Monday, December 31, 2007

I know that one, though...

Well, I've been extraordinarily quiet these last few weeks. This is mostly due to working hard, being in the United Kingdom and the fact that Facebook's Scrabulous seems to have taken over my life... But as the minutes tick away before the start of 2008, I thought I'd better post something of interest just to have something in my December column. So here is a snippet I found this afternoon:

The following article is from the January 2008 edition of BBC Music Magazine. It's a shame this isn't a more widely read publication in, say, Finland, a country with, in my experience, some of the most congested and bronchial concert audiences in the civilised world. The idea of the great Sir Simon Rattle (pictured in a wonderful caricature by the Belgian sketch artist Jan Op De Beeck, which lends extra credence to a joke Magnus Lindberg told me a few years ago and which almost certainly deserves a post all of its own) instructing a Carnegie Hall audience in how to cough correctly (ie. discreetly) is one I shall treasure. Enjoy!

(P.S. New Year's Resolution #1: Post more actively in 2008!)

Splutter Ye Not
So, what's the best way to cough? Instruction on this very subject has been given mid-symphony by Sir Simon Rattle, who finally lost his patience with a persistent hacker in New York. Conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in Mahler's Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, Rattle broke off after the first movement to address the audience. 'This piece starts with silence and returns to silence,' he said. 'The audience can help to create the piece by remaining silent.' The silver-headed maestro then proceeded to whip out a handkerchief from his pocket and show how best to muffle the sound, should anyone continue to find the urge to clear their throat simply too much to resist. The audience, we understand, behaved impeccably thereafter.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The world according to Mr Boyes

At first I didn't think I'd post on this subject, but here we go...

It's nice to see the Times doing its bit to uphold journalistic standards. Wednesday saw the publication of an article by columnist Roger Boyes on the Jokela school shooting, a piece of journalism as absurd as it is ridiculous. After a deluge of comments on the original article, Boyes today published a follow-up, in which, instead of righting the wrongs of his first piece and engaging in constructive debate, he continues to ridicule Finns and Finland with comments such as:
Finland ranks as one of the happiest countries in Europe. It also has one of the highest suicide rates, the third highest divorce rate in Europe (beaten by Sweden again!) and 56 per cent gun ownership. So that adds up to a pretty complex society, no?

At the last count, the original post had received 192 comments. I don't know whether the Times has decided to stem the flow of comments on the new article, but the one I posted earlier this evening still hasn't appeared. So, for the record, here is my response to Mr Boyes.
Mr Boyes. As, behind your sarcasm, I’m sure you’re well aware, the outrage over your article does not represent an unwillingness on the part of the Finns to discuss the implications (for Finland and elsewhere) of Wednesday’s events, rather it is an expression of dismay at a cobbling together of isolated statistics which, at the Times, apparently passes as serious journalism. As a foreigner here, one’s eyes are perhaps more open to the problems that exist, and those problems should rightly be discussed, but your original article goes no way towards doing this. The young feel disaffected in many countries (not least the UK); they carry mobile and spend hours on the internet; their parents are divorced. What, then, if we disregard your misplaced Kalevala analogies, makes this “a very Finnish affair”? Whether you have visited Finland in the past is beside the point. It is the specious nature of your comments that has caused offence, not the fact that you ask valid, necessary questions.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Bowling for Jokela

As incredible as it sounds, I only heard about the school shooting that occurred only some 50km from where I live about 12 hours after it happened. Not having a television and being on the move all day yesterday may have had something to do with it. When I was on the bus, I heard something on the radio about somebody being "rushed to Töölö hospital", but couldn't hear the rest of the item.

It goes without saying that yesterday's events were shocking beyond belief – I don't think there's any need to reiterate that. In a Finnish context the idea of a school shooting seems even more outlandish, because things like that simply don't happen here. Virtually nothing happens here – or so people like to think. Finns and other Scandinavians often seem to live in a fairytale land where they believe they are immune to these freak attacks. But if, as the media has now pointed out, Finland does indeed have the third highest ratio of guns per capita in the world, the answer to the question "How can something like this ever happen in Finland?" seems painfully obvious.

From the Guardian, 8th Nov 2007:
Police said the killer's gun was legally owned but he had obtained a licence only three weeks ago. Finland has the most heavily armed civilian population in Europe, and is third worldwide, after the US and Yemen.
Although murder rates are higher in neighbouring Russia and the former Soviet Baltic states, Finland has the highest murder rate in western Europe at around 28 per 100,000 people.
According to a survey this year by Geneva's Institute of International Studies, there are 56 privately owned firearms for every 100 civilian Finns. The guns must be licensed and a licence costs €32 (£22.50).

Can I really be the only person to whom these statistics come as a real shock? I'm stunned that a firearm licence costs less than the average train ticket and that anyone over the age of 18 can obtain one. However, Finland having the highest murder rate in western Europe doesn't come as a surprise. You only have to open the paper to see that, particularly in the countryside, the only way to sort out an argument with your neighbour is to shoot them with your hunting rifle. "My girlfriend left me, so I shot her" is not an uncommon quote in Finnish newspapers.

Where does this leave the indignation of those asking how this can happen in Finland? It does happen in Finland, it probably happens every day – on a smaller scale – but too often we turn a blind eye to it. I glanced at Finland for Thought this morning, the blog I love to hate, to see what they were saying about the shooting. The issue of guns in Finland came up there a few months ago. The opening comments on blog owner Phil's post speak volumes about the prevailing attitudes over at FfT:
Finland has the third highest number of guns in the world per capita, yet everyone isn’t shooting each other!? This must really confuse the anti-gun advocates! Or maybe, it’s not the *guns* that are the problem…??

Every time something like this happens (Dunblane, Columbine, Virginia Tech), we ask ourselves how many more people are going to have to die before something is finally done about the gun laws in our countries. The Second Amendment (and rest of the Constitution) was written in the belief that most people are decent, honourable citizens who will treat others with dignity and exercise restraint in front of the privileges the Constitution affords them. Perhaps I'm a misanthrope, but I'm not convinced that the majority of people have the common sense necessary to handle a firearm. Though I often dislike his style and his methods, on the issue of gun control, Michael Moore is absolutely right.

I love seeing conservatives and libertarians proved wrong; I only wish it had been in different circumstances. Perhaps you'd like to retract the above statement, Phil?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Formula One Goes Channel Five

Is it only me, or is there something distinctly pornographic about this and other recent photographs from the Formula One Championships? I remember laughing with O a few years ago, when Kimi Räikkönen won his first Grand Prix, at how even Helsingin Sanomat plastered a photograph of the boyish, downy-cheeked, "barely legal" Kimi in a similar pseudo-bukkake pose, but now I realise that the photograph in question, and the one above, are part of a much larger genre.

It's startling quite how closely the imagery of Formula One resembles the aesthetics of porn. The above picture might in another context be called an "autofacial" or something similar. Another common image is what I'll call "the ejaculation pose" (photographs which immortalise the moment upon which the winner first corks the champagne bottle at crotch-height, letting the contents spurt forth). Then there are those in which the winner drenches the other two drivers standing on the podium in the remaining fluids... I mean, champagne.

For all its inherent masculinity, the world of sport is positively brimming with homoeroticism, both overt and covert. For years I've wondered why footballers embrace each other, jump on top of each other and generally frolic on the pitch when somebody scores a goal; rugby scrumming has always held a certain amount of interest; and as for Greco-Roman wrestling... the sight of two men in tight (and I mean tight) lycra jumpsuits grappling each other on a court is quite a spectacle. I'm sure there's been much more written on the subject of homoeroticism in sport and the portrayal of the victorious man (do women shower themselves and in each other in champagne?) – numerous sociologists and queer theorists have doubtless had a stab – though for the time being I'll just have to make do with the pictures.

PS: I promised K last week that I would post on this subject, so thanks for your patience! Your comments, insightful and otherwise, are most welcome. My computer was at the repair store all week... Technology, eh! I don't know whether you can live with it, but as I've discovered you certainly can't live without it...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Coz it's really, really important

I promise to write something on a subject other than British politics soon, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up!

You can always count on The Sun for some informed debate on burning issues of the day. I mean, who wants to listen to politicians' opinions anyway? They're all the same, I say, can't trust any of them! Far more interesting, not to mention edifying, are the opinions of Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson and one of the singers from Girls Aloud, both of whom are, of course, renowned for the insight and depth of their political commentary – or something like that...

To give him credit, Clarkson does present a rather cogent argument for what the Treaty means and why it is important that we, the great British public, ratify it. He argues in favour of a referendum and, I was surprised to read, says that he would vote Yes. I'm surprised Mr Murdoch allowed such dissenting, pro-European opinions to be published in one of his papers.
And before I’m accused by the Guardian of being a Little Englander with his head stuck in the 1950s, I should like to say that I like the idea of a common Europe with the same money, the same airport trolleys, the same plug sockets and the same property laws. [...] I like the idea that I could work in Greece or France and it’d be just the same as working in Swindon. I also like the idea of a giant European state tempering American stupidity and Chinese economic might. I would therefore vote YES in a referendum. But since we live in a democracy, I would absolutely respect the result if everyone else voted no.

