The Translator Relay: Amaia Gabantxo

By Katrine Øgaard Jensen

Our "Translator Relay" series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. For November's installment, Jason Grunebaum passed the baton to Amaia Gabantxo, a writer, flamenco singer, and literary translator specializing in Basque literature. She has translated works by every canonical Basque author, and published and performed on both sides of the Atlantic. At present, she is developing two hybrid literary/musical/performance art projects in Chicago: Palo a Palo, which combines flamenco and Butoh, and Soniché, which fuses flamenco with classical music.

What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I translate mostly from Basque, but also from Spanish, as I grew up bilingually. Euskara, the Basque language, is my mother tongue, the first language I spoke: a very old (older than Latin or Greek) non-Indo-European, endangered, isolate language spoken by fewer than a million people in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in northern Spain and southern France. I grew up in a fishing village near Bilbao, in a fishing family; we all spoke Basque and Spanish interchangeably, some French, too—the frontier is only an hour away, we could watch French TV as easily as Spanish TV, tune in to French or Spanish radio stations (although my grandfather would listen mostly to the BBC, despite the sketchiness of his English, because he only trusted the BBC to tell the truth).

Spain was barely awakening from the nightmare of Francoism as I was growing up, ETA was in full swing, and the policies the dictator had put in place to oppress and  disappear the Basque language were still in effect. The mere fact of our speaking Basque in public was an act of defiance. Many families like ours carried the language and, as children, it was instilled in us that we were the keepers of Euskara, and that to keep it, to protect it, was to speak it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I was able to learn the grammatical structures of my mother tongue properly, that I was able to access the existing written literature in Basque. This only happened because I—stubbornly and against all advice—enrolled to do all of my secondary schooling exclusively in Basque. It was finally possible to do so and I thought it was my right, after having carried out my primary school education exclusively in Spanish, in a Catholic convent school. Before that, Euskara existed only orally in my mind—however, the Basque tradition of oral and improvised literature and its balladic and sung traditions are exceptionally rich, so it was a different kind of literary wealth that I got from Basque. There were hardly any publications available in Euskara during my childhood and as a result, being the bookish child that I was, my literary mind was mapped with literature written in and translated into Spanish first—and only later, during my secondary schooling, with literature in Basque. 

Then, aged nineteen, I went to Northern Ireland and did a BA in English and Irish literature at the University of Ulster, which I followed up with an MA in literary translation and a PhD on the same subject at the University of East Anglia in the UK (I am yet to finish that pesky PhD—too many books to translate). My primary schooling was in Spanish, my secondary in Basque, my higher education in English. My literary brain was entirely remapped again, and at first unconsciously, randomly, thoughtlessly, I started to write my own short stories and poems in English and, later, to translate Basque literature into English. I found great freedom in this: both of the languages of my upbringing were incredibly politicized, weighed down with darkness: one the language of the oppressor, the language of lies according to my grandfather; the other, the language of the victim (or, in ETA’s case, also the perpetrator). In English I found my voice, and a means to carry my Basqueness. A way to reconcile my need to write with the conflict of my first two languages.

Can you give us an example of an "untranslatable" word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Everything is untranslatable and translatable at the same time. Translation is always a leap of faith, an exercise in imagination and creativity. In the end, for me, it’s always about the impact of the line or sentence. How it moves, what it does, how it hits its mark, what it evokes, how it carries its rhythm. As a translator, I want to replicate that impact. But the power of that impact doesn’t rest solely on the lexical content of the line or sentence. Translating the meaning of the words on the page is only the beginning of the process. And there are occasions when you have to discard meaning.

The wealth of a text doesn’t rest on the words on the page. It is conjured in that space between the page and the reader’s eyes. I think about this a lot.

There is one line in ”Beste muxu baten gogoz,” one of Padron Plazaola’s tiny love poems: eta ezpanak maitemintzen dizkizut delikatuki. At the lexical level, it means something like “and I delicately make your lips fall in love with mine (over and over)” [and+lips+fall in love(often)+I to you do something(s) (pl)+delicately].

