A thankless task?

24 November 2011 | Letter from the Editors

Translator at work: St Jerome, translator of the Latin Bible in the late 4th century, is the patron saint of translators and librarians. Leonello Spada's 1610s painting, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome. Picture: Wikimedia

Why translate, asked the late Herbert Lomas thirty years ago in an issue of Books from Finland (1/82) – the pay’s absurd, one’s own writing suffers from lack of time, it’s very hard to please people. And public demand for translation from minor languages into English was almost non-existent.

But he also admitted that translating is generally a pleasurable experience: ‘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.’

For Bertie Lomas, translating equalled putting on a mask and finding a self you didn’t know you might have: ‘In these solitary theatricals one actually does become creative: it’s not merely a job of transposition. It’s a job of invention: in each poem you have to invent a new personality.’

From time to time translators ponder their work in writing, and discussing translation of poetry seems to dive deepest. For example, as English (Teutonic syntax!) has a much larger vocabulary than Finnish (Finno-Ugrian syntax!), Lomas found that ‘crucial decisions are being made with every word’.

Tarja Roinila,who translates from Spanish, describes in a recent article a process of making a Spanish poem – with her co-translator Coral Bracho – out of Harri Nordell’s poem. The fact that Finnish is a synthetic and Spanish an analytic language makes Nordell’s inventive use of compounds particularly difficult to translate. What would valokupolikiihko (valo = light, kupoli = cupola, kiihko = fervour, passion, frenzy) be in Spanish (Romance syntax!) – what does the word mean? What’s the object of this passion or frenzy, is the cupola made of light or does it just reflect it? The final version, éxtasis-cúpola de luz, sounds rhytmically interesting, says Roinila, as the emphasis of the two first words is on the first syllable, which is rare in Spanish.

A translator has to abandon the letter of the original poem, and this destroys the poem. But it is the letter that the translator is able to work on. The translation of a poem is not possible or impossible – the task is to create a new poem.

The question of why poetry should be translated is cultural and political, Roinila concludes, and the answer must be cultural and political too. ‘Our language needs it, our literature needs it, it enrichens our ecosystem.’ Neither is translation some ‘extra task performed on the original work, but an organic part of its life. Translation, like reading, is part of poetry’s way of breathing.’

In his later life Herbert Lomas admitted that the situation has changed a little for the little better. The pay might still be absurd, and it’s still very hard to please people, but interest in reading translated poetry – which implies that there is interest among publishers bringing it about – has slowly grown, and not just in England.

For a poet, translation is like playing scales on the piano, he said; ‘it may extend one’s knowledge of what poetry can be.’ For non-poets, poetry extends one’s knowledge of what language and literature can be.

Here’s an example of Bertie Lomas’s rare skill of inventing a form: a poem by Kirsi Kunnas for children. Bertie has translated rhyme, fun and play – as well as the idea of the original (which will be particularly appreciated by those who can read Finnish).


Starfish, living on the ocean bed
with tons of water
on her head,
     'I don't dread
     any load.
        I've pointy thumbs
        a plumb flat bum
and lots of pressure-proof brats!'


Eli merenpohjassa Meritähti
tuhat tonnia vettä yllä.
      - Minä jaksan kyllä,
      sanoi Meritähti.
      - On terävät sakarat,
      ja litteät pakarat
ja paineenkestävät kakarat!

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