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.

The personal first. Poetry is also what is found in translation, or perhaps I should say in translating. I never truly feel I’ve understood a Finnish poem till I’ve made a version of it. Then I’ve discovered the poem. Moreover, in inventing a language – what I think the poet might have said if he’d been working in English himself – I’m extending my own range: I’m being led not only to think and feel things I shouldn’t otherwise think and feel, I’m articulating thoughts and feelings for myself in words I shouldn’t otherwise command. I’d like to think that a reader, in the creative act of reading, taking the words off the page into his imaginative life, experiences something of this too.

Yeats thought people should put on masks. They should dramatise themselves in roles that are not ‘natural’ to them. If a man is a dreamer, say, he should try to impersonate a man of action (a publisher, for instance).

That is why Yeats became an Irish Senator for a painful while. Far from being ‘untrue to himself’ – whatever his ‘self’ may be (the self becomes more and more elusive the more you look for it) – he will be discovering potential selves that might otherwise simply lie asleep, never able to wake up into human existence.

This is surely one of the main pleasures of reading – as well as of writing.

To translate is to put on a mask and to find a self you did not know you might have. It’s 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.

I first began to translate in a purely amateur way, for pleasure. I was intuitively reaching for the experiences I’ve just been describing – wanting to find my own Finnish personality, wanting to see what the Finnish author would be like if he were an Englishman or woman. Well – up to a point: what kind of a personality emerges in this exercise? Actually something quite new something that would otherwise not exist. 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.

Crucial decisions are being made with every word. English has a much larger vocabulary than Finnish (the Oxford English Dictionary has 500,000 words, the Nykysuomen Sanakirja 180,000) though I suspect Finns use a larger vocabulary in ordinary speech. If you look up a word in a Finnish-English dictionary, there are several choices given, but probably none of these will do. Translations made out of a dictionary would be sheer banality. Moreover, your Finnish poet, confronted with the larger English word-hoard, would have made a very individual choice of nuances. You have to develop a strong feel for his creative tendency to be able to intuit which particular flavours and tints would tickle his fancy, above all which particular combinations and juxtapositions of words he would relish.

There are many differences between Finnish and English. Leaving aside for the moment the extraordinary disparity between Teutonic syntax and Finno-Ugrian syntax, the vocabulary alone puts you into a different climate and weather. Vowels are musical notes and Finnish is full of vowels.

Consonants are noises – and English is full of consonants. Finnish words are all stressed on the first syllable. English words simply alternate stressed and unstressed syllables – and the word may begin with unstress or stress. Finnish lends itself to dactyls. Dactyls have never been much at home in English. Most English poetry is written in iambs, with trochees coming second, a few anapaestic poems, usually not very good; and not even Hiawatha, imitating the Kalevala, resorted to the dactyl. But Finnish words are all Finnish – either invented from existing roots or naturalised beyond recognition.

Most languages have a word like gramofon or telefon: Finnish has levysoitin (‘plate-sounder’) and puhelin (from puhua meaning to speak and an ending that implies an implement). Even words like kaupunki (which comes from a Scandinavian word for ‘market town’, köping) have become so Fennicised that their origin seems amazing. There are exceptions: the word pankki bears an obvious relation to ‘bank’; but ‘pankki’ sounds like something you might play with; ‘bank’ sounds like something that might stop you dead or run you over like a tank. English is a hybrid language that revels in its hybridness: blunt Anglo-Saxon monosyllables rub shoulders with 
polysyllabic Greek conglomerates, reeking of ancient Athens, Frenchified loan-words from over the Channel, and senatorial or ecclesiastical Roman naturalised citizens.

All this is embedded in a syntax where the subject comes first, or you don’t know it’s the subject, and the object comes after the verb, or you don’t know it’s the object. Whereas Finnish loathes to put things in such a stereotyped order and employs fifteen cases in order to confuse not only foreigners but the tongues of its own native speakers. I think Finns speak slowly, not only because their words are long and mellifluous, and because they have been taught never to speak without thinking, but because getting their teeth round their Ciceronian sentence-structure is no joke.

