THR Web Features   /   August 31, 2023

Border Crossings

When translation becomes a part of the art of fiction.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( Island fortress of Gaztelugatxeko Doniene, Basque Country, Spain, photograph by Eduardo Casajús Gorostiaga/Unsplash.)

“Then you must be Pedro Daquerre Azpilcueta, the rector who became famous under the pen name ‘Axular!’ Our most illustrious master, our highest authority, the greatest of all Basque writers! I’m so pleased now that I read you. You are my teacher and my best-loved author. Help me, please. …”

“First, I must show you something,” he said and set off walking up a much steeper hill than the previous one, towards an even higher peak. Trusting him, I followed.

When we reached the second peak, I saw we were on an island, lost in the immensity of the sea. It was very small and there was no sign of life there. A black ship was approaching the shore.

“How tiny and cramped it is!” I said, my heart troubled. “And how lonely!” I added.

The Master nodded.

“All the other common tongues and languages of the world have intermingled and are related amongst themselves. But Basque, euskera, is unique and different from any other language. That’s why it’s so lonely.”

Obabakoak (1988) by Bernardo Atxaga (Trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

Up at Rob’s table an argument rose, Chris hoped that it wasn’t religion, she saw Mr. Gordon’s wee face pecked up to counter Rob. But Rob was just saying what a shame it was that folk should be shamed nowadays to speak Scotch—or they called it Scots if they did, the split-tongued sourocks! Every damned little narrow dowped rat that you met put on the English if he thought he’d impress you—as though Scotch wasn’t good enough now, it had words in it that the thin bit scrachs of the English could never come at. And Rob said You can tell me, man, what’s the English for sotter, or greip, or smore, or pleiter, gloaming or glanching or well-henspeckled? And if you said gloaming was sunset you’d fair be a liar; and you’re hardly that, Mr. Gordon.

But Gordon was real decent and reasonable, You can’t help it, Rob. If folk are to get on in the world nowadays, away from the ploughshafts and out of the pleiter, they must use the English, orra though it be.

Sunset Song (1932) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon           

When publishing his story collection Obabakoak in English translation in 1992, Bernardo Atxaga included a verse prologue in which “the author speaks of his language.” It begins:

I write in a strange language. Its verbs,
the structure of its clauses,
the words it uses to designate ancient things
—rivers, plants, birds—
have no sisters anywhere on Earth.

That language is euskera, or as it is known to the wider world, Basque. Euskera is Europe’s lone “language isolate,” meaning, as the prologue suggests, that it is entirely on its own in this world. It is a holdout of a distant age—the only prehistoric European language to survive the Indo-European family’s slow westward conquest. Again, the prologue: “Born, they say, in the megalithic age, / it survived, this stubborn language, by withdrawing, / by hiding away like a hedgehog.”

The language’s insularity, among other factors, however, meant that euskera was comparatively late in developing a literary culture (and here I mean “literary” in the sense of writing, printing, and publishing stories, poems, plays, histories, essays, etc.). The prologue laments that in the first four centuries of the age of print, its speakers produced only a hundred books in their mother tongue: “its sleep was long, its bibliography brief.” The consequence, as Atxaga explains in an autobiographical note, was that writers born well into the twentieth century “set off with very little baggage” at the start of their careers: “We looked into our bundles and found only five, at most ten, books written in the language we were trying to write in…by the time I was twenty-three, I had read all the Basque literature that the dictator [Francisco Franco] had not managed to burn.”

This scenario is allegorized in the first extract, taken from Obabakoak’s longest section, “In Search of the Last Word.” It is a collection within a collection, consisting of tales of various sorts, often set in far-flung locals, delivered by the unnamed narrator, a friend, an uncle, and their acquaintances at the uncle’s tertulia, a monthly salon (“literary gatherings” in the English translation) in the small Basque town of Obaba. (As the prologue notes, Obabakoak means The People of Obaba or Things of Obaba or, less literally, Stories from Obaba.) Interspersed between the tales are meditations on the art of storytelling—such as the one from which I have taken the first excerpt.

Titled “How to Plagiarize,” the piece relates the uncle’s dream that has converted him to plagiarism, he having previously been a stout advocate of originality in writing. As seen in the extract, the dream revolves around Axular, a seventeenth-century cleric whose sophisticated prose has earned him the title “the Basque Cervantes.” Axular reveals to the dreamer the loneliness of the island, which is euskera, and then chides its speakers for their lack of literary output. He then counsels plagiarism as a strategy to increase production: “You can finish twenty works of plagiarism in the time it takes to produce one creative work,” the spirit urges. “And because the qualities of the original serve as a guide and an aid, you often get very fine results, which is not always the case with creative texts.”

The dream vision and the uncle’s ensuing efforts to compile principles of plagiarism are, of course, laughable. Yet behind the episode lies Axtaga’s real experience growing up as a writer with scant literary inheritance. In the autobiographical note, he observes that a “literary language develops over time and through the labors of many people.” He cites the example of words that a literary tradition makes “invisible” such as the phrases that typically demarcate conversation. While “he said” (esan) or “he replied” (erantzun) are not obtrusive in euskera, “he retorted” (arrapostu) is “because this word is not familiar to the reader.” Thus, the Basque writer composes knowing that basic conventions in other literary languages will be “stumbling blocks” in his own.

Yet the absence of a local tradition is counterbalanced, Atxaga argues, by imports from abroad. Modern Basque writers have “the whole of the literary past […] at our disposal.” “[A]ny writer is free to create his own tradition,” Atxaga continues, “He can read The Arabian Nights one day and Moby Dick or Kafka’s Metamorphosis the next…and those works, the spirit in which they communicate, will immediately pass into his own life and works as a writer.” That freedom is everywhere evident in “In Search of the Last Word,” in which The Arabian Nights, Moby Dick, Kipling, Shakespeare, Marco Polo, and fairy tales are explicitly referenced and implicit references (to Borges, Calvino, among many others) abound. Appropriately enough, the dream vision in “How to Plagiarize” flagrantly plagiarizes Dante, beginning in a “wild forest, dense and inhospitable,” with wild beasts “[swarming] on all sides.” The words I’ve quoted in the excerpt closely follow the script of Dante’s first encounter with the shade of Virgil in the opening canto of Inferno.

As the critic Eugenio Suarez-Galban has wisely observed, Obabakoak presents us with a literary paradox: “Originally written in a minority language and, in theory, dealing with a small rural village, [the book] can truly claim world literature as its precursor.” Atxaga’s access to world literature, however, requires a compromise—one the author is happy to make—with Spanish, for it is only through that “world language” that he was able to assemble his personal literary tradition and, later, to send Obabakoak out into the world. For the first translation of Obabakoak was Atxaga’s own Spanish version, and that text has served as the basis of the twenty-seven subsequent translations, including the English one excerpted above. Obabakoak has been characterized as an instant classic of euskera, and deservedly so; but it is also a work of translation, through and through. Indeed, translation has a claim to being its native literary language.

My second excerpt takes a different stance on these questions. Lewis Grassic Gibbon set his Sunset Song (1932)—the first novel in his famed trilogy, A Scots Quair—in the fictional parish of Kinraddie in the northeast Scottish county of Mearns. The local language is Scots (or, as Rob prefers in the extract, “Scotch”), a language which derives from the same family tree as modern English, the two having begun to grow apart in the Middle Ages.

But as Rob insists in the passage that I’ve quoted, Scots has its own, distinctive word hoard for which no true English equivalent can be found. To “sotter” is to simmer, boil slowly, to “bubble or sputter in cooking” (reports the Dictionaries of the Scots Language, source for all the forthcoming information). “Greip” is a ditch for draining a field or, more specifically, a gutter in a cowshed. “Smore” is a word replete with meanings: It can denote smothering, or stifling more generally; it can signify being smothered; it can be used of extinguishing a light, confining someone or something, or covering up; it can mean issuing in a stifling cloud. As a noun, it designates a “thick close atmosphere, which seems to stifle one, one of full of smoke, swirling snow, fine drizzling rain or mist, whirling dust.” “White hillocks of the shape of eggs,” J. M. Barrie wrote of recent snow. “The farm-towns look to me to be smored.”

“Pleiter” (also spelled “plowter”) is another gem. It can mean to work or act aimlessly, “to potter or fiddle about;” to dabble something in a liquid; or to dabble one’s own hands or feet in a liquid, to splash about, or “wade messily through wet ground.” In its noun form, it describes working in the muck (“dirty jobs,” we might say); a splash, dash, or plash; a marsh, bog, or mire; sloppy food; or a messmaker on the job, “a muddler, sloven, botcher.” “Glanching” is giving a sour or sullen look, frowning, or furrowing one’s brows. “ “Henspeckled” (or “kenspeckled”) signifies being easily recognizable or conspicuous. “My phiz [face] is sae kenspeckle,” Robert Burns wrote to a friend, “that the very joiner’s apprentice…knew it at once.”

To borrow a phrase from the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, Rob is compiling an “anti-desecration phrasebook” here; he’s calling attention to the uniqueness of local terms and the knowledge of the world—above all, the natural world—embedded in them. These words, moreover, do not simply draw their power from the land. They are also rich with literary associations, as Rob knows. This is especially evident in the case of the word about which Rob is most defensive: “gloaming.” It is not the English “sunset” because “gloaming” was Burn’s choice when meditating on aging: “When ance life’s day draws near the gloamin, Then fareweel vacant, careless roamin.” It is not sunset because its conventional literary color is gray: “Singin’ frae the dawn o’ mornin’,” Alexander Douglas wrote in 1806, “Till it’s near the gloamin grey.” It is not “sunset” because at this hour comes the “gloamin-shot,” the time between the ceasing of the workman’s labors and the lighting of candles to fend off the dark. It is not “sunset” because it could, by extension, describe a dusky shade at any hour: “And in the gloamin o’ the wood,” the poet William Motherwell wrote in 1832, “The throssil [thrush] whusslit sweet.” In short, “gloaming” is a keyword in the Scotch literary language; twilight marks time by a different tradition.

Gibbon does not, however, give Rob the last word. Gordon, the son of a crofter who now owns a large farm, gives the worldly-wise reply: “If folk are to get on in the world nowadays, away from the ploughshafts and out of the pleiter, they must use the English.” Gordon’s point is that English is the ticket out of the muck. Scots may be true to the land and its poetic past, but English opens doors in the cities to the south. At this, Gibbon reports, some agreed: “You’d do better at almost anything else, folks that could send their lads to learn a trade were right wise, no doubt of that, there was nothing on the land but work, work, work, and chave, chave, chave, from the blink of day till the fall of night, no thanks from the soss [slop] and sotter, and hardly a living to be made.”

For his part, Gibbon strikes a middle course in the language of the novel. Siding with Rob, the author uses Scots words so frequently that they become familiar. Rarely does he pause to translate (thus, the reader must rely heavily on contextual clues, especially at the outset). The rhythms of Scots are evident in the syntax throughout. Nearly every sentence of the narration, though, has a recognizably English infrastructure. Critics have dubbed the book’s language “artificial Scots.” (One scholar laments that it is “exasperatingly anglicized, neither one thing nor another.”) Gibbon thus made a compromise of his own, providing sufficient English footing for a wider readership to venture into the Scots’ world of his characters.

In this way, Gibbon’s Scots-English, if you will, recalls Axtaga’s decision to render Obabakoak in Spanish. Though locating their stories within minority language communities, both writers imagined audiences outside their immediate environs. They made translation a part of their practices of the art of the fiction. Good stories have always found a way to slip over borders. In these cases, the writers gave their books a push.