With over two dozen literary translations in print, Amaia Gabantxo is the first and most prolific translator of Basque literature into English. Her immense literary contributions have been awarded with multiple accolades including the Etxepare-Laboral Kutxa Prize for Basque literature. In English, her book-length translations include Twist by Harkaitz Cano (Archipelago, 2018), A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe (Parthian, 2019) and Unai Elorriaga‘s new novel, Last Year’s Bones (Archipelago, 2020). In this intimate profile by fellow translator Izidora Angel for Project Plume, Gabantxo discusses her artistic journey towards re-empowering the ancient, mysterious and still-vulnerable Basque tongue, and her mission to translate more Basque women writers.
The lack of women in translation is a confounding fact that is facing increasingly louder protest. While it is the works of men that get translated in the vast majority of cases, women translators are so often the ones to “carry them” over. Endangered tongues in particular have relied on women not only to be the natural transmitters, but also as the saviours, of language. Finally, rightfully, women translators are becoming more vocal about challenging the status quo: one such a female word warrior is Amaia Gabantxo, on a lifelong journey not only to reverse the balance in translation, but also to protect her native Basque.
Born in the Basque Country, the highly disputed region along the western Pyrenees borders of France and Spain, for Amaia the political was personal since birth. The youngest of three sisters, she grew up in the small fishing town of Bermeo at the tail-end of Francisco Franco’s near-four-decade dictatorial reign over the region between 1939 and 1975, when Amaia’s mother tongue was, as she puts it, “held hostage”. This made it so she wasn’t able to learn Basque as a subject until secondary school, making Spanish her first literary tongue, a language relationship she would struggle with for years.
From an early age, Amaia sensed “that there had been and still was this concerted effort to ‘disappear’ the Basque language”. She knew it from hearing her family’s multi-generational stories of the vast cultural and economical ravages left by the Spanish Civil War, not only irrevocably altering all their lives by stripping her great-grandparents of everything they possessed materially, but also robbing them of their right to Euskara, the native Basque language.
The fascist language policies may have ended with Franco’s death in 1975, but it wasn’t until 1982 that “Standard Basque” came to be, finally enabling unified instruction, including proper accreditation and proficiency. Amaia was unshakable in her devotion to her mother tongue, even in the face of condescending dismissals from teachers that she “couldn’t and shouldn’t” pursue Basque in secondary school. But she did just that, ensuring her literary Basque was on par with her literary Spanish. Soon, a new challenge revealed itself.
“Dominant languages have traditionally done a very thorough job of diminishing smaller languages. Associating them with uselessness, unsophisticatedness, country-bumpkinness.”
Amaia left her home after winning a scholarship to study English and Irish Literature at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. There, she became fully immersed in literary English, writing in it freely, and, for the first time, “without the turmoil that my other two languages, Spanish and Basque, created”. In her final year at Ulster, she came to a sobering realization: “No one had—and no one was—translating Basque literature into English.” Realising it was something she herself could do, it seemed that everything up until now had led her to this place: “It felt fated.”
Now fully committed to literary translation, Amaia applied for and was invited to pursue an MA at the prestigious Literary Translation programme at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Before heading off to UEA, she visited every bookshop in Bilbao to arm herself with literature only to have an old, familiar realization hit even harder: “Ninety percent of the books on the shelves were written by men.”
England transformed Amaia in many ways, but perhaps the most unexpected was how it reinvented her complicated relationship with the Spanish, almost by chance, when, she says, “flamenco was laid at my feet.” A flamenco guitarist asked her to sing while he played the guitar and she blew him away. “I knew then, Spanish is mine too; I possess all three of my languages, and I have an indisputable right to each one.”
After starting her PhD at UEA and taking up work as a literary and commercial translator, Amaia paused once more to reflect on the type of work she was being commissioned to do—the dire stats she remembered from years back were still there. “Only a tiny percentage of the books written in Basque were written by women; most literary prizes went to men.”
