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...