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Translator's Note: Leaves Fell

Juhan Liiv’s poetry allies itself not with Estonia’s long tradition of learning (the University of Tartu was founded in 1632, four years before Harvard) but with its even longer tradition of folk songs. Partly such alliance occurred by default: Liiv’s circumstances withheld learning from him. Born in 1864 in the tiny village of Riidma, to serfs on the Alatskivi estate, Liiv received only intermittent and limited formal schooling: three winters at the village school of Naelavere, and two years at the parish school of Kodavere. Physical weakness and mental illness constrained him, and eventually cost him his life: he died in December 1913, having contracted pneumonia after conductors (because he was destitute and could not afford a ticket) pushed him off the Tartu-Valga train into a marsh.

Alliance with folk song, though, transforms constraint into opportunity. Because folk song has been, and remains, vital to Estonian identity, Liiv can hold in Estonian culture a place Jüri Talvet compares to that of Federico García Lorca in Spanish culture. Liiv’s poems, Talvet says, “have had an impact not only among the cultivated Estonian literary public but across Estonian society.” In American culture, the closest analogue would be Robert Frost. Liiv’s poems do not resemble those of Eliot and Stevens, in which elevated diction and complex syntax issue a warning that one is entering depths; instead, Liiv’s poems, like Frost’s, present themselves as simple and homely rather than sophisticated, welcoming rather than imposing. One senses the depths and mysteries only after one is welcomed inside. So the surface of a Liiv poem, like that of, say, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” bumps right up against cliche—“my little horse” is asking me if there’s some mistake—but there are depths under that simple surface.

Opening onto depths through a simple surface means tapping into resources inherent in the language itself, so the very quality that makes the poems inviting for the native speaker of Estonian makes them difficult to render in English. In “Leaves Fall,” for example, the words for “ash-gray” and “tin-gray” are compounds, tuhakarva and tinakarva. Tuha is ashes, tina is lead, and karv is literally hair and figuratively the color gray. Each joins in other compounds, such as tinaglasuur, lead glaze, but both tuhakarva and tinakarva are normal ways of naming a color: not cliches, but not coinages of Liiv’s. So in Estonian the contrast of soft and light (ash) with hard and heavy (lead) includes subtle personification because the color is actually conveyed by the word for hair. I found no way to slip personification in through the back door like Liiv does: “ash-haired” sounds ok to my ear, but “lead-haired” sounds absurd. Even the light/heavy contrast is problematic; because “lead-gray” is too common in English, I’ve substituted “tin-gray,” since tina can also name tin.

But perhaps this is only a typical translator’s lament: speaking of Frost, he is supposed to have said that “poetry is what gets lost in translation.” For these poems, Jüri and I hope that readers will intuit—will find—what the translations have lost. —hlh

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This poem originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

June 2011

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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