2013 saw a turning point when Amaia, now living in the US for a lectureship at the University of Chicago, was asked to translate an anthology of Basque poetry positioned as an “exhaustive representation” of the previous century. Out of the fifteen total poets included, there was just a single female one. “I felt the editors were so blind and their minds, so utterly colonized by the patriarchy, that they didn’t even realize they were shooting themselves—and all Basque women!—in the metaphorical foot.” Not for the first time in her life, she turned her anger into activism with a new mission: “[to] translate works by women.”
And that, she has. Since making her pledge, Amaia has translated the sensual and raw novel, A Glass Eye, by Miren Agur Meabe, various short stories by Karmele Jaio, Arantxa Iturbe and Alaine Agirre, among more poetry. She currently has another novel in translation in the works, as she also plans an anthology of Basque female poets in both Basque and English. That comes in addition to her other multiple-award-winning translation work, as well as her teaching and musical projects.
“I understood that I am working in a continuum—a continuum of people who have protected and fought for the Basque language. I saw myself not just as an individual working on a personal project, but as part of a larger group of humans contributing to the preservation and elevation of something greater than themselves.”
It would be a creative collaboration with a fellow female artist that would culminate in that singular jolt of electricity that follows seeing one’s work in a large-scale visual presentation. In the spring of 2019, Amaia collaborated with the artist Jenny Holzer on the latter’s career retrospective at the Bilbao Guggenheim, an idea which, Holzer later told her, had been gestating in the artist’s mind for over twenty years: to project Basque poetry in the original language and translated into English onto the facade of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum.
As Amaia watched this dream unfold with her curation of translated Basque poems enlarged and illuminated, she recalls: “It was beautiful to realize… that, weirdly, somehow, she and I had been working in parallel toward that moment when we’d both done the work to make her vision become a reality.”
But it was Amaia’s mother, standing by her daughter’s side, who pointed out something else: “You can’t begin to imagine what this means to my generation, to see the Basque language up there on display, after everything we went through during the dictatorship, when it was forbidden to use it, to speak it, to write it.”
“In that moment, I understood that I am working in a continuum—a continuum of people who have protected and fought for the Basque language. I saw myself not just as an individual working on a personal project, but as part of a larger group of humans contributing to the preservation and elevation of something greater than themselves.”
“I want my students to feel very free and inspired to shape-shift across [artistic] forms. To open up the possibilities and dimensions. ‘Translatio’, the Latin word that has traveled across the ages to become translation today, means “to carry over.” That’s what we’ll do in my class: we’ll carry over.”
As she plans an anthology of female poets, Amaia now finds herself straddling two missions: translating women from the Basque language into English, amid the bigger quest of saving the minority Basque tongue and culture at large. “Dominant languages have traditionally done a very thorough job of … diminishing smaller languages,” she says. “Associating them with uselessness, unsophisticatedness, country-bumpkinness. ”
But by failing to protect these languages, she says, “we are doing some terrible damage to the collective human consciousness. The more everything is … homogenized, the less likely it is that humanity will survive. We need more visibility and representation. More publications to be receptive to works from at-risk languages; more prizes for works from minority languages.”
The importance of linguistic diversity is one of the pillars she aims to teach in her “Intermodal Translation” class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago this fall. “I want my students to feel very free and inspired to shape-shift across [artistic] forms. To open up the possibilities and dimensions. Translatio, the Latin word that has traveled across the ages to become translation today, means “to carry over.” That’s what we’ll do in my class: we’ll carry over.”
Indeed, if the measure of a true artist is how much of their life they’ve dedicated to their art, then Amaia is a consummate artist. “After more than fifteen years of doing it,” she said, “I can see a body of work, the ground being prepared for a better, safer and stronger future for the standing of Basque literature and the Basque language in the world.”
And if the true measure of an activist is how unabashedly vocal they are about the causes they have given their life for, and how much they make those in power squirm, Amaia may be the most inconvenient kind.