Translating Basque Literature

Translating Basque Literature
Cover of 'blackout' by xabier montoia (susa publishing house)
Lesson 13- the lone woman-the harvill press1
'...Not until the end of the Franco regime did Basque literature and translation come to enjoy the proper conditions in which to thrive.'

Aiora Jaka Irizar, University of the Basque Country-University of Birmingham.

In the short history of Basque literature, translation has always played an important role: from the first translation into Basque published in 1571 Joanes Leizarraga's New Testament until today, when more than 30 % of the books published in Basque are translations (TORREALDAI 2005), this activity has always been present. Unlike literatures of major languages such as English where the percentage of translations is dwarfed by the enormous amount of original works, minority languages such as Basque have had to depend on translation in order to increase their literary production. Lawrence Venuti, in his work The Translator's Invisibility (1995), gives some data about the percentages of translation in different languages during the 1980s: in the case of the United States, the number of translations into English in 1990 was 2.9 %, while in Great Britain only 2.4 % of the English literary production was translated. Looking at the data of smaller languages, this percentage increases significantly: in 1985, translation reached 9.9 % of the total number of French publications; Italy's percentage in 1989 was 25.4 % and Germany's was 14.4 % in 1990 (VENUTI 1995).

What one can gather from this information is that the more powerful and widespread a language, the smaller the percentage of translations in its total literary production. Therefore, it should not come as much of a surprise that the literatures of minority languages such as Basque are made up of a significant number of translations (the percentage of Basque translations in 1991 was 42.3 % (TORREALDAI 2005)).

Of course, the opposite is the case when it comes to book exports. English is by far the most translated language worldwide, followed by French, German, Russian, Italian, Spanish and other major languages (VENUTI 1995; Index Translationum, UNESCO), while minor languages figure only at the very end of such lists. In contrast with British and American publishers, devoted to acquiring bestsellers and selling translation rights rather than buying them, minor and minority languages resort to translations from the other major languages that dominate the publishing industry in order for their literature to survive (VENUTI 1995).

Basque is not an exception. As Mari Jose Olaziregi points out, despite our fine publishing industry, media and academic system, Basque literature runs the risk of giving the impression that it is not endeavouring to widen its readership (OLAZIREGI 2005).

In fact, the number of Basque books translated into other languages is very small when compared to the relative strength of literary publishing activity in the Basque Country, and it is not until the 1990s that Basque literature starts to be heard beyond its boundaries.

The aim of this article is to give a general overview of translation as relates to the Basque Country. After a brief description of the history of Basque translation, we shall confine our attention to what is being translated not only into Spanish, but also into other languages. A list of Basque literary works translated into Spanish, French, English and German is offered at the end of this article.


Despite the centrality of translation in Basque literature, the study of this activity remains a relatively unexplored field in the Basque Country, as evidenced by the relative lack of works published in the area. Apart from data about the percentages of translation through history provided by authors such as Ibon Sarasola (1975) and Joan Mari Torrealdai (1979, 1997, 2005) in their research into Basque literature, there are still very few works that focus on the activity of translation. The most comprehensive account of Basque translation history is Xabier Mendiguren Bereziartu's Euskal itzulpenaren historia laburra (1995), although Manu Lopez's works provides an important contribution to the study of the role of translation within the Basque literary system. The effort to provide a list of all the works translated into Basque made by EIZIE (Association of Basque Translators, Correctors and Interpreters) is also worth mentioning: their on-line catalogue comprises more than 6,900 translations(1).

According to Joan Mari Torrealdai's data (TORREALDAI 1997: 205), translation has had variable weight in the different stages of the history of Basque literature: from the first Basque publication until the end of the seventeenth century, translation constituted 16.6 % of the literary production. From 1700 to 1875, this percentage increased to 35.2 %, and diminished again to 13.3 % between 1876 and 1935. After the hard years that followed the Spanish civil war, Basque literature started to revive again in the Southern part of the Basque Country, especially from the 1960s onwards, and translation reached again a higher percentage in the literary production (22.3 %). But it was not until the end of the Franco regime that Basque literature and translation enjoyed the proper conditions in which to thrive.

Translation activity experienced a great increase during this period due to the creation of a bilingual administration and the accompanying regeneration of the Basque media. It continued to gain in importance during the last years of the 1980s and the beginnings of the 1990s, constituting 43.6 % of the overall literary production in 1993. As a result of this new climate, translation activity continued to grow, although the percentage is smaller (30.8 % in 2003) due to the increase experienced by the number of original Basque publications (TORREALDAI 2005: 28).

