An interview with Bernardo Atxaga: 'A Basque writer leaps into translation'

UNESCO Courier April 01, 2000 Kuntz, Lucia Iglesias

"Euskera, ialgi adi kanpora" ("Basque language, step forward!"). Bernard Atxaga [*] couldn't agree more with these words from a 16th-century Basque song.

Euskera--the Basque language--is spoken by some 600,000 people in the Spanish Basque country and Navarra, and another 80,000 in the Pyrenees Orientales department of southwestern France. Its origins are unknown, but it has probably existed for over 4,000 years.

Euskera's development was severely stunted during Spain's 40-year Franco dictatorship. Then came a major recovery. Euskera became a shared literary language, won recognition in 1979 as a joint official language with Spanish, and has been promoted through teaching.

Basque literature has also been flowering in the hands of a group of dedicated writers. One of them, Bernardo Atxaga, 48, who won the Spanish National Fiction Prize in 1989 for Obabakoak, is the first writer in the Basque language to achieve an international reputation.

Q: Did the crackdown on Euskera during the Franco era really happen, or is it a myth?A: It definitely happened, but it’s also true that Euskera wasn’t doing so well before the Civil War. Only a society that can afford to have doctors on call on Sundays, as it were, can afford to be concerned about saving its language. Before the war, the Basque country was confronted with terrible economic problems. Saving the language was a miracle only intellectuals and priests could have performed. My own case is typical, in a way. My grandfather and great-grandfather were carpenters. They had plenty of other things to worry about than preserving the language. I had a different kind of education from theirs, and it led me to ask why I was losing the use of a language that I had inherited. Political repression was fierce when I was a child. My brothers and I were beaten at school if we were caught speaking Euskera, the language we spoke at home. We knew we risked punishment if we spoke Basque in public.

Q: With the coming of democracy, Basque autonomy and laws covering language, the situation changed totally within a few years. Today Basque is a compulsory school subject. What do you think about this?A: English is compulsory too. This is a very complex issue. How far does a state have the right to lay down the law in education? At present, all states do so. The education ministry plays a very important role in all countries, and the area of freedom in this sphere is very small. That being said, people who live in the Basque country and don’t want to know anything about our language and culture aren’t worthy of respect.

Q: Do you think Euskera is used too much as a political pawn?A: I really don’t think so. I don’t see how half a million people can cause much mischief for 35 million Spanish-speakers. On the contrary, I think there’s been a lot of unfairness on the part of the majority group. National newspapers never print anything positive about our language. I think that’s unjust.

Q: The unification of Euskera around an agreed version of the language continues to provoke controversy. Do you think standardization was necessary to enable Euskera to survive?A: No language in the world can develop if it is fundamentally divided. All languages spin off variants, but at the same time they seek the common basis without which no language can perform its higher functions. You can’t write books about architecture in pidgin, you have to use standard English, which is better qualified to express what you want to say. Among English-speakers, each community develops its own accent, its own way of using the language. You can be for or against this but, as a language teacher I know used to tell his Chicano students: “You can speak Spanglish if you like, but if you want to study law, you’ll have to write in English.” All languages that develop tend towards simplification. The same friend told me that language is nowhere more complex than in a village. In Chicago or New York, English is a lot simpler than it is in a remote village in Ireland.

Q: You’re completely bilingual. Why do you always write first in Euskera?A: In literary terms, I’m used to thinking in Euskera. My stories or poems come to me in Euskera. It’s my personal language, the one I use to jot down ideas in my notebooks, whether I’m in Stockholm or Madrid. I’ve become used to doing that. It’s not much to do with ideology, it’s just the way I work. Some writers need to go into a monastery and stay there for a few months without setting foot outside. My writing ritual involves writing first in Basque. I’ve come to the conclusion that it isn’t very important. I might just as well write in some other language.

Q: But you insist on translating your own work.A: Some languages are quite close to each other, they’re like tracings that match when you put one on top of another. This is the case with Catalan and Spanish. I see translation as a physical leap, and the jump from Catalan to Spanish is like stepping off the pavement onto the road. With Basque, the leap is enormous. And leaving it to a translator is a risky business. My translations are usually the work of several hands. Close friends of mine produce a rough draft and I extract a final version from it. It’s very hard to explain what it’s like being a bilingual writer. Sitting down to translate one’s own work is a mind-bending experience. Every time I do it, the gap between the two texts seems to widen.

Q: Yet your books are translated into other languages from Spanish. Isn’t that a bit of a cop-out?
A: Not at all, because I believe that language is always part of a person’s way of life, and for me Spanish is also a first language. There are two first languages in my life and luckily I can express myself just as well in both.

Q: Do you consider yourself a nationalist?A: I rather like Spain. I’m not in favour of political independence. I don’t think Spain’s a bad society or a bad country. You can be part of it and have a critical eye.