatrical, playful, childlike and lyrical tone in his verse, and so it is not surprising that – though the qualities are shared with Shakespeare – he is sometimes considered a lightweight. But I agree with Auden, another serious and playful poet, that the significant new poet is likely to reveal himself through his delight in language. More…

Speaking about the heart

Issue 2/1991 | Archives online, Articles

New Finnish poetry, translated and introduced by Herbert Lomas

The ‘modernist’ revolution in Finnish poetry is now 40 years old, and the art must be ripe for changes.

Of course, the modernism of post-war Finnish poetry was not – except in Haavikko and to some extent in Saarikoski – extremely modernist. The poets were more interested in their content than their experiments. They were perhaps closer to ancient Chinese poets and early Pound than to Eliot in their elided brief juxtapositions and meditations on nature, society and moment-to-moment transience. The poets picked up a few liberties that unshackled them from metrical and rhyming formalities uncongenial to Finnish stress, syntax and phonemics; and they took off to speak about the heart. That is the strength of this poetry, and its originality, since all originality consists in being oneself – which includes one’s national self, and ultimately other people’s selves. And every generation still has to make a new start, admittedly in new circumstances, with the experience of its forefathers from birth to death. More…

Myth at large – an echo when life is mute

Issue 1/1989 | Archives online, Authors

At the end of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story certain characters have used all their contrivance to make a popular sailor’s fantasy – in which a crewman is invited to rich house, dined, wined and offered a woman – take place in reality. The crewman is found, all the events occur, but their actuality is entirely different from what was imagined and planned. The final image is a shell held to the ear – a sound that seems to have been heard long ago. The sound of the cosmos is the unpredictable voice of the Puppet Master who subtly alters the plots of the puppet masters.

Eeva-Liisa Manner writes both poetry and prose but carefully distinguishes the two:

Prose, let it be hard as you like, let it  make you restless.
But poetry's an echo heard when life is mute.