Puid Metsa (Coals to Newcastle): Bringing Music and Literature Across Borders

I arrived in Tallinn in 2009 to take up the position of deputy head of the British Embassy, and I brought with me a double bass and a smattering of Estonian (a fair grasp of the partitive plural, but little in the way of vocabulary).

My initial aims were to try to resurrect my lapsed hobby of playing jazz bass, and to learn Estonian to a decent standard. Both of these interests have deep roots: I first studied classical double bass as a teenager, then played in a blues band in my home town of Norwich, and then intermittently in amateur jazz bands in my twenties, but this hobby had not survived the demands of an FCO career in London and then Moscow.


My interest in languages goes back at least as far as my BA in Russian Studies, which led me to take the Institute of Linguists Diploma in Translation, and to work as a translator in Cheltenham, at what was then an assemblage of Nissen huts ringed by barbed wire – this was before the “doughnut” had landed. It was still a long way from translating literary fiction; the reality of the work was mundanity interrupted by outbreaks of the surreal.  

During my first three years in Tallinn those linguistic and musical aims suffered mixed fortunes. My Estonian fell by the wayside, largely because all the Estonians I met wanted to speak English and generally had the attitude that learning Estonian was too difficult and pretty pointless. My music (and Russian) faired slightly better, since I met some local Russian-Estonian musicians who had moved to Tallinn from Narva, and we played together in a band, performing jazz standards in a local hotel.   


In 2012 I decided to take some time out from my FCO career, with the aims of finally cracking Estonian and developing my musicianship. Somehow these two hobbies got completely out of control, and by 2014 I found myself entering the jazz department of the Estonian Music Academy (aged forty-two), and having my first piece of literary translation published – a short story by Rein Raud in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction collection.

More learned men than me have written about the relationship between music and language, and much could probably be said about language being musical and music being a kind of language. For me there are just as many differences as similarities between the activities of playing and composing music on the one hand, and speaking and translating from a language on the other, although they are of course united by their aural and oral qualities. As a form of writing, translation requires sensitivity to rhythm, phrasing, alliteration, timing, pace – all of which are also musical concepts. I believe that in both writing and music clarity and precision are of utmost importance, even if our material is complex.


However, there are also “real life” – practical and emotional – ways in which my relationships with Estonian and music have developed side by side over my last five years in Tallinn.  

From the start I conceived of my work as a translator of Estonian fiction as a way of becoming more deeply engaged with the culture and society of my new homeland, and of making a contribution, a way of being a “good immigrant”; there are only a handful of literary translators able to translate Estonian into native English, and translated literature is one way of projecting Estonia’s identity internationally. I felt this need to contribute more acutely when I started to benefit from the Estonian education system and everything which Estonian musicians have given me as teachers and collaborators, where at least initially I was taking more than I was giving. Likewise, many Estonians are appreciative that an Englishman has made the effort to learn their language, and will be better disposed towards you; it of course also helps in a practical sense when collaborating with Estonian musicians.

When I started writing my own music, which is instrumental and sounds much like American jazz of the fifties and sixties, I found it entirely natural to give the songs Estonian titles; the music had somehow sprung from my life in Estonia, and the titles referred to certain themes or events from that life. For example, I gave the first song I wrote the title Karupoja Tants (Bear Cub Dance), which refers to a dream I had in which my son was born covered in fur, like a baby bear, and started dancing, joyfully and clumsily, to the music which I had in mind. Another song is titled Kassi saba (Cat’s Tail), which refers to my meeting with a young Estonian jazz double bass player whose surname is Kass (Cat), in Moscow back in 2008. 


Puid Metsa (literally “wood to the forest”, the equivalent of the English saying “coals to Newcastle”) was used as the theme tune for Vagabond Voice’s Think in Translation podcast. The title refers to my attempts to become a musician in Estonia, where the excellent musical education system and relatively small market means that there is already a surfeit of good musicians, including jazz double bass players; am I really needed here? The counterargument is that music has always developed by fusing different influences, and that jazz music in particular was immigrant music from the start. So even if I do bring more wood, it is at least a different type of wood, which potentially adds to the biodiversity of the Estonian forest.

The wood/coal metaphor is also relevant to translation. There is already a huge volume of very high-quality literature written in English, and there is little merit in bringing over new works solely as anthropological curiosities or tourist materials to promote other countries. As translators we therefore bear a great responsibility to select the best works for translation, and to polish our translations until they become literary diamonds, which add something to the existing body of English-language literature.


In both cases the metaphor implies that the translator or musician is responsible for bringing something across a border, perhaps as an outsider to the two communities which they are moving between. Indeed, as the ethnomusicologist Bruno Netti has argued, the outsider (or, indeed, vagabond) role vis-à-vis mainstream society is a common one for musicians, all the more so if they are also immigrants. And translators, particularly immigrant translators, find themselves on the interstices of two cultures, moving between them, perhaps not fully part of either.

Both my musical activities and my translation work, therefore, have been shaped by and are themselves ways of mediating my relationship with Estonia, and with my home country, England, through the musical and literary cultures of both.

About the author: Matthew Hyde is a literary translator from Russian and Estonian to English. He has had translations published by Pushkin PressDalkey Archive Press (including the Best European Fiction anthology for the last four years running), Words without Borders and Asymptote. He has recently recorded an album of his own compositions with leading Estonian jazz musicians: Nordic Blues, available on bandcamp. He translated The Death of the Perfect Sentence for Vagabond Voices in 2017. Read his full bio here.

Episode 4: Finding the Rhythm (An interview with Matthew Hyde) 

What exactly does a translator do? Despite the Man Booker International literary prize and other initiatives acknowledging the important role translators play in bringing foreign literature to readers, there’s still little understanding of what's actually involved in the craft of translation.

In this episode, Matthew Hyde, who translates from Russian and Estonian, details how he went from being a government translator in the UK to a literary translator in Estonia. He also tackles the misconception that translation is simply swapping words. In addition to his translation work, Matthew is a jazz musician who plays double bass, and draws some interesting parallels between music and writing.

The Think in Translation podcast is a literary podcast series featuring international authors, translators, publishers and booksellers, with the aim of making translated books accessible to all readers.

About The Death of the Perfect Sentence

This thoughtful spy novel cum love story is set mainly in Estonia during the dying days of the Soviet Union, but also in Russia, Finland and Sweden. A group of young pro-independence dissidents devise an elaborate scheme for smuggling copies of KGB files out of the country, and their fates become entangled, through family and romantic ties, with the security services never far behind them.

Through multiple viewpoints the author evokes the curious minutiae of everyday life, offers wry observations on the period through personal experience, and asks universal questions about how interpersonal relationships are affected when caught up in momentous historical changes.

This sometimes wistful examination of how the Estonian Republic was reborn after a long and stultifying hiatus speaks also of the courage and complex chemistry of those who pushed against a regime whose then weakness could not have been known to them.