So the problem is: if you’re going to translate faithfully, you must get as far away as possible from the original syntax. Take a deep breath and produce a new poem. What you actually produce always has an element of luck in it. At another time and in another place you would almost certainly produce something different. All this sounds very unprofessional because unsystematic. Nevertheless it’s an awareness that’s essential to professionalism. Like any writer, you’re always in a new context and never satisfied with what you do.

I’d like to illustrate some of the interesting questions by comparing two versions I did of a poem by Eeva-Liisa Manner. Let me say I’m not satisfied with either. It’s a poem about an unusual state of consciousness, tragic in feeling, but not without humour, even a touch of quaintness. Tone then – and tone and atmosphere are enormously important components sometimes not sufficiently considered in translation, or even in original writing – is a very delicate and essential ingredient in the poem: something, of course, you can’t get out of a dictionary or a grammar book. This poem is about an out-of-the-body experience, and anticipation and preparation for death; the lightness of touch seems to me remarkable: the wit is metaphysical.

One day I passed out of my body
              and went into the other room to look at the clock.
It was going like a mechanical heart.

Back there my body was still
 breathing and the heart was still
like a clock that would tick for a
 certain time.
I went back into my body and gave my mind to the experience.
This heart too's getting tired, all
 clocks get tired,
now it's throbbing still in my wrist
knocking on my ribs, that ark-shaped

I want to be away, on another journey, into other boats

whose curved ribs I haven't carved myself
in life's bowl of blood.

I must have thought this was all right, as I did put it forward for publication in Books from Finland in 1978; but when I wanted to include it in my book Territorial Song I wasn’t satisfied. So I produced this.

One day I passed out of my body 
              and went into the next room to check the clock.
It was going like a pacemaker.
Back there my body was breathing still, the heart still pulsing

like a clock wound to tick for a fixed time.
I re-entered my body and studied the experience.
This heart too's tiring, all clocks tire,

it's throbbing now, still, in my wrist,

knocking on my rib-cage, that
 ship-shaped coffin.
I want to be off, on another trip, aboard other boats

whose curved rib-cages I haven't carved myself

in life's bumper of blood.

This is much more matter-of-fact. Both versions are possible developments from the original: the problems are no longer in the original but in the possibilities of choice in English. In the first I got a slight jingle of sound with ‘look’ and ‘clock’; in the second I replaced this with ‘next’, ‘check’ and ‘clock’ – an intensification of sound, therefore slightly more ‘poetic’ but not losing, I hoped, that touch of prosiness that authenticated the experience. In the next line ‘mechanical heart’ becomes ‘pacemaker’ – a more technical term; again, I hoped, authenticating; but losing, too, some of the emphasis on the paradox of the flesh and machinery, both like and unlike. In the next line I cut out the words ‘and’ and ‘was’, two small changes that completely alter the rhythm of the line – and thus of the whole poem: each tiny change alters the whole structure. Later a repetition of ‘gets’ is cut out, altering the rhythm, and the complete absence of the word ‘get’ makes the poem less colloquial: ‘getting tired, all clocks get tired’ becomes ‘tiring, all clocks tire’. Later on I introduced more colloquialism to compensate: ‘I want to be away on another journey’ became ‘I want to be off, on another trip’.

The rib-cage, in the first version, is described as an ‘ark-shaped coffin’; the second version has ‘ship-shaped coffin’. Neither will quite do: it probably should be the duller ‘boat-shaped coffin’, after all. I suspect Eeva-Liisa Manner was thinking of a ferry-boat like Charon’s. I was probably being a bit self-indulgent with ‘ark-shaped’ – I did think Miss Manner might have been similarly tempted. The Finnish word arkku, meaning a coffin, was sufficiently like, for me, the word arkki, meaning an ark like Noah’s and I didn’t want to lose the imaginative association.

‘Ship-shaped’ has overtones of something too neat for the needs of the soul: when I was doing my second version, that seemed relevant – I liked the idea; now I don’t. Another indulgence: ‘bumper’ does mean something you drink out of – it also can suggest the bumping of the heart. It’s touch of wit not in the original – but one in line, I feel, with Manner’s art. I think it’s fair. Weil, this is a translation I’m still not satisfied with – though I don’t wish to disown either version.