However, the key to this particular literary equation is the verb to fall in love, maitemindu (the -tzen suffix indicates habituality, repetition), and the tension inherent to it. Maite, the first half of the word, means to love, and mindu, the second, to hurt. To lovehurt.  If you say it—maitemindu—you’ll notice your lips meet twice as in kissing. The word contains two kisses—one that loves, one that hurts. In that line, the verb maitemindu is put to strange use: it is not very common “to make lips fall in love.” And to me, the line moves like this in terms of sound: e, zzz, mm(z)m, dd(z)d, i. It’s both sibilant and tender. Like maitemindu, it’s contradictory, imbued with both hope and menace. I wanted to make that happen in English too.

Here below (in italics) is what I did with eta begiak maitemintzen dizkizut delikatuki:


I am waiting.
And you return
and I
pain your lips with love,

Do you have any translating rituals? 

I like to have instrumental music on when I translate. It can take me a while to find the music I need for what I’m translating, though. I need to match music to literature in terms of mood and rhythm.

And for translatorly sustenance, I require continuous cups of tea and some dark chocolate close at hand. My grandmother used to tell us dark chocolate was good for the brain and would keep us focused and intelligent. She was a very wise woman—and as you can see, her reward system is still at work.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

Yes. I’m a musician (a singer) so I often think of the original text as a score, and the translator’s labor as an interpretative exercise that—as is the case with any truly successful music performance—requires equal amounts of profound knowledge and technique combined with instinct, freedom, and the performer’s distinctive imprint. 

Think of this: many technically proficient interpretations of the Goldberg Variations can satisfy our Bach needs, but Glenn Gould’s . . . .

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you're excited about.

Can it be more than one? I am currently at work translating two novels: Miren Agur Meabe’s A Glass Eye for Parthian in the UK, and Twist by Harkaitz Cano for Archipelago Books in NY. I am also about to sign the contract for two poetry collections by the social-realist poet Gabriel Aresti (1933–75), which will be published by the University of Nevada Press.

These three works are very different from each other: the first, a fictionalized memoir that surgically dissects heartbreak and selfhood through the prism of a glass eye; the second, based on real events, a surreal historical novel that retells the disappearing of two young ETA sympathizers in the 1980s from the perspective of their bones (suddenly awake in a shallow grave) and their guilt-ridden, unreliable best friend who is now a writer; the third and fourth, Harri eta Herri and Maldan Behera, are the two most important poetry collections of the Basque modern age. These two poetry collections—published in 1964 and 1959, respectively—changed the parameters of Basque literature, opening up the possibilities of the Basque language in multifold ways. To contextualize: Gabriel Aresti was Bernardo Atxaga’s mentor, and one of the main influences in his early writing.

Jason Grunebaum’s question: You are also a very accomplished flamenco singer. What’s the relationship between your singing and your writing as a translator?

It took me a while to realize this, but I now know that both my singing and my writing (I consider my translations to be part of my literary output—everything that comes out of my pen is my writing) stem from the same impulse: the need to make art with words, the need to give voice to things. The sung and the written are two manifestations of the same instinct for words.

Being a flamenco singer has sharpened my awareness of rhythm and sound. Mastery of different beats is essential in flamenco, as is mastery of silence and stillness, and of measured yet free and spirited expression. All these things—and the profound existential knowledge this form has provided me with—influence my writing, as do the beauty and philosophy of flamenco lyrics. And recently my two loves (my two selves?) have begun to coalesce into one concrete project that combines flamenco performance with the creation of new English translations of Federico García Lorca’s poetry.

It is well known among literary translators that the existing English-language translations of Lorca’s poetry are not very satisfactory. I think I know why this is, at least in part. Lorca’s oeuvre is in itself a translation of flamenco, and the existing translations of his work into the English language have not observed that. The rhythms, imagery, breath, and impetus of Lorca’s poetry are a flamenco manifestation.They are coded in the flamenco form, and any attempt at translating those works into English would need to take that into account. I am bringing together a group of flamenco artists (dancers, guitarist, percussionist, a singer) and a team of international scholars of different disciplines (translation, performance, music, film, sound) in a multidisciplinary project that will aim to illuminate Federico García Lorca’s poetic legacy in ways that English-language readers of Lorca will find newly revealing and authentic—and which will hopefully invite a fresh and deeper understanding of this incredible poet, his outlook and intention, his universal song.

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