The youngest of six siblings, Holmes was born and raised in a small American farm in the heart of Iowa. In 1941, after finishing high school, he enrolled in the Quaker College of Oskaloosa, Iowa. After a study journey of two years, he did a middle school teaching internship in Barnesville, Ohio. Some years later, after refusing to go on military service for the American Army or, alternatively, civil service, Holmes was sentenced to a 6-month jail term. Upon his release, he went back to studying: first at William Penn College, and later at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
In 1948, after obtaining two degrees, one in English and one in History, he continued his studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, one of the well-known Ivy League Schools, where the following year he became a research doctor. In the meantime he had written and published his first poems and had carried out some occasional editorial work. From there, in no time, poetry became his great passion.
In 1949 Holmes interrupted his studies to work as a Fulbright exchange teacher in a Quaker school in the Eerde Castle, near Ommen, in the Netherlands. At the end of the school year he decided not to return to the United States, but to stay and visit the country. It was in this way that, in 1950, he met Hans van Marle. To Holmes, the relationship with Van Marle soon became something highly important that brought him to making the choice never to go back to the United States, and to move permanently to Amsterdam. For the next two years, Holmes attended Nico Donkersloot's Dutch language course at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, and published in 1951 his first poetry translation.
Translating poetry became Holmes' main occupation, and, after his appointment as an associate professor in the Literary Science faculty at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, translation was his main source of income. Together with his partner Hans van Marle, he translated not only poetry, but also documents about Indonesia and Indonesian poetry in English. His reputation as a translator grew, and in 1956 he was granted the Martinus Nijhoff Award for his translations into English. In 1958, when the legendary English magazine Delta was founded, exclusively devoted to the culture of the Netherlands and Belgium, James Holmes became its poetry editor and often took care of the translations of contemporary Dutch poetry in English. It was a time in which Holmes particularly devoted himself to the poetry of the "Vijftigers" [an important group of Dutch poets of the 50s – 'vijftig' in Dutch] and of the "post-Vijftigers", poetry of complex comprehension, and therefore, hard to translate.
When the Literary Science faculty of the Universiteit van Amsterdam decided in 1964 to create a Department of Translation Studies, Holmes was invited to contribute as an associate professor, which he did very enthusiastically. He not only had the needed scholarly background, but over time he had acquired many theoretical notions as well, as well as considerable practical experience as a translator. He created courses for the Institute of Interpreters and Translators, which was later integrated into the Institute of Translation Studies of the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Holmes' paper "The Name and Nature of Translation Studies" (1972) is widely recognized as founding Translation Studies as a coordinated research program. Holmes' many articles on translation made him one of the key members of Descriptive Translation Studies, and still today he is frequently cited in the bibliographies in this field.
One of the most extraordinary examples of Holmes' bravery was his translation of the very long poetic piece Awater by Martinus Nijhoff, a work that gained attention both in the Netherlands and abroad. The English translation of this piece contributed to the fame of both the poet and the translator. After having read Awater, Literature Nobel Prize winners T.S. Eliot and Iosif Aleksandrovič Brodskij expressed their appreciation. Eliot said that if Nijhoff had written his works in English instead of Dutch, he would have become a global success, while Brodskij bluntly stated that Awater was one of the most beautiful poetry works he had ever read.
Holmes went on to translate dozens of works from Dutch and Belgian poets, and in 1984 he received the Flemish Community Translation Award (Vertaalprijs van de Vlaamse Gemeenschap), once more the first foreigner to receive it.
His masterpiece was, undoubtedly, the translation of the impressive collection Dutch Interior, a considerable anthology of post-war poetry, published in 1984 in New York by the Columbia University Press. Holmes was one of the most important editors of this classic text, and also translated many of the poetry works present in that collection.
His contribution into raising awareness of Dutch poetry into the Anglo-Saxon world was recognised by the Translation Center of Columbia University when it decided to establish a new award for Dutch translators called the James S. Holmes Award.
In the Netherlands, Holmes always felt welcome, not only because of the vast array of acquaintances that had come from his works as a poet and translator, but especially from the many friendships born in the gay spheres of Amsterdam. His American accent and the fact that he continued making mistakes with the Dutch definite article was no reason for him to be considered a foreigner or treated as such.
Therefore, he began taking part in many varied committees and orders, he joined the editorial offices of the Dutch-Belgian youth magazine Gard Sivi and contributed to literary magazines such as Litterair Paspoor, De Gid, De Nieuwe Stem, Maatstaf and De Revisor.
He was an active member of the Dutch and the International PEN Club, the Writers' Association, the Dutch Literature Association and the UNESCO National Commission. He also became a participant in the committee of the Foundation for the Promotion of the Translation of Dutch Literary Works abroad, the Dutch Association of Translators, the Writers' Organization, School and Society, and was an honorary member of the Association of Flemish Scholars.
In 1967 Holmes organized the "Poetry for Now" demonstration, at the famous Concertgebouw Theater in Amsterdam. During that event, the organizers covered the city with thousands of posters with translated poetry. After many years it was still possible to find posters stuck on bus stops, near the entrances of apartment blocks, in streetlights, on gates or level crossings. In the 70s Holmes began managing a workshop on poetry translation which attracted many students of various university faculties. Some of those students eventually became, in turn, famous poetry translators.
Holmes participated in every poetry demonstration, such as for example the Poetry International in Rotterdam and the One World Poetry in Amsterdam. Sometimes he recited poetry, sometimes he was a coordinator or gave conferences on translation, but he always made himself actively present. As soon as he had a chance, he organized conferences abroad on the topic of translated Dutch poetry, as for example at the Library of Congress in Washington.
In 1984, in the midst of the One World Poetry demonstration, he organized an evening called "Poetry Gone Gay", in which he read some of his works dealing with homosexuality and eroticism. He found it extremely liberating to be able to show that part of his personality to the audience, and especially to obtain recognition and approval from it. Holmes loved to display his sexual orientation, not only in his poetry, but especially in his outfits and accessory choice. In the last years of his life he created the character that we see in the picture on this page: a middle-aged man with short white-as-snow hair, jeans with a studded waist, studded bracelets, a pink triangle on the flap of his jacket, a large handful of keys attached to the jeans, and the tip of a pink handkerchief sticking out of the back pocket. This same sexual freedom was, unfortunately, the cause of his premature death caused by AIDS. However, Holmes was aware of the dangers linked to his extravagant lifestyle, and openly declared that they had never, in any way, influenced his choices in life.
During his memorial, which was crowded, his life partner and great love Hans van Marle concluded his farewell speech with a short excerpt of the famous "Meditation XVII" of Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, a metaphysical piece written in 1624 by John Donne, of which Ernest Hemingway, in 1940, extracted the title of his famous novel For Whom The Bell Tolls: