ESSAY: Literature from the Basque Country by Amaia Gabantxo

Literature from the Basque Country
Hochzeit_iii_medium
Hochzeit III
by Amaia Gabantxo

Euskera, the Basque language, is possibly the oldest language in Europe, with a strong and popular oral literary tradition that drives tens of thousands of people to attend the improvised poetry championships that take place every two years. But in terms of its written literary legacy, Basque literature can be said to be very, very young. Although the first book in Basque, Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, by Bernat Etxepare, was written in 1545, the few efforts that followed it were mostly religious in nature and moralizing in intent, and they cannot be said to amount to a solid written literary tradition.

Much has been done since the arrival of democracy in Spain in 1975 to remedy this: policies have been put in place that have sought to direct and nurture the growth of a written Basque literature. The passing of the Autonomy Statutes in 1979 meant that the Basque language gained co-official status with Spanish, and as such it could finally be freely used as a vehicle for education and publication. The geographic characteristics of the Basque Country (it’s a very mountainous region) mean that several dialects of Basque are spoken in our country – 8, according to Louis Lucien Bonaparte’s 19th-century classification, which is still in use. In 1982 the Basque language was standardized.

These two significant steps – co-official status and standardization – brought with them seismic changes, especially in terms of book publication and, in that context, fiction writing. In the intervening years fiction has become central to our literature, although the poetic tradition is still going strong. At present, about 1500 new titles are written in Basque every year: 14% of these are literary texts, and of those, 60% are novels and short stories (Olaziregi 2010).

The development of narrative writing has had a great impact on the desire to write in Basque. The education of the first generation of students to receive their schooling entirely in Basque bore fruit immediately: several important Basque authors emerged in the 1980s and ’90s including: Bernardo Atxaga, Joseba Sarrionandia, Ramon Saizarbitoria, Anjel Lertxundi, Miren Agur Meabe and Lourdes Oñederra. Subsequently, the next generation of children who received Basque schooling also had literary examples to follow.

These writers are now in their thirties – Unai Elorriaga, Harkaitz Cano, Kirmen Uribe and others; their work is internationally acclaimed and widely translated. Based on this evidence and the riches on display at the 2010 Basque Book Fair, it could be said that it looks like the concerted cultural and political effort of a group of individuals – writers, linguists, academics, translators, politicians – who set their minds to encouraging the development and cultural representation of a language that had been ‘in hiding’ for many years is beginning to pay dividends.

Another interesting phenomenon at the most recent book fair was the abundance of titles translated into Basque. Since 1990, the Basque Translators’ Association, in conjunction with the Department of Culture of the Basque Government and with the help of innumerable, very talented literary translators, have carried out the essential task of translating classic literary works into Basque. 153 titles have been translated  so far – Shakespeare, Conrad, Borges, Tabucci, Jean Rhys, Toni Morrison, Lampedusa, Mishima, Cesare Pavese… This is a fantastic project and it is common to see the familiar titles of the Literatura Unibertsala list with their distinctive covers at the yearly Durango Book Fair.

But what was interesting this year was what appeared to be a marked increase in the numbers of Basque translations of contemporary works: illustrated books for children by Danish, Belgian and Australian authors, and books for young adults by English, Italian and German authors. There were also novels by interesting and stylistically challenging contemporary Spanish, Latin American and French authors. This is a sure sign that contemporary literature in Basque is alive and growing, and feeding from sources that will help it flourish even further.

It also shows that reading in Basque is starting to become a rooted habit amongst the younger generations – as rooted as the habit of reading foreign literature in Spanish used to be for those of our and earlier generations who were interested in literature. (It should be noted that although a third of the Basque population speaks Basque, the proportion is as high as 66% among 5-14 year olds. This percentage, and the increase in publications and in the quality and variety of writing available in Basque bodes well for the Basque readers and writers of the future.)

Another promising aspect in this optimistic panorama is the recent creation of the Etxepare Institute, a Basque institution responsible for disseminating Basque language and culture all over the world, following Bernat Etxepare’s 1545 mandate: ‘jalgi adi mundura’ (open yourself to the world). The Etxepare Insitute will promote the study and use of the Basque language in all its forms, foster its international recognition and advocate measures to help spread and improve the quality of these activities, especially at university level. It will also foster the dissemination of Basque culture by encouraging the inclusion in international programmes of artists, musicians and writers working in the fields of music, performing arts, visual arts, literature, cinema and architecture and design. It will also facilitate dialogue between Basque thinkers and researchers and their foreign interlocutors and it will promote studies by Basque authors on linguistic diversity and cultural pluralism internationally.

People in the Basque Country are working hard to safeguard and enrich the future of Euskera. This process looks to nurture and strengthen the language and the culture from within the context of the Basque Country but it also seeks to reinforce it by looking outwards to the world, by making itself visible.







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