Basque Literature Translated into English

by Beñat Sarasola 

We all know that for non-hegemonic cultures and literatures, translation is the best way to expand literary works in the world. Nevertheless, we can say that apart from some exceptions, the quantity and impact of translated Basque literature has not been notable. Furthermore, Basque literature has been translated almost always into Spanish, and in lots of cases, many of the translations made to another language have been carried out based on their Spanish translations. That means that there haven’t been many translations from Basque literature into English, and many of them have been published by small editing companies or rare editions.

According to the ELI catalogue (http://www.ehu.es/ehg/eli/), a database which collects all the translations from Basque literature to other languages, there have been 103 translations published in English. The first was an anthology of Basque legends done by Wenworth Webster and edited in 1877 in London. We have to remember that in the XIXth century, with the extension of Romanticism, Basque culture, as an ancient and non-known origin culture, raised the interest of many European researchers –Wilhelm von Humboldt, for instance – and, therefore, this particular translation might be understood in this context.

Bernardo Atxaga

The writer Bernardo Atxaga | Photo: EL DIARIO VASCO

The second translation was done more than a hundred years later, in 1985. It was the translation of one of the key novels and founders of modern Basque literature, 100 meters by Ramon Saizarbitoria. Saizarbitoria is still alive and is arguably one of the most important novelists (and maybe the most important) of Basque literature. 100 meters was his second novel and, written in a modernist writing style, narrates the escape of an ETA militant from the police in the Constitution Square in San Sebastian. Nonetheless, this edition was published in the Basque Country, not in an English speaking country, by the Basque American Foundation.

But maybe the first important English edition of a Basque book was Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga. Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, it was edited several times by publishing houses such as Pantheon Books in New York in 1988, and Vintage in London in 1993. Obabakoak is without a doubt one of the most important books in Basque literature. Highly awarded, it is a hybrid between a novel and a short stories collection that narrates some semi fantastical stories from Obaba, an imaginary place in the Basque Country. Some years later, the film director Montxo Armendariz made a film based on the book called precisely Obaba. From that book, all the crucial works by Atxaga such as The Lone Man and The Accordionist’s Son have been translated into English by Vintage.

Among all the other translations some anthologies must be noted that might be useful for people who want to be introduced to Basque literature. The most recent of them is Our Wars: Short Fiction on Basque Conflict, edited by the University of Nevada Press, a collection of short stories by several authors about the Basque Conflict. There is another short fiction collection called Strange Language: An Anthology of Basque Short Stories where you can find stories about different topics, not only about the political conflict. In poetry, there is an anthology of six Basque poets called Six Basque Poets, published in 2007 by Arc Publications. Kirmen Uribe’s poetry book Meanwhile, Take my hand, translated by Elizabeth Macklin in 2006, had a significant impact in the United States and it is one of the few direct translations from Basque to English. Recently, the first Basque literary text has been translated as well, dated 1545 and written by Bernat Etxepare. It has been published by the Center for Basque Studies of the University of Reno.

Unfortunately, we must say that the lack of translated material from important Basque authors is substantial. For example, essential authors such as Pello Lizarralde, Joseba Sarrionandia, Koldo Izagirre, Anjel Lertxundi, Itxaro Borda, Aingeru Epaltza, Jokin Muñoz, Eider Rodriguez, Harkaitz Cano or even Ramon Saizarbitoria, practically haven’t been translated at all. We hope that in the years to come, this shortage will be covered little by little.

About the Author

Beñat Sarasola

Beñat Sarasola is a journalist and writer. Blog | @bsarasola

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