Far more in line with The Sun's traditional politics is Nicola Roberts. Who? You know, that singer from Girls Aloud. Oh, her! Apparently, the paper claims, she is "more concerned about Britain's future than her nails or make up". Good to know.
Personally I’m against us signing up under the terms being suggested because it means we will be handing over so many powers to unelected representatives in Europe. It will mean they could bring in new laws and dictate the way we lead our lives in Britain. That’s why I think that, if we do get a referendum, we should vote No. Others might disagree – that is their right in a democracy – but at least let’s all have a debate about it.
If young people today don’t know anything about the EU constitution they should go and educate themselves and find out how it could effect [sic] them because it’s important. Do we really want to end up living in a country where we can’t make our own decisions based on what is best for Britain?

Why do I get the distinct impression this was not written by Ms Roberts? The text has Sun propagandist rhetoric written all over it. "They" (the terrible other, the foreign, the European, "Brussels") could bring in new laws... Do "we" (the pure, the righteous wronged, the non-European) really want to end up living... And so on and so on ad nauseam.

How frustrating that this represents the current level of "debate" on this issue, and how saddening that one paper and its Australian owner seem intent on derailing decades of work simply to protect their own megalomaniacal agenda.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Defending our right to stupidity

Polly Toynbee does it again! Another marvellous article in today's Guardian regarding the frenzy of misinformation in the UK over anything "European". Ms Toynbee is absolutely right. A referendum on this issue should never have promised in the first place; Blair should not have given in to pressure from the xenophobic Tories and the right-wing press. Now, instead of addressing the facts surrounding the signing of the Treaty, the debate has descended to bickering over the referendum "we was promised".

Democracy is a term often bandied about in the referendum debate. One poster (again, the comments to this article are worth a read: prepare to get angry!) talks of Ms Toynbee's "undemocratic vision"; another, in an echo of the Patriot Act, says that she "intensely dislikes her country". Dissent clearly means you are anti-British – can someone please explain the logic in this equation? Tory sympathisers seem to have conveniently forgotten that it was a Conservative government which, in 1992, voted against a referendum on the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. But we don't mention that, okay?

The whole point of electing government is that these people are better equipped to run the country than you or I. Gordon Brown understands a great deal more about the workings of the economy than most of us. Government ministers also understand far more about the Treaty than the average citizen. At the very least they will have read it. Would it be undemocratic to insist that everyone read the Treaty before voting on it? Are any of the readers of The Sun planning on printing off the Treaty (which is available online), reading it and engaging with what it actually says? One wonders whether they would even be capable of this, so poisoned have they become by the vitriolic (and highly misinformed) anti-European sentiment the Murdoch-run right wing press feeds them. The Daily Telegraph is not much better either. When I was in the UK this summer I was shocked (though not surprised) to see, on the front page of the Telegraph, a sign saying "Sign our Petition Against the EU Treaty" printed in bright yellow and purple, the colours of the heinous UK Independence Party. The paper's affiliations could not have been made any clearer.

Far more undemocratic, in my view, would be to hold a referendum in which people end up voting on an issue they know little or nothing about because they cannot be bothered to engage with the issues, casting instead a vote against "Brussels" (whatever that means) and the Euro. It pains me that many people in Britain seem incapable of understanding that the Euro wasn't created simply to further facilitate their holiday to the Costa del Sol.

More frightening, however, is the speculation that a No vote would ultimately result in Britain's exit from the EU. In the event of such a catastrophe, I would find it very difficult to have anything further to do with a nation that is prepared to espouse such idiocy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Definition of Grievous

What does "grievous" mean in the phrase "grievous bodily harm"? The precise definitions of this and other similar legal terms seem rather vague. Where should be we draw the line between ABH and GBH? At what point does the harm inflicted cease to be "actual" and must therefore be considered "grievous"?

This question came to mind in the light of two recent cases I read about in the Finnish press this week. "Grievous" is the closest translation I can think of for the Finnish legal category of "törkeä something"; pahoinpitely is the legal equivalent of ABH, while törkeä pahoinpitely is GBH.

This, however, is where the similarities between Finnish and British legal terminology end. The Finnish legal system has a strange concept of what is grievous and what is not. All manner of misdemeanours can be considered grievous or not grievous. The most shocking example is the legal distinction between "rape" and "grievous rape" (raiskaus and törkeä raiskaus). This distinction seems to suggest that some rapes are less grievous than others and that not all rapes are considered "grievous" enough to warrant a stiff sentence. What exactly is a non-grievous rape? Was her skirt too short?

Earlier this week, a man who murdered his wife appeared in court charged with "murder" (in the US this would probably be "first degree murder"). His defence argues that the charges should be lowered to "manslaughter", because the crime as a whole cannot be considered "grievous" enough to warrant a murder charge. Here is a rough translation of an article in Helsingin Sanomat, 10th October 2007:
At the hearing of the Vaasa High Court in Jyväskylä on Tuesday, district prosecutor Pentti Hiidenheimo called for a life sentence for Jarmo Björkqvist, charged with murder. Björkqvist killed his wife Paula Björkqvist, chairperson of the Jämsä Town Council, on 18th July 2006. Jämsä Municipal Court charged Mr Björkqvist with murder in May [...]
Björkqvist's defence counsel has appealed against the decision because, in their opinion, the crime as a whole does not fulfil the notion of grievousness required by law for a charge of murder. Counsel for the defence, Henry Saleva, said his client would plead guilty to manslaughter, and suggested that a suitable sentence should be at the higher end of the scale [...]
His wife escaped into their daughter's room, lifted her from her cot, and said she was leaving. Jarmo Björkqvist did not accept this, and stood in the doorway to prevent them from getting out. The couple argued for about 15 minutes, after which Mrs Björkqvist opened the window and shouted for help.
His wife's cries for help allegedly made Mr Björkqvist "lose his temper". He shut the window, then ran to the kitchen to fetch a bread knife. Björkqvist says he had no intention of harming his wife; he merely wanted his daughter back. She was hiding under the table. Mr Björkqvist soon began a frenzied attack on his wife until the knife's handle had become so slippery with blood that he could no longer use it. He then went back to the kitchen to fetch another knife and continued stabbing his wife using his left hand. A total of 69 stab wounds were found on the body.
In the eyes of the prosecution the crime was extremely cruel, brutal and deliberate. Fetching another knife from the kitchen indicates premeditation, though not "wilful premeditation" as indicated in the statute book. Mr Björkqvist paid no heed to his wife's cries for help, the fact that she was unable to defend herself or the fact that their daughter was all the while in the same room.

This all begs the question: how grievous does this crime have to be before Mr Björkqvist will be charged with murder and sentenced to life? Under UK law this would be clear; this was not accidental. If fetching another knife is not considered grievous enough, my faith in Nordic justice will be seriously dented.

Compare this with the case, reported both in Finland and the UK this week, of a British woman who helped her terminally ill Finnish partner to die. With the body in the back seat of the car, the woman then drove straight to the nearest police station and told them what had happened. Under British law she will now be charged with murder (not manslaughter) and could face a life sentence.

Now which of these two crimes is the more grievous?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Yo, Cameron! Pimp my election...

So, after weeks of speculation, frantic phonecalls to county hall, printing off my electoral registration papers, finding a British witness who isn't a member of my family, the threat of postal strikes and the prospect of another Florida 2000, there isn't going to be a general election after all. It's quite a relief, not least because of the potential debacle over postal votes from overseas: would there be time to send them out and return them by the deadline given the current situation with the postal service?

Hindsight, of course, is a fine thing, but only if we can look back at events without distorting the facts to suit our own agendas. In this respect, the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative Party this week is most interesting indeed, and highly revealing.

Who actually wanted this election to happen, I began to wonder. It certainly wasn't anybody within the Labour Party. From Labour's point of view, the only conceivable reason for holding an election only two years after the last one would be to give Mr Brown a mandate of his own, one that doesn't come with the uncomfortable baggage bequeathed him by Mr Blair. In all honesty, the likely outcome for Brown would have been an even larger majority than he has at the moment; Old Labour voters are more inclined to vote for Brown than for Blair. But who really wanted this election? It seems rather spurious of Mr Cameron to accuse the PM of "bottling it", when all along it was the Tories goading him to hold an election he neither wanted nor needed.

With this in mind, Mr Cameron's recent comments in the House of Commons all seem rather mystifying:
You are the first prime minister in history to flunk an election because you thought you could win it. [...] Do you realise what a phoney you now look? Have you found a single person who believes your excuses for cancelling the election?