From Xabier Mendiguren Bereziartu's Euskal itzulpenaren historia laburra (1995), it is clear that most of the translations before 1975 were religious texts, and that the mode of translating was conditioned by the ideological need to reproduce faithfully the word of God.

The first Basque translation - the second published book in the short history of Basque literature, born with Bernart Etxepare's Lingua Vasconum Primitiae, in 1545 - was, Joanes Leizarraga's New Testament (1571). The translation was considered a masterpiece and established the basis of word-for-word translation.

During the seventieth century, most of the translated works were ascetic books, although some proverbs were also translated from different languages. We could mention Joanes Etxeberri from Ziburu, Joanes Haranburu, Arnaut Oihenart and Pedro Axular among the translators in this period.

Eighteenth century translation is characterised by its multiple translations of the Bible (Betri Urte, Joanes Haraneder and Joaquin Lizarraga from Elkano, among others), and by several attempts to raise the Basque language to the status of 'language of culture' (Manuel Larramendi, Agustin Kardaberaz, Joan Antonio Mogel and so forth).

The most famous translations of the nineteenth century are those made under the leadership of the French Prince Bonaparte. He became interested in the Basque language, and in order to analyse the different Basque dialects, he asked a group of writers to translate some parts of the Bible into their own Basque dialect.

After the loss of the Basque fueros (special legislative privileges) in 1876, there was growing concern about Basque national history, culture and language, and a flourishing literature began to grow. We could mention in this group translators such as Toribio Alzaga, Gregorio Arrue, Resurrección María Azkue and Manuel Arriandiaga.

The beginning of the twentieth century was marked by the desire of transmitting God's word to the people. Trying to satisfy this will, in 1931 Raimundo Olabide translated the New Testament directly from Greek.

Nikolas Ormaetxea (Orixe) established the beginning of the free translation era. After having won a literary contest in 1928 with the translation from Spanish of the ninth chapter of El Quijote, he also translated El Lazarillo de Tormes in 1929. In this period of free translation we should also mention Jokin Zaitegi, Andima Ibiñagabeitia, Bedita Larrakoetxea and so forth. Many of their translations were published in literary journals such as Euzko Gogoa, Olerti and Egan2. As well as classical writers (Euripides, Plato, Sophocles, Horace, Ovid, Virgil and so forth), other important writers such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Longfellow, Wilde and the brothers Grimm were also incorporated into Basque. The contribution that the famous Basque writer Gabriel Aresti made to translation is also worth mentioning. The trend of free translation would remain until the 1960s, when a new generation of Basque writers started to take a different path in literature and translation, with authors such as Joxe Azurmendi, Txillardegi, Ramon Saizarbitoria, and a little later, Bernardo Atxaga.

1975 marked a turning point for Basque literature and Basque translation. With the adoption of a new Constitution in Spain, Basque acquired co-official status with Spanish in the Basque Autonomous Community, which led to the spread of the Basque language in several fields (education, administration, media) and to the consequent need for translation. There was, of course, a notable parallel increase in Basque literary production. But this increase would not have been possible without the help of translated books (especially in the field of childrens literature). There was a proliferation of Basque publishing houses, the first translation school (Martuteneko Itzultzaile Eskola) was created in 1979, and since September 2000, the University of the Basque Country offers a degree in Translation and Interpretation.

Nowadays, one of the busiest literary translation activities in the Basque Country is that related to children's and young people's literature. According to a study carried out by Manu Lopez (LOPEZ 2000), children's literature covers about 72 % of all the literature translated into Basque. The main source languages are Spanish, English and Catalan. In the twenty years following Franco's death (1976-1995) 1,500 books were translated into Basque in the area of children's literature, largely within the numerous new series and collections for children created by publishers such as Gero-Mensajero, Hordago and Elkar, and later on by Pamiela, Ttarttalo, Ibaizabal, S.M and others. It can be said that the main function of this kind of translation was to fill the gap in many areas that were undeveloped in Basque and to meet the great demand of the school system.