All this is very interesting for the translator. What a marvellous hobby! But what has this got to do with the reading public? Not much, one is inclined to think. The reader tends to be innocent. This is what the original is – and either he likes it or he doesn’t. What he thinks he likes or doesn’t like is the original author – although in fact it may be the translator. People in England believe they like or dislike Dostoyevsky, not Constance Garnett. Of course, when we compare translations from different ages – Chapman’s Homer, Pope’s Homer and the Penguin Homer – we realise how much of what we are responding to may be E.V. Rieu, or Pope, rather than Homer.

Without translation there wouldn’t be any English literature. The Elizabethans consciously began by translating – or ‘imitating’, as they called it then – meaning rather free translation, often a new and original poem paradoxically taken almost word-for-word from another language. The Tudor poets Wyatt and Surrey and the Elizabethans Sidney and Spenser wanted to have a poetry as good as that of the Italians.They wanted Ovid and Horace to speak like Englishmen and thus give us a longer tradition of gentility and civilisation. North’s translation of Plutarch was put onto the stage by Shakespeare, with surprisingly few changes, often, as in Antony and Cleopatra, in the very words of North.

Indeed, Shakespeare could conceivably be considered a translator himself, certainly an adapter – taking works in Latin or Italian and Englishing them into something new,
 but not all that new. Marlow’s Ovid helped to create Donne. This is how the language was not so much enriched as brought into being – and continued, as by Pope’s ‘Imitations’ of Horace in the eighteenth century. Don Quixote is not only a great figure in English literature, he practically begot the eighteenth century picaresque novel.

Translation, often so free as to be something new, has been an important, even central element in our literature right up to the twentieth century. It’s no longer so. Asked what is the place or opportunity for translation of minor languages into English at the present time, I’m tempted to say: almost none. There’ll always be people who want to translate because they find it an extension or an excitement to do so. There’ll always be minorities who want to explore, are keen and curious for new experiences – anxious to read what some translator of an exotic tongue can turn up for them.

But after a translator has performed a great labour of love and time, for a financial return that is ludicrous, considering the time and effort, what is the reward? Hardly a review or comment. A great silence proceeds, not only from the great British public, but from the small literary world. It’s very discouraging and makes the writer anxious to hurry back to his own work, which he has been perilously abandoning for so long.

Why this lack of interest? I think it’s because we’re late on in our culture, not at the beginning, like Wyatt and Shakespeare. There’s a surfeit of good work in English for people to read. What they want to read about – and what Shakespeare provided them with, even when he was translating – is themselves. The great adapters from foreign languages have always managed to make the works seem to be about Englishmen and their current problems. Horace seemed to be on the whole like a very intelligent and cultivated English gentleman, in spite of a few local pagan peculiarities. Julius Caesar and Hamlet on the stage were great English aristocrats, like Queen Elizabeth and Essex, give or take an occasional change of sex. Even the characters in Dostoyevsky were not too remote, in their conflicts, from the English people of Constance Garnett’s day. Dostoyevsky learned a great deal from Dickens – and there is still something very Dickensian about Dostoyevsky. (You might compare Marmeladov with Micawber.) The atmosphere’s Victorian, at least in Constance Garnett, and the religious anxieties are not too remote from those of a Ruskin or a George Eliot.

What I’m suggesting is that people read to experience themselves imaginatively: they want a new perspective on their own lives. People do not read translations to encourage minor literatures but to rediscover themselves in new imaginative adventures and revealing extensions of experience. If books from other cultures are to succeed in translation, it will not so much be because of their local colour, but because the problems and anxieties that the readers are experiencing in their own lives are illuminatingly developed in these translations too.

This article is based on a presentation given at the Finnish and Dutch Symposium in Holland in November 1981.


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  1. David McDuff

    Why is Books from Finland to cease publication? I have just heard the news, and am saddened by it. Having worked with the magazine for some thirty years, I have found it the best English-language road into Finnish literature,and I can truly say that it has helped me discover not only Finnish authors but also a part of myself. The world of literary magazines, fiction, poetry and literature in general will be the poorer for what is surely a short-sighted decision.

  2. Rauli Karkulahti

    Thank you Herbert Lomas. I read through the whole article, finding it absorbing and stopping at points to admire its perfection. I have lots of poetry on my Facebook blog and am always looking for more. Best regards.


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