I for one fail to see how the PM could "cancel" an election which he had never once "announced". Is your memory so bad, or are we being slightly disingenuous with the facts, Mr Cameron? You may be well advised to remember that electorate's memory is not as short or failing as your own.

Another hilarious upshot of last week's alleged election fever is the Nuspeak now coming out of Conservative party HQ. "Bring it on", bellowed Mr Cameron, and, in what seems like a paraphrase of a grammatical construction common only to porn films, "call that election"! Brown is, apparently, a "phoney" for "flunking" the election. Where is this all going to end? Before we know it, the Tory manifesto will be available in txtspk to appeal to all those underprivileged people who can't spell properly. It's too absurd for words... I did giggle listening to interviews of the Tory faithful immediately after Cameron's "virtuoso" speech at the conference:
– What are your feelings about a snap election?
– Bring it on, I say!

Sadly, as I heard this all on the radio, I didn't have the pleasure of witnessing for myself as the blue-rinse brigade of affluent, upper-middle-class England gushed with phrases more common in the "broken society" they so wish to mend.

Polly Toynbee, who shadow minister cum Tory image consultant Greg Clark suggested should replace Winston Churchill as one of the key social commentators of Nu-Toryism, wrote a marvellous column in yesterday's Guardian, in which she points out that Brown must not spend the rest of this term playing it safe. He has leadership skills, but now he has to show people what he can do with them. He has to demonstrate that cutting taxes isn't the answer to all our ills – Mr Cameron, are you listening?

In offering £3.5bn in tax cuts (exemption from inheritance tax etc, thus making the rich richer. "But only millionaires will pay". Why doesn't this thought comfort me?), the Tories might as well have pledged a commitment to longer hospital waiting lists, less funding for schools (not to mention the arts), worsened public transport in areas of the country that badly need more investment... Shall I go on?
The deputy leadership elections did briefly throw up some passion - revulsion at excess at the top, the word "inequality" spoken out loud, debates that touched on fairness in schools admissions, faith schools and all the barriers to social mobility. That's what Labour is for. The Tory masterplan for cutting inheritance tax by £3.5bn while taxing non-domiciles £25,000 each has drawn a key battle line. Labour may have to give assurances that the inheritance tax threshold will never reach more than the current 6% richest, but the principle remains. It will take hard work to remind people what tax is for, why it is a public good and not a burden, how it is the agent of social justice. Those ideas have been allowed to atrophy in the last decade. Labour has redistributed more than any government to the poor, at least slowing the rate of increase in inequality - but by never framing the argument in ideological terms, a generation has never heard how inheritance tax helped shape social progress in the last 100 years.

Every bit as interesting as the article itself are the comments people have posted in response. It seems that a lot of people read Toynbee's columns in order to disagree with them, much as I often read Finland for Thought. It's good to be reminded why you think the way you do; anger can be a very useful tool. One comment on Toynbee's article stood out:
I have to say, Polly, that when I read your columns these days, there's a distinct aroma of Animal Farm: "You don't want Mr Jones back, do you?" The idea that the big, bad Tories will be markedly worse for the poor than Gordon Brown is a puerile fantasy. I don't know if you believe it or if it's designed to frighten Guardian readers back into sullen submission to New Labour [...] [Brown is] obsessed by [sic] courage in the same way that some poor people are obsessed by money: the lack of it defines their lives.

That's beautiful – poor people are obsessed with money. Of course, it's easy to ridicule "the poor" from a life of luxury. David Cameron may make overtures to the middle classes by promising extensive yet unrealistic tax cuts, talking about the abolition of grammar schools, advocating a more inclusive definition of "the family" (to include, for instance, same-sex couples), but there is a gulf between what Mr Cameron says in public and what the rest of the party faithful truly believe. Essentially he and other "moderate" Conservatives are banging their heads against a brick wall, preaching to the unconvertible. The Tory party does not want to be modernised; Tories do not believe in freedom of opportunity for all (the grammar schools debate), they do not believe that a family can also consist of two women or two men. It is comments like this that make the question of who to vote for blindingly obvious: we do not want Mr Jones back, thank you very much. Too much progress has been made since 1997 for it all to be undone by, as Toynbee puts it, "rich boys protecting their own". I'll let the marvellous Ms Toynbee have to final word:
Some things don't cost money, only bravery. Brown yesterday left open the scope of the coming constitutional reform. To give away his right to choose the timing of elections might feel a blessed relief after this week - and so would a sharp curb on party spending. The spectacle of one Tory millionaire swaying votes in a few marginals to buy the next election is all the evidence anyone needs of the democratic dysfunction of party funding and of an electoral system that hinges on 200,000 bored swing voters. Jack Straw has already led the way in supporting the alternative vote, giving voters the right to put their choices in 1, 2, 3 order, a first step towards fairer voting: it could be done for the next election. Better by far for Labour to do it before a hung parliament forces them.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Blowing the Proverbial Brass Instrument

Of course, one doesn't like to blow one's own brass instrument too much and too often (take that as you will), but since last week was one of the most professionally challenging in living memory – for reasons that I'd better not go into on this forum – I think I can be excused a little self-indulgence.

After a week of unfounded criticism of my work, the seeds of doubt having been thoroughly sown in my mind (but let's not even go there), it was heartening to come across this review in the New Statesman of my recent translation of Maria Peura's At the Edge of Light (Maia Press). I spent a few days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Peura at the end of August (post here), and was very pleased at the reception with which her book was met. What's most pleasing about this review is that the reader has actually taken the time to put the novel in its proper context – a context with which most UK readers will be largely unfamiliar – and has realised that, though death is omnipresent, this is ultimately a book about survival, about living. A fascinating read, I'm sure, for all those with a Scandinavian bent, or does such blatant plugging count as one blow of the trumpet too many?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Itchy Feet

The autumn is well underway here in Helsinki; the view from my window is fresh and colourful. I like autumn, the colours, the cripsness in the air, gradually having to wrap up warmer and warmer before leaving the house. The thought of winter, however, is somewhat harder to deal with. In Finland it's long, dark and – if you're lucky – cold. There's nothing worse than a slushy winter with no snow (last year, for instance). But global warming is just a communist myth, right?

To help alleviate the darkness, two friends who have just embarked on trips to far-away climes have started blogging to help us all keep in touch. Anyone interested in reading about how other people are having a great time while we're stuck here may enjoy reading them too. The only drawback for our international friends is that both blogs are primarily in Finnish.

One friend, the cellist from our summer Schubert project, has taken off for Australia and New Zealand where she'll be travelling around until the end of November. We all met up at the Aussie Bar in Helsinki (where else?) for a final drink beffore she left, and I really encouraged her to establish a blog to keep us up to date on what she's been getting up to. The results can be seen at The Australiasia Trip 2007, where Eevukka has promised to post photographs as soon as she finds a computer that can cope. Apparently the computer in the hostel is State of the Art 1983.

The other new travel blog of interest is Iranoia, written by a translator friend who has set off for Tehran for at least the next six months. There he plans to, in his own words, "brush up his Farsi"... As you do. Posts at Iranoia tend to be in a mixture of Finnish and French, with the occasional smattering of Arabic and Farsi, so anyone with those languages should check out what must, I'm sure, be one of the most enthralling travel diaries on the net. There can't be too many Finnish translators living in Tehran :-)

All this talk of travel is making me restless... O is off to India in a couple of weeks, another friend is in Cyprus, another just came back from two weeks in Thailand and Laos, the list goes on. The furthest I'm going to get this autumn is probably the UK - I don't think a travel diary will be necessary!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Farewell, Canteen!

While going through my pile of papers ready for the recycling bin, I came across this article from Metro magazine, which I thought I should share. Jukka Relander is an astute social critic, and this article, entitled 'Better People', certainly doesn't spare the wrath. It links in nicely with two previous posts I wrote on the subject of the relationship between Finland's new foreign minister, the loathsome Ilkka Kanerva, and his counterparts abroad (and here's the other one). I'll provide an English translation of this as soon as I have enough time to do one. Until then, here is the text in Finnish.

Parempaa väkeä
Jukka Relander, Metro-lehti 28.08.2007

Pääkirjoitustoimittajat ja iltapäivälehtien lööppiosasto huokaisivat helpotuksesta, kun ulkopoliittinen edustajamme sai viimein kutsun valkoiseen taloon viime keväänä. Ilkka Kanerva tapasi Condoleezza Ricen. Pääsimme viimein pannasta! Samat tahot eivät ole lainkaan huolestunieta siitä, että ulkopoliittinen johtomme ei ole pitkään aikaan vieraillut Burkina Fasossa. Siellähän asuu afrikkalaisia. Mitä lie hottentotteja. Paljon tärkeämpää on päästä vallan salonkeihin.

Maailman poliittiset tosiseikat osoittavat, että jenkit ovat hölmöjä. Mutta eivät ne niin hölmöjä ole - kuin me, esimerkiksi.