If we set aside children's and young people's literature, the most important initiative to bring world literature to a Basque readership is the series called 'Literatura Unibertsala', a project that started in 1989 after some meetings between the Ministry of Culture of the Basque Government and EIZIE (Association of Basque Translators, Correctors and Interpreters) where it was agreed to hold a translation contest every year to promote quality translations of selected classics. It was not easy to establish a canonical list of 'masterpieces' to be translated, as depending on the criteria chosen (the length and quality of the text, general market forces, its accessibility and translatability, for instance), such a list would vary notoriously. All in all, everyone agreed that an association like EIZIE should not ignore the need to translate those titles that had achieved worldwide acceptance, and, in the end, it was decided that the list would, in the main, be made up of works written by classic authors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, focusing, primarily, on modernity. The first translation contest was held in 1989, leading to the translation of 7 works, which were published in collaboration with the publishing house Ibaizabal, and with the support of the Basque Government. From then on, a similar number of books has been translated every year, although nowadays they are published in collaboration with the publishing houses Elkar and Alberdania3 (ALDEKOA and OLAZIREGI 2001; AUZMENDI 1990).


If the bibliography about Basque translation is very scant concerning world literature translated into Basque, we can hardly find any work that focuses on the reception of Basque literature outside the Basque Country. This is largely because activity in this area has only really become significant in the past two decades, so translation from Basque has not yet been analysed in depth.

Therefore, I have had to rely on general bibliography about Basque literature and search through different book catalogues and databases in order to find works of Basque literature in other languages.

What we can extract from these sources is that the few translations from Basque before the end of the Franco regime were made by Basque writers (often by the same authors), almost exclusively into Spanish: Gabriel Aresti published his famous poem book Harri eta Herri in both Basque and Spanish, for example; also, Joan Antonio Mogels Peru Abarka, written in 1802 and published in 1881, was translated into Spanish by Resurrección María Azkue in 1899. Other examples would be Bernart Etxepares Linguae Vasconum Primitiae (1545), translated into Spanish by Lino Akesolo (1966) and Txomin Agirres Auñemendiko lorea (1898), translated into Spanish by Inazio Goikoetxea (1967).

It is not until the 1980s that Basque literature begins to be heard beyond the Basque Country, thanks, mostly, to the awards received by some Basque writers both in the Basque Country and in Spain: Atxagas Obabakoak won the Spanish Narrative Award (Premio Nacional de Narrativa), among other prizes; Unai Elorriagas SPrako tranbia was given the same award; Miren Agur Meabes poetry work Azalaren kodea won the Euskadi critics prize; Lourdes Oñederra was given the Euskadi prize for literature for her novel Eta emakumeari sugeak esan zion. Nowadays, apart from these prizes and other initiatives devoted to the spread of Basque literature, such as the Basque Literature Series launched by the Center for Basque Studies of the Univesity of Nevada, Reno5, there are still few grants and aids to support translation from Basque. It is enough to look at UNESCOs Index Translationum database to realize how limited the number of Basque books translated and published in different countries of the world is. From data published on June 2005, we found that, apart from the Spanish state, where 598 Basque titles have been translated into different languages, the top ten countries show very small numbers of works translated from Basque: France (32), Germany (9), United States of America (7), Netherlands (5), Finland (5), Switzerland (3), Denmark (3), Greece (3) and Poland (2). Furthermore, it has to be taken into account that many of the translations recorded in this database do not belong to the field of literature proper, but are rather works of research, reports or analyses.

If we limit our attention to narrative, poetry and other literary genres, the number is reduced dramatically, and even more if we take into account that about half of those works belong to the field of children's and young people's literature. If we also remove from this number all the translations of Bernardo Atxaga, one of the few not to say the only Basque writers that has achieved success and recognition out of the Basque Country, we become aware that the short list that remains does not reflect at all the richness and variety of Basque literature. Whilst I have already recorded a number of translations that do not appear in the database, they do not change the overall picture of trends in Basque translation.

Poetry, essay, theatre

The predominance of the narrative genre in Basque literature today (according to Torrealdai, 62.3 % of the Basque literature produced in 2003 was made up of narrative texts, while poetry enjoyed a 14.5 % and theatre plays formed 4.8 % of the general literary production (TORREALDAI 2005)) is well reflected in the corpus of books translated from Basque: most of the translated works are written in prose, and there are only few examples of Basque poetry in other languages. Once again, we have to mention the well-known case of Atxaga: his poetry books Etiopia and Henry Bengoa, Inventarium were translated into Spanish under the title of Poemas & Híbridos, and then translated into Catalan, French, Italian a

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