Found in Translation

Somewhere the original harmony must exist,
hidden somewhere in the vast wilds.
In Earth’s mighty firmament,
in the far reaches of swirling galaxies,
in sunshine,
in a little flower, in the song of a forest,
in the music of a mother’s voice,
or in teardrops – 
somewhere, immortality endures, 
and the original harmony will be found.
How else could it have formed
in human hearts –

It must be somewhere, the original harmony,
somewhere in great nature, hidden.
Is it in the furious infinite,
in distant stars’ orbits,
is it in the sun’s scorn,
in a tiny flower, in treegossip,
in heartmusic’s mothersong
or in tears?
It must be somewhere, immortality,
somewhere the original harmony must be found:
how else could it infuse
the human soul,
that music?

These are two translations of the poem titled Muusika by Juhan Liiv (1864-1913). Though I think both versions are startlingly beautiful, one of the translators wondered if in fact the poetry has somehow been lost in translation, hoping that the reader would be able to intuit what the translations had lost.  The Estonian language it seems, like all languages, has unique and barely translatable ways of saying things, and I found the comparison of these two translations fascinating. Look at how much is found in Liiv’s words.

The poem came to my attention because of a setting by Estonian composer Pärt Uusberg (b. 1986), which I urge you to listen to here:

Muusika by Part Uusberg

Juhan Liiv was born into the extreme poverty of 19th century serfdom in Estonia. Physically weak and mentally ill, he died from pneumonia after a conductor pushed the ticketless poet off a train, causing him to walk home in freezing weather for two weeks.  Liiv’s hardships, as with so many artists, translated into insightful understandings of the world around him, and his poetry, though often gloomy, expresses great love for his country.

Music – Muusika – is a vital part of Estonian identity, as movingly told in a 2008 film called The Singing Revolution.  As the documentary shows, music played an important role in the largely peaceful protests in 20th century Estonia. Before and after World War II Estonians used a tradition of communal singing to see them through the darkest days of oppression by the Nazis and then the USSR.  Not just as a comfort, but as a subversive way of maintaining their culture and of uniting their people.  The film showed the people of Estonia coming together to sing in ways that ended up thwarting the Soviets’ attempts to force the Estonians to submit to their authority.  I don’t know if the film is available on Netflix, but I recommend trying to find it.

Yet another reminder of the ways that music and poetry connect us across time and space, capturing in sound and words our capacity for wonder and our innate yearning for freedom.


  *   *   *   *   *

Where I’ll be:

June 12 through August 14 – organist/choir director for the 10:00 am and 5:00 pm services at St. John’s (Norwood), 6701 Wisconsin Avenue, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Maybe you’d like to come and sing with the Summer Choir there? 9:15 am rehearsal.

June 13 through 17 – The annual conference of The Association of Anglican Musicians, an organization that has been a source of some of my closest friends, supportive colleagues, and an inspirational reminder of all that is good about The Episcopal Church. We meet this year in Stamford, Connecicut.

* * * * *

This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.

Feel free to pass this message along to anyone who might be interested. You can simply subscribe (look for the “Subscribe” button at the top of the post) to get a reminder of new posts, or you can register with a user name and password in order to comment. If a community conversation comes out of this, all the better. We have so much to share and so much to be grateful for.


One thought on “Found in Translation

  1. thank you so much for publishing those two translations. We’re singing the song in our choir at the moment and these two translations combine to give so much insight.


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