Totta ihmeessä tuore oikeistopuolueen ulkoministeri saa viivana kutsun terrorismin vastaiseen sodan pääkallonpaikalle (tämä muuten EI ollut metafora). Amerikkalaisten politiikan päätavoite on ollut jo vuosikausia se, että yritetään etsiä liittolaisia, tukijoita ja myötäjuoksijoita, jotka silkkaa hölmöyttään ovat valmiita siunaamaan minkä tahansa verilöylyn, johon maailman johtava valtio ryhtyy saadakseen öljyä.

Jopa CIA kykenee saamaan selville sen, että sosiaalidemokraattien, vallankin Tuomiojan, ulkopolitiikka on veistetty eri puusta kuin kokoomuslaisen Kanervan.

Amerikkalaiset tietävät senkin, että Kanervalla on erityistä tarvetta oikeistolaiseen kunnostautumiseen vastapainoksi veljeilylle Neuvostoliiton kanssa 1970- ja 80-luvuilla. Jenkit luultavasti tietävät senkin, että Kanerva ei sano niin hanakasti vastaan kauniille naiselle kuin miehelle. Näin helposti Suomesta saa poliittisen liittolaisen.

Ja katso: Suomi on keskittämässä kaiken ulkopoliittisen tarmonsa amerikkalaisten ja Naton vetämään kriisinhallintaan Afganistanissa, hyljeksiäkseen YK:n vetämää rauhanhanketta Sudanissa. Darfuriin virtaa rauhanturvaajia Intiasta, Pakistanista ja Nigeriasta.

Heikolla identiteetillä varustetun napaseudun edustajilla ei ole mitään tarvetta profiloitua tässä seurassa. Afganistanissa voi sen sijaan piipahtaa burgerille mukavassa valkoihoisessa seurassa ja samalla tukea maailman mahtavimman valtion ullkopoliittisia ja taloudellisia intressejä. Miten laulettiinkaan taistolaisrallatuksessa "Lenin-setä asuu Venäjällä": "Kyllä pienikin jaksaa taistella".

Keväällä, kun lehdistö päihtyi Condilta saamasta huomiosta, Kanerva supatti kauniin kollegansa korvaan, että kyllä, me olemme mukana. Kokoomus on siitä alkaen vaatinut, ettei Afganistanissa olla vain kanttiinihommissa, vaan tositarkoituksella. Me olemme mukana. Ihan missä tahansa, kunhan vielä kutsutte toisen kerran.

Joskus vain tuntuu siltä, että 1970-luvusta ei sittenkään ole kulunut kovin pitkää aikaa.

Monday, September 03, 2007

When toilet paper runs out

After a relaxing weekend at O's cottage, I came back home last night and, fresh from the shower, turned on the computer to see what had happened in the world since I had been away. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the headline "Sorry I quit, says anti-gay senator arrested in airport toilet" grabbed my attention.

The article in question, from Sunday's Observer, deals with the antics of now ex-senator Larry Craig in a toilet at Minneapolis Airport. Craig is alleged to have solicited sex from the man in the adjoining cubicle. Unfortunately for Craig, that man happened to be an plain-clothed policeman.

Naturally, Craig has denied the allegations, claiming that he is not gay and that it was all a big misunderstanding; what he was actually doing was groping around the floor for some toilet paper... Now, why do I find this so difficult to believe?
The police version of events is simple. The toilet was known as a place where men came for sex. They would sit down in the stalls and use a recognisable series of foot movements and hand gestures to signal their intentions. That is, according to the police report, what Craig did.

He settled himself into the toilet, tapped his feet and moved his right foot over to touch that of the policeman in the next stall, and then slid his hand under the dividing wall. The policeman responded by showing Craig his badge. Craig was arrested. Or, as one unkind headline had it, he was 'flushed'.

Just for the record, I've never had anonymous sex in an airport toilet, and neither do I intend to. This explains why I am unacquainted with the "recognisable series of foot movements and hand gestures" one uses to procure it. In fact, I can only think of one friend who might know the ins and outs of this etiquette. The crucial point here, I feel, is that you are unlikely to know this system unless you are intending to use it. This fact certainly won't help Craig's defence.

The debacle over Craig's fall from grace has highlighted a number of interesting side-issues. According to the Observer, in his police interview Craig complains of being "entrapped", and argues that, had he had a sexual encounter that day, it would have been entirely consensual. Well, yes... Following on from this, many people are beginning to ask why it is only gay men who are targeted for such "entrapment", when it is a well-documented fact that all kinds of people – even heterosexuals (gasp!) – are often partial to a spot of al fresco fun. These are questions which rightly need to be asked and to be addressed, so why wasn't senator Craig using his influence in political life to ask and address them, instead of campaigning against the furtherance of gay rights and in favour of the very legislation of which he now claims to be the victim?

Whether senator Craig is gay or not is entirely beside the point. If he is, I feel sorry that his degree of self-loathing is such, that it has driven him to become one of the most rabid anti-gay campaigners in US politics. If he isn't, then we can only guess at his motivations that day in that toilet cubicle. He isn't the first politician to be caught with their pants round their hypocritical ankles, and he certainly won't be the last. In Britain, the Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes came out (not that it was a great surprise to anyone) in January 2006. However, the fact that, in the vitriolic 1983 Bermondsey by-election, he was billed by his party as "the straight choice" against openly gay Labour candidate Peter Tatchell, makes his admission all the more incomprehensible. Tory MP and shadow environment secretary Gregory Barker left his wife last year for his [male] interior designer – after voting against numerous gay rights bills in the House of Commons. The list goes on and on and on...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Chinese Whispers

Translation is a funny business. Finding exactly the right word, the appropriate turn of phrase, is an arduous task and a skill to be held in the highest esteem. With this in mind, I'd like to extend my profound thanks to the translator of this menu, posted at

I've eaten some strange foodstuffs in my day, but some of these delicacies really take the biscuit... or something. And what's with all those cowboys? Can anyone enlighten me? This may read like Lost in Translation meets a game of Chinese Whispers, but the diners' loss is certainly our gain. How I giggled :-)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Perfect Partners

There are two principal reasons for my recent lack of contact with the blogosphere: a) I have had an immense amount of work to get done and b) I have been gallivanting across Europe (photographs from Gran Canaria hopefully to follow soon...) Now that the majority of this work has finally reached my big Outbox in the sky, I can finally sit down and return to more pressing matters.

Wandering through Foyle's in London yesterday, a place which is arguably one of the most amazing bookshops in the world, I was interested to discover a stand of books being sold in pairs. Amazon has been using its Perfect Partner scheme for years, and it seems to work very effectively - or rather, it certainly works on impulsive internet shoppers like me ("People who bought this item, also bought this item. Buy them both now for only £n!"). With this in mind, I suppose it's not too much of a leap for publishers to start doing something similar, in this case by packing two novels together in a plastic wrapper. Altruistically thinking, this will not only increase their sales, but will bring readers into contact with books they might otherwise have overlooked.

Be that as it may, I couldn't help being puzzled at some of the publisher's Perfect Partners. The Grimms' fairytales and Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber seem a sensible pairing, as do AS Byatt's Possession and George Eliot's Middlemarch. But when we get to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein paired with Jeanette Winterson's Sexing the Cherry, one has to wonder at the logic of it all. Would customers who bought Mary Shelley really also buy Winterson, and vice versa? But despite all this, the oddest couple on the stand has got to be the pairing of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting with Oliver Twist! Both are depictions of squalor, but that's about as far as I can connect them. Any guesses?

And while we're on the subject of books, I have to give a particular mention to a novel I read last week which utterly blew my socks off: The Half Brother by the Norwegian author Lars Saabye Christensen. This Friday I'll have the honour of meeting and interviewing Mr Christensen at the Edinburgh International Book Fair in a panel discussion with Finnish author Maria Peura, the translation of whose novel I have just completed. At 764 pages, The Half Brother is a fairly hefty tome, but worth every minute I spent reading it, and although I'm very nervous (especially as, when I went to look for the hyperlink to the above event, I noticed it's SOLD OUT...), I'm immensely looking forward to the whole event. Further posts doubtless to follow...

Monday, July 23, 2007

Deathly Hollow?

I came across this marvellous article, entitled Harry Potter and the Death of Reading, over at the Washington Post website. Critic Ron Charles makes some very interesting points about reading and literary phenomena in general and the cult of Harry Potter in particular.

Having never read any of the Potter heptalogy (gasp!), it's hard to say one way or another, though I can well imagine that, for many people, the admittance of not liking them is met with astonishment – everybody likes them. Ron Charles puts this very well:
"How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"
Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath. And you'd better answer correctly. Start carrying on like Moaning Myrtle about the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes, and you'll wish you had your invisibility cloak handy. Besides, from anyone who hasn't sold the 325 million copies that Rowling has, such complaints smack of Bertie Bott's beans, sour-grapes flavor.

Personally I tend to be rather sceptical of the Potters and books like them (eg. The Da Vinci Code, the works of Paulo Coelho), and find myself asking whether they are popular because they are truly good, or whether they are simply 'good' because they are popular. Can they be both?

Another argument I've often heard about Harry Potter is that if these books inspire people (especially young children) to read, then they are fulfilling a very valuable pedagogical function. However, as Charles points out, this is not always the case. The new Potter book may be the only work of fiction that many people read all year. The fact that the Potters are so hyped, not released before a given day (what is that all about?) and so on, removes the spontaneity of reading, as Charles puts it, denying readers "that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves".

Perhaps I may yet read a Harry Potter book, just to say I've done so. I recently watched Borat, not because I particularly wanted to, but because I feel it is set to become one of the significant cultural reference points of the next few years and, as such, I ought to have seen it in order to have an opinion about it and be able to engage in fruitful debate about it. That being said, I'm quite content for Harry aka Daniel Radcliffe to continue taking on challenging, engaging roles such as that of Alan Strang in Peter Shaffer's Equus (see photo). I was very disappointed to have missed this show (for reasons both artistic and otherwise) due to not living in London, and even more disappointed to note that the production will be touring to Bath Theatre Royal (the theatre closest to my parents' house) while I will be visiting, but that, alas, Daniel is to be replaced by someone else... How late it was, how late.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Täydellinen euroviisu

This song, Täydellinen euroviisu ('The Perfect Eurovision Song'), was created at around the time of this year's competition, held here in Helsinki. The idea was to cram as many Eurovision clichés into one song as possible. This one certainly has the kitsch factor: it comes complete with at least three modulations!

Just to put this in some sort of context, Jari Sillanpää (the singer on this video) was voted the Finnish Tango King in 1995. For years his homosexuality was an open secret, but he only officially came out about two years ago. This video seems to be a real celebration of... something. It reminds me of the work of Pierre & Gilles. The airbrushed ice cream moment says it all!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Boring, Mendacious and Vapid: Being Victoria Beckham

It’s at moments like this that I really miss having a television. Given my history of highly discerning viewing under the premise that ‘crap is good’ (Wife Swap, Family Holiday Showdown, etc etc etc), Victoria Beckham: Coming to America sounds like a real gem.

I love the Guardian, but don’t you wish they’d tell you what they really think? Here is a link to the blog review that I read yesterday. The blistering headline says it all: “Victoria Beckham: Coming to America was utter crap. The programme and its subject – the Beckhams’ relocation to the US – were boring, mendacious and requiring the invention of a new vocabulary to describe its unreserved vapidity.”

I always seem to have an axe to grind about pointless celebrities, but this summer there has been something of a bumper crop. Paris Hilton’s joke of a prison sentence made a mockery of the concept of ‘justice for all’ (if the person caught driving under the influence, without a licence and in violation of their parole had been a young African-American man, I’m sure the sentence would have amounted to rather more than 45 days in the local nick…) – and now this!

And while it doesn’t surprise me that Posh Spice or her move to the US [Apologies, by the way, to you all. We have to put up with Madonna, so I suppose now we’re even…] isn’t exactly the most interesting subject for an hour-long documentary, the following extracts do sound like choice and excruciating – therefore, riveting – viewing:
I’m sure that some of her more incredibly moronic moments were intended to be send-ups of her celebrity status – if only because if she really did think the people at the driver licensing centre were asking for her autograph instead of a signature on official documentation or that they would retouch the licence photograph, this would surely require her instant diagnosis as a dangerous sociopath – but there was a disturbing absence on her part of any sign, be it by look, smile, or intonation, that this was in fact the case. And the fact that she could simply sit looking vaguely appalled at the heavily-surgeried 60-something woman at the Beverley Hills socialite lunch who modelled herself on the Little Mermaid and gave herself over to ululating like a dolphin within minutes of the canapés being served suggests Beckham is largely divorced from natural human responses.

Most interesting here, and with the phenomenon of Celebrity as a whole, is that these people are convinced that we, the public, actually care about what they get up to. How much they care about us, however, is another matter entirely. As Lucy Mangan puts it, Posh’s demeanour “betrayed the fact that this was someone for whom other people have long ceased to exist in any meaningful way.”

Perhaps, deep down, we all love to hate celebrities. Part of the ‘enjoyment’ of watching such programmes is the voyeuristic pleasure one takes in observing the lives of people who give the impression of having it all, yet who often lead very lonely, tragic lives and / or are deeply disturbed (Michael Jackson is perhaps the best example; the Bashir interview was painful to watch). In a tradition that has existed for hundreds of years, the mass media feeds our hunger for scandal and intrigue (“Britney splits from Kevin!” / “Britney checks into rehab!” / “Britney shaves her head!”). Though I really don’t care what Britney gets up to, I find it hard to imagine a culture in which such trivial events were not general knowledge. More to the point, even if one wanted to, it’s impossible to avoid these headlines – how do I know all these things?!

I often think that, if only the papers would excommunicate these people, they would soon get bored and go away. However, the desire to sell newspapers apparently goes above all other scruples. In Finland, recent examples include the Prime Minister’s ex-girlfriend Susan Kuronen, who has sold her ‘story’ to almost anyone who will listen, and when interest started to dwindle posed in a series of ‘saucy’ underwear pictures in Hymy, one of the sleaziest magazines in the country, with the headline "Matti [the PM] was a boring lover!" Former ski-jumper Matti Nykänen is another prime example. Winning a few gold medals in the 1980s apparently means not only that the entire country is interested in (constant) stories of his drunken antics, but that many tacitly accept the widely publicised fact that he routinely and systematically beats his wife. But if you’re a Celebrity, isn’t everything forgiven?

Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Last Temptations

Hello all!

I've been rather incommunicado this week. The reason for this is that I've been away in the deepest Finnish countryside, far from the nearest WiFi signal. Being away from the internet has its benefits, as when I can't read my email, address work issues, read blogs etc etc, there's no point in fretting about doing so. The minute I arrived in a slightly larger town, the first thing I did was, of course, look for a pub with a free internet connection... Admitting you have a problem is the first step :-)

Not that it's been a particularly relaxing week, mind. I've been on an island called Aholansaari (the adopted home of the 19th century lay preacher Paavo Ruotsalainen and centre of the Finnish revivalist movement) rehearsing every day with the chamber orchestra, Aholansaari Sinfonietta. Our concert this evening, at the annual Finnish revivalist festival (which, though I'm not a member of the church, is a fascinating branch of Christianity, and warrants a blog entry all of its own), doesn't start until 10pm, so I have the whole afternoon to relax and catch up on everything that's been happening in the blogosphere.

Our concert programme is very interesting. We start with the overture to Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov), followed by a selectioon of arias and interludes from Finnish composer Joonas Kokkonen's opera Viimeiset kiusaukset ('The Last Temptations'), which recounts the final days of the life of the afore-mentioned Paavo Ruotsalainen. The music is marvellous, as is our soloist, Esa Ruuttunen. We finish the concert with Mendelssohn's Fifth Symphony, 'The Reformation'. Hopefully my fingers will still be up to the tempi of the final movement by ten this evening...

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Brown & Harman: Cabinet Makers

NEWSFLASH: David Miliband is appointed Foreign Minister; Jack Straw tipped as new Justice Minister! Full coverage available, as always, on the good old Beeb.

It looks like, finally, after ten years of "centre-left", "New" Labour, the new (with a small 'n') Brown administration is taking a distinct step back to the Left. Miliband, 41, almost stood against Brown in a leadership context, but declined (in my opinion, and with any luck, so that he can stand at a later opportunity). Jack Straw was (in)famously removed from the foreign office, allegedly at the behest of the US administration because of certain comments he made regarding their forein policy. His return to the reshuffled cabinet is most welcome.

Another marked step to the Left is in the appointment of Harriet Harman as deputy leader of the Labour party. I was very pleasantly surprised that she won the party vote (albeit by the narrowest of margins); she was my personal favourite, though I didn't fancy her chances of beating Peter Hain or Hillary Benn, both of whom were eventually eliminated at a relatively early stage of the game. Moreover, I am glad to see the position occupied not only by a woman, but by a woman with distinctly "Old" Labour sensibilities.

The above photograph is not very flattering – Brown looks drunk, and just what is he doing to our Harriet? I googled the net for an image (this is from the BBC) of the two new leaders of the party together, but amusingly, the first link to appear was for antique furniture restorers, Brown & Harman – Cabinet Makers. You couldn't make it up, could you!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Energetic, moi?

I'm indebted to Sean from Alone and Unobserved for introducing me to The Onion, which, after reading only a few articles, really sounds like my kind of newspaper! I trust he also noticed the following article, but thought that my Late Review readers would appreciate it too. Enjoy!
Where Do Homosexuals Get All Their Energy?

The Onion

Where Do Homosexuals Get All Their Energy?

Boy, am I beat. And it's not like I have some crazy life where I'm working three jobs and going to night school. No, I just have one job and a...

After reading all that, I think perhaps I should reassess my view of myself. I never feel full of energy – at any time of day; my idea of being super-organised in the morning is not missing my bus, or at a stretch, getting up in time to have something resembling breakfast and maybe make a pot of coffee, and still not missing the bus. As for going to the gym and running six miles a day, you've got to be kidding. Mind you, I have been known to spend a great deal of time at book launches, hobnobbing with authors, ambassadors and the like. Well, if you can't laugh at yourself...

Blair's Legacy

What a week it’s been in British politics! The removal companies will certainly have their work cut out in Downing Street this week: Tony Blair has finally bowed out (where is he going to go, what is he going to do?), leaving Gordon Brown as the new PM.

The last ten years have been something of a mixed bag for Blair, though sadly the latter half of his tenure has seen far more downs than ups. He never really managed to recapture or capitalise upon the sense of awe that most of us (bar the Tories) experienced when Labour first swept to power in 1997 (the mood was accurately captured in Stephen Frears’ recent film The Queen with Helen Mirren; read my review here).

I’m not sure what to make of Blair’s time in power. Whatever my reservations about some of the decisions he made, I’m certainly happy that he was the one making them, as opposed to, say, William Hague (I shudder to think…) Sadly, Blair will be remembered more for his allegiance with the US administration and for the ensuing calamity in Iraq than for the many positive things he achieved: brokering the peace agreement and implementing a system of power-sharing in Northern Ireland; his focus on eliminating child poverty; improvements to the NHS; the minimum wage; equality for all; civil rights for gays and lesbians; the repeal of homophobic legislation such as Thatcher’s infamous Section 28. The list goes on.

[Having said that, the progress Blair’s government has made in the areas of equality and gay rights was all cast in a rather dubious light yesterday with the announcement that he is to convert to Roman Catholicism. As an atheist, I often find it hard to reconcile faith and issues of sexuality. How can someone who believes in gay rights, or someone who is gay, for that matter, become a member of an organisation that has systematically oppressed us for centuries? Moreover, why would they wish to do this? Of course, you could write a book on this subject.]

Neither am I sure what to make of his resignation speech, a minor PR stunt in itself. But when he said, “Hand on heart […] I did what I thought was right for our country”, I tend to believe him, though I wouldn’t trust those words from the mouths of many other world leaders. And though I vehemently disagree with a number of Labour’s policy decisions over the years (for instance, I still can’t quite believe that it was a Labour government that introduced university tuition fees), and in particular with the whole debacle in Iraq, I feel I can trust the reasoning behind their decisions, and am glad the Tories weren’t making those decisions instead.

Why is it that we trust Blair? I can’t say. Ultimately, this is the reason we elect leaders, in order that they may make agonising decisions which affect us all, so that we don’t have to.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Nature's Call

This afternoon I got back from a very relaxing Midsummer break in a Finnish countryside idyll, where I spent the weekend with my friends E and O at the latter's family cottage. Good food and much beverage was consumed by all; we sat in the porch all day reading detective novels and generally soaking up the lazy Midsummer atmosphere.

O's cottage is wonderful: walls of old logs, low ceilings, mice, the real deal. There are only three drawbacks: no lake, no electricity and no running water (= outdoor loo). For men, having a toilet that flushes perhaps isn't such a big deal – after all, most of the time you don't need to sit down. E, on the other hand, bemoaned the fact that she had to squat ungraciously and uncomfortably every time nature called. À propos this very subject, our translator colleague L last week edified us about women's britches in the 19th century, which had a flap in the middle for easy access and the use of stand-up female urinals. A quick look on Google reveals a few very interesting articles on the subject, notably this one.

Now, however, it looks as though women's days of squatting in the bushes are over. While reading an interview with our favourite author Sarah Waters, we came across the following marvellous link. What I like most about this are the blurbs, the photographs and, above all, the name. Why would a woman running along a sand dune be carrying such a thing – in her handbag? Oh well, going to the summer cottage will never be the same again...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Compelling, Inscrutable, and Relentless

Apart from seeing me into my fourth decade, June 8th saw the English-language première of Laura Ruohonen's Queen C ('Kuningatar K'), a play I translated some five years ago. The play was finally performed in its entirety in English by the Lit Moon Theater Company in Santa Barbara in a production directed by their in-house director, John Blondell.

I was unable to attend to the performance, partly because of my busy schedule, partly because I wasn't invited (grrr...), and have been keen to find any information about the production online. This morning I came across Elizabeth Schwyzer's review in the Santa Barbara Independent. The photograph is great (depicting, I assume, Queen Christina and the Friend) and the review is generally very positive.

Needless to say, the translator doesn't get a mention anywhere. This is a common phenomenon. Do people think texts translate themselves? Initially I was slightly concerned about this project, as the performance was to be in the States, while my translation is very much in British English. After working on the text for over five years, I was keen that the director consult me on any potential alterations. Thankfully, it would appear that none were necessary; perhaps British English suits the monarchical tone and milieu of the play.

Looking on the bright side, not getting a mention in the review means that the translation didn't make its presence felt at the expense of the drama. The British English was acceptable. The audience was 'unaware' of the translation, allowing the 'foreign' original to shine through unhindered. More often than not, when translations are mentioned in reviews it is to comment that "the translation was clumsy" or "the play doesn't translate well" – though quite how reviewers have the linguistic knowledge necessary to make such claims remains a mystery. In this instance, however, Schwyzer rounds off her review with the following comment:
John Blondell’s direction captured the play’s layered, poetic, and metaphorical nature — letting out the script’s humor and absurdity, as well as its deep ambiguities and tragic moments. The playwright took it all in, rapt and beaming.
I may not have got a mention, but I think there is some consolation to be had in these words.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Solitude (Part II): Further Musings

I’ve now thought about the issue of the afore-mentioned article overnight and discussed it with two friends. After much debate, we finally arrived at the following interpretation.

Harakka, who has also written extensively for the left-leaning environmental magazine Vihreä Lanka (‘Green Thread’), has long been a supporter of Halonen’s (re)election and of her policies. Halonen is even to appear on his TV programme ‘Ten Books that Changed the World’ on Monday 18th June. Perhaps what his column is trying to say (if rather unsuccessfully) is that the obsession in Finland with America in general and with Kanerva’s hyped visit in particular is so great that even Halonen herself is beginning to yield to the pervading opinions, as expressed in the final paragraph of the column.

Tuesday’s papers were positively frothing over news of the ‘successful’ meeting between the two foreign ministers. Iltalehti featured an entire two-page spread about it, complete with photographs of the pair shaking hands and beaming at one another, and bearing the cringe-worthy headline, ‘Call me Condi!’ On a new page, Iltalehti continued by claiming that ‘ministers congratulated Kanerva’ on the ‘success’ of the meeting. And who were the ministers interviewed? None other than Ben Zyskowicz and Pertti Salolainen, both from Kanerva’s own party! At least they also interviewed Liisa Jaakonsaari of the Social Democrats, who pointed out that preparations for Halonen’s proposed visit to Washington were already in place well before this meeting, and that we shouldn’t blow things out of proportion. Some common sense at last!

Perhaps what Timo Harakka is ultimately calling for in his Monday column is a show of restraint. For all its obvious faults, the monologue was not so much a parody of Halonen as of the hysteria surrounding Ilkka Kanerva’s visit. Just because Condi deigns to meet the foreign minister of a nice enough though largely irrelevant country (I live here, I’m allowed to say that), and even hints that she might come here on a state visit (bookies are already taking bets on this!), doesn’t mean that we should discard our principles and blindly go along with everything the other administration suggests, let alone seek to emulate their way of life – something Tony Blair might have thought of before entering into the Faustian pact that was to be his downfall.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Marija Šerifović on Finland and Finnish people

Like everyone else in Finland, I read about Marija's disparaging comments on the Finns a couple of days ago when it hit the headlines. I didn't realise the extent of her derision... Neither did I realise that the man asking her the question is my former flatmate's boyfriend! How's that for six degrees of separation? My Serbian is a bit rusty ;-) but never fear: someone has kindly translated the interview on YouTube. Go figure...

And here's the translation courtesy of Belgradeinsideout on YouTube:

Female host: We have here with us Marija Šerifović, the talk of the town these days, Sasha Mirković, her manager and her friends, yadayadayada (not so important for translation)...

Male voice (journalist): Ristić Miloš, magazine "Ana", I've been reporting for "Politika" from Helsinki. Many of my Finnish friends were cheering together with me for Marija and for her victory, they voted for her, and it would be nice if Marija can share with us her impressions of Finns and Finland, and if she wants to send them some message, because I'm heading there again in less than a month so i can bring her message with me for them.

Marija: I don't think I have anything smart to say about the country of Finland, so I have to ask you not to bring my message over to them. I'm joking. Erm, the country didn't particularly suit me, and I don't like those yellowish, "see-through" people, I despise them... but let's not talk about that again... All in all, I respect that they were totally organized, and that was the only thing I liked so far. Actually I think it will stay that way because I don't think I will go back there ever again.

Four Years of Solitude

Whether or not I agree with them, the columns in the free paper Metro are invariably thought-provoking and interesting. Today’s column (12.6) by Timo Harakka, however, has left me bewildered to say the least. Because, as I mentioned some time ago, Metro is only available online as a pdf, I’ll try to give a brief summary of what this column was all about. As you’re about to see, this is no easy task…

The column takes the form of the fictitious musings (written in the first person) of the Finnish president Tarja Halonen. In her monologue, she bemoans the fact that the new foreign minister Ilkka Kanerva has been sent to Washington to meet Condoleezza Rica (the two met on June 11th), while Halonen herself is stuck at her summer residence with her sleeping husband. She dreams of what she would say to Rice upon meeting her (“[…] we’d talk about Iraq, Israel and Cuba. Full points to me. I found all these places. Google Earth is amazing!”) and watches baseball [what?] with a number of other world leaders, showing her great support for the team from Texas [what???]. She concludes with the words:
I’ve made my decision. We’ll join NATO this autumn, once all the lingonberries have been picked. We’ll send our boys to Iraq, we’ll keep women at home, we’ll put Bible lessons back into schools, and we’ll change the rules of pesäpallo” [a Finnish variety of baseball] “Larger cars, lower taxes, defence in space! God Bless Finland.

What perplexes me most about this column is that, after reading it several times, I’m still not sure what point Harakka is trying to make. The title Neljän vuoden yksinäisyys (‘Four years of solitude’) refers to the fact that it was, according to Halonen’s unconvincing internal monologue, 1,515 days, nine hours and forty-three minutes since the last time she was invited to Washington. It also refers to Sauli Niinistö’s book Viiden vuoden yksinäisyys (‘Five years of solitude’), which he published in the run-up to the presidential election in January 2006. Niinistö’s party (Kokoomus, the National Coalition Party) have for many years made it their priority to lessen and undermine the president’s powers of influence regarding matters of foreign policy and have been keen that the foreign minister take part in important international summits instead of the president. I don’t think there is any doubt that they would soon have changed their tune had the honourable Mr Niinistö been elected in 2006 – perish the thought!

So, taken at surface value, this article seems to speak in support of Kokoomus’ sentiments regarding the restriction of presidential power in Finland. But if we assume this to be the case, the final paragraph no longer makes any sense. Halonen was the foreign minister with the Social Democratic government at the end of 1990s, and has never espoused any of the policies mentioned: she is sceptical of NATO, she refused to send Finnish troops to Iraq, she has worked tirelessly for equality between the sexes (in the early 1980s she was also the chair of the Finnish sexual equality organisation SETA), she has defended in no uncertain terms the division of church and state, she doesn’t want to introduce lower taxes for the rich, and so on, and so on. These are all Kokoomus policy issues!

What, then, are we to make of this mish-mash of an article? Who is the butt of the joke? Is Harakka attempting to parody Halonen’s policies / Kokoomus’ policies / suggesting that Halonen would adopt right-wing policies if it would get her an invitation to Washington, where she could be all chummy with Condi (something I find it hard to imagine she would actively wish for)? Those with access to the column in question (I’ll continue looking for a link) can make of it what they will / can. Anyone who can further enlighten me, please feel free to do so!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Where's My Clock?

I just opened up my blogger page and was about to sit down and write a new post, when – to my horror – I discovered that my clock is missing! (It should be in the right hand column under the section 'Tempus fugit'.) What has happened to Clocklink? If anyone knows how to help, do get in touch and let me know what can be done about it... Thanks!

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Importance of Being Ken

Did anybody else know that there are in fact two Lord Mayors of London? I didn't either – until last night that is.

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email through our orchestra mailing list about a string quartet gig at Helsinki City Hall organised by the British Council. Their guest of honour was to be 'Lontoon kaupungin pormestari'. The opportunity to meet the great Ken Livingstone, I thought to myself in excitement. With this in mind I duly signed up for the gig and started thinking about what to wear.

As the morning of the concert dawned, I was in a bit of a tizz, having selected a lovely red tie in honour of Mr Livingstone's visit, and constantly reminding myself that at no point must I implore him to stand for leadership of the Labour Party... We arrivde at City Hall and set up for our performance, and my eyes immediately started roving across the tables and the seating arrangement to see where Ken would be sitting. To my dismay, I saw a card at Table A which read "The Right Honourable Lord Mayor of the City of London John Stuttard". This can't be right, I thought. There's only one mayor of London, and his name is Ken.

To my great chagrin, it turns out that there really are two lord mayors. Ken is the Lord Mayor of London, while Stuttard is the Lord Mayor of the City of London (all of one square mile). So after all that build-up, my encounter with one of the great names of British socialism was sadly not to be... Perhaps another opportunity will present itself. Who knows?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Savuton Suomi!

It's finally going to happen. I've been looking forward to this moment all year and counting the days for the last couple of weeks. Here we go: As of tomorrow smoking will finally be banned in all bars and restaurants in Finland! Last night was probably the last time I'll sit in my (extremely smoky) local, and after yet another night of coming home with my skin stinking and having to air my clothes, I can truly say that I have no sympathy whatsoever for those opposed to the ban.

I did giggle upon reading an article in Iltalehti (the link to which I can't find at the moment), in which the eponymous Hannele Lauri expressed her disappointment at the new ban: "Alkaako se tosiaan jo perjantaina?" (Does it really start on Friday?) Yes, Hannele, it really does... Here's another entertaining column from the same paper (in Finnish), in which the columnist Vexi Salmi says he's planning on sitting in his local this evening and smoking so much that the smell of tobacco will linger for months. You go right ahead, Mr Salmi, because it'll be your last opportunity to do so.

They say that reformed smokers are the most militant of all. I can easily accept that statement. I smoked – often quite a lot – from the sixth form until I finally gave up in October 2001. I can't help thinking that, had a ban on smoking in pubs, clubs and restaurants existed back in those days, I and scores of other people may never have started smoking in the first place. It's all very well for Mr Salmi to say that he's been smoking for fifty years and that smoking was more socially acceptable fifty years ago than it is today, but that's not an argument against a smoking ban. We now have the benefit of years of research into the damage that smoking causes, and turning a blind eye to this is plain foolhardy.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Widening my Perspective on Everything

Since moving into my new flat in August 2006 I have, for the first time in my entire life thus far, lived without a television. This has been harder than I ever could have imagined. Only in its absence have I realised quite how addicted I am to the often mindless audio-visual entertainment which television provides. Before my self-imposed lifestyle change, I watched almost anything, and what’s better (or worse), I was able to find a reason why the pointless programmes I watched were in fact educational and deep. To choose a random example, Wife Swap really does offer a fascinating look at the dystopia of the modern heterosexual couple and the class divides of Britain today. Honestly.

Despite my constant cravings for the agony of sitting through Wife Swap and the like, one of the more positive results of not having a television is that I’ve been forced to look for entertainment and stimuli elsewhere. As a news junkie, none of these is more important than finding alternative means of feeding my news habit. Podcasts from the BBC (Newsnight, possibly the best news and current affairs programme in the world) and the Guardian have quite literally saved me from some serious cold turkey and kept me sane during the darkest winter months.

Online media are a great resource, but still there’s nothing like reading the morning’s paper when it drops through the door. Reading the daily Helsingin Sanomat was something I enjoyed in my old flat, but that too has now come to an end. Nonetheless, this week I took a decisive step to rectify the situation. A friend asked me to pick him up a copy of Kulttuurivihkot (which contained an excellent review of his compositions), and while browsing through the magazines in Akateeminen kirjakauppa I decided to pick up a copy of the New Yorker too, leaving the girl at the counter in no doubt about my political affiliations whatsoever…

What a revelation this magazine turned out to be. Without wanting to sound, in the words of a certain US ambassador, like a ‘superior Brit’, I can honestly say that I’ve never read such high-quality journalism in any other American newspaper or magazine. The articles are interesting and informative, thoughtful and insightful, not to mention the fact that, generally speaking, everything is written with a comforting, cosy left-wing slant. Yesterday I decided to take the plunge and took out a year’s subscription (for only $112 USD including postage to Finland!). Apparently it’ll be another 6-8 weeks before my first copy arrives, but I can’t help thinking it’ll be well worth the wait.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Putting Things in Context

Having dragged myself out of bed this morning (at around 1330), making myself a breakfast of burana on toast, still suffering and feeling generally wretched with the after-effects of my good friends' wedding last night, how nice it was to read in my Inbox about a newly established blog to be maintained by members of the Konteksti translators' list.

I joined Konteksti, a forum for translators of literature, about a year ago now, and in that time it has steadily become an indispensible tool of my trade. Given that most translators work by themselves, locked away in offices, chained to their computers, and don't necessarily ever come into contact with one another, forming networks with other people working in the field is important from both a professional and a personal perspective. Being a member of Konteksti, one has access to the largest virtual translation library in Finland and has the privilege of working with a set of colleagues whose combined knowledge and expertise is formidable. Konteksti itself is non-public forum, which is probably where the idea for this new blog arose. That Konteksti should have a blog of its own seems so obvious, that I can't believe nobody thought of it sooner. Well done to those who did!

I've already added the link to my blogs list, and eagerly await the first instalments of what promises to be a truly fascinating read.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

What's Right with America

As one reader pointed out in a comment on Al Gore's blog column in today's Guardian Unlimited, sometimes we read things which remind us of Bill Clinton’s words, "There's nothing wrong with America that what's right with America can't fix." Wise words indeed from the wisest US president of, at least, my lifetime.

Gore's comments in his column are typically articulate, and his opinions relevant and important. It goes without saying that, had he been elected in 2000 (of course, he probably was elected, but that's a different story altogether), the world would be a radically different place and we more than likely wouldn't be in many of the quandaries in which we currently find ourselves. Many have speculated that, despite regular statements to the contrary, Gore is planning a last-minute run for the 2008 Democratic nomination. Indeed, many of the comments posted in response to his column today urge him in no uncertain terms to announce his candidacy. Though I would have no objection whatsoever to a Gore administration, I have reservations as to whether this would ultimately be in our best interests, and whether this would truly represent 'what's right with America'.

To put this in context, here's a response from JCortese to this morning’s blog:

Mr. Gore, I know everyone else is telling you to run – I'm telling you not to. Politics is poisonous and evil; you were only able to speak truth like this after you left that arena, and since doing so you have become a much, much greater force for good that you ever could have been. […] I’ve never heard a politician speak so plainly and accurately as you are doing right now. They can’t. As president, you can’t do good – all you can do is choose to do less harm. And at the moment, we don't even have that.

The more I think about this, the more I tend to agree. Since leaving the political arena, Gore has had a greater effect on attitudes to, say, the climate change debate than almost anyone else in the US. His film An Inconvenient Truth (which, to my shame, I admit that I still haven’t seen) presents us with extensive, compelling and fairly conclusive research on the matter carried out by the scientific community; he appears at film festivals; he gives lectures around the world on subjects ranging from climate change to economic policy and social welfare in which he is unreservedly critical of the current administration’s stance. Had he remained in politics, he would have been unable to do any of this without losing credibility. As JCortese points out, Gore has become a formidable ‘force for good’ in the seven years since that election, and his potential to continue as such could be significantly diminished were he to take office.

Bringing about a Democratic victory in 2008 is by far the most important objective any candidate must have, and anything that threatens to jeopardise this objective (personal rivalries, differences of opinion over the minutiae of policy) must be temporarily set aside in order to achieve it. I would have no objection to Hillary Clinton in the White House either, but it is my understanding that many people – even other Democrats – would. As I see it, we can’t risk a third election in a row fought on a knife-edge. The margin of victory must be clear and unequivocal. If HC cannot win by a landslide, perhaps she should reconsider her position. These are the issues the honourable Mr Gore must consider before he is, in the words of David Miliband, ‘seduced’ into running for office.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Den första kyssen

I really seem to be getting into this whole poetry translation thing – who'd have thought? This time it's a translation from Swedish of a poem by the national bard J. L. Runeberg. I was asked to translate it for a friend's wedding next week, where this will be sung in a rather dark setting by Sibelius. This translation was a challenge because of the iambic metre and rhyming structures of the original, and here's what I eventually came up with. All comments most welcome!

På silvermolnets kant satt aftonstjärnan,
från lundens skymning frågte henne tärnan:
"Säg, aftonstjärna, vad i himlen tänkes,
när första kyssen åt en älskling skänkes?"
Och himlens blyga dotter hördes svara:
"På jorden blickar ljusets änglaskara,
och ser sin egen sällhet speglat åter;
blott döden vänder ögat bort och gråter."

(J. L. Runeberg)

On silver clouds there sat the evening star,
when through the dusk a maid called from afar:
"O tell me, star, will heaven think amiss,
when first I bless my lov'd one with a kiss?"
And heaven's bashful daughter thus did sigh:
"A choir of angels lifts their heads up high,
and sees their grace reflected in night's keep;
so death doth turn his eyes away and weep."

(trans. DH)

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Marija praying in Finnish

For those of you who missed out, here's the video of Marija (though apparently it's not actually her) singing her winning entry in Finnish. Good translation, and the pronunciation is passsable. Enjoy!

The Politics of the Power Ballad

I’ve been rather quiet over the last few weeks. This says a lot about quite how much I’ve had to be getting on with. I’ve realised that a great many of my recent posts deal with political issues in some form or another, so I thought for a change that I might move on to a somewhat loftier subject...

The Eurovision Song Contest has always been one of the highlights of my year. As a child I used to watch it to listen to people singing in fascinating and incomprehensible European languages – something which sadly disappeared from the competition some time in the mid 1990s. Since the repeal of the rule about singing in your own language, another constant source of amusement has been to listen to many weird and wonderful things that apparently count as ‘English’, especially in the entries from Eastern Europe. [One of my favourite examples is the 2002 Russian entry ‘Northern Girl’ performed by boyband Prime Minister. What endearing pronunciation!]

This year’s contest held particular interest by virtue of its being held in Helsinki. A year ago, nobody could have predicted the landslide victory of monster rockers Lordi. In keeping with the trend of previous years, the 2007 competition offered up another cavalcade of drag queens and freak shows in addition to the more traditional boybands and power ballads. The Ukrainian entry, a drag queen clad in tin-foil and chanting numbers in German, was a marvellous parody of old DDR music (and even reminded me of the Leningrad Cowboys); the Slovenian opera singer was solid, though entirely out of place, while the Irish group Dervish were simply out of tune; and as for the British entry... Make it stop!

The winning entry from Serbia, Molitva sung by Marija Šerifović, was a good winner for many reasons: it was a powerful song, not an empty, high-energy dance track, and it was sung in a language other than English by a performer who was not a size zero, scantily clad, conventionally ‘beautiful’ woman. That aside, the oddly dykey narrative of the choreography (with the distinctly butch soloist surrounded by femme backing singers dressed as men who spent the whole performance clutching longingly at her) still mystifies me. Serbia, after all, is not exactly renowned for its tolerance when it comes to gay rights...

Molitva was also a controversial winner. For years the ESC has been plagued by allegations of political voting. Italy withdrew from the competition in 1997 after accusations that juries voted politically. Now that the old juries have been dispensed with and replaced by telephone voting, we are left with a strange hybrid of political and diaspora voting (i.e. the large Turkish immigrant population in Germany means that they always give Turkey 12 points). On online forums (such as ESC Today, YouTube etc.), Eastern Europeans furiously deny that political or diaspora voting takes place. It’s one thing to say that you voted for a song that you liked (why else would you vote for a song?), but this argument wears thin when we consider that all six former Yugoslav countries gave each other between 8 and 12 points for songs which were aesthetically radically different. I for one am not entirely convinced that this speaks merely of an open, unprejudiced musical appreciation.

All that being said, the image of the short, dykey Marija being kissed by Santa in May is surely set to become one of the defining, iconic images of our age. Must book my ticket to Belgrade for next year...

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Dedicated Followers of Fascism (Part II)

Another marvellous link I must post here is to Naomi Wolf's article in today's Guardian Unlimited about how the path taken by my favourite administration in the world mirrors that of fascist movements in interwar Europe. Though it's pretty scary stuff, it does make for excellent reading. Well done, Naomi!

PS: While we're on the subject of heinous fascists, thank God Le Pen didn't get through to the second round. Allez Ségolène!

YS goes Turku

On Saturday Ylioppilaskunnan Soittajat visited my favourite city in Finland, the former capital Turku. Sadly it was sleeting all day, and there wasn't much time to hang around the town soaking up the culture (must come back in the summer). Still, lots of people enjoyed a trip round the medieval castle – the oldest in Finland.

As for the concert, YS played very well indeed, much better than in the previous concert on Thursday. Apart from a slight hiccup involving the celesta (too long a story to interest anyone; suffice it to say that I spent about three hours sorting this out yesterday when common sense should have prevailed...), the only unfortunate matter was that there were so few people in the audience. This always seems to be the case with our concerts outside Helsinki, though this time we imagined that the composer (who himself studied in Turku) might have rallied all his friends to the concert.

One of the members of the audience was a reviewer from Turun Sanomat. His review demonstrates that, though many may find this hard to believe, people in papers other than Helsingin Sanomat can write thoughtful, insightful reviews that put concerts in their proper context. The subject of HS's music criticisers :-) is one I'm sure I'll come back to many times in the future.