Talking Translation | Sophie Buchaillard interviews Amaia Gabantxo

Talking Translation | In Conversation with Amaia Gabantxo

Author Sophie Buchaillard spoke to multi-disciplinary artist and translator Amaia Gabantxo about her work translating the recently released Burning Bones by Miren Agur Meabe. Their conversation spans artistic callings, the nuances of translation, and representation of female authors in minority languages.

Amaia Gabantxo is an author, singer and lecturer at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago who splits her time between the US and the Basque Country where she translates Basque fiction and poetry from Basque into English, including A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe published by Parthian in 2018. She received the Jury’s Commendation in the BCLA Literary Translation Competition in 2000, and the 2018 Laboral-Kutxa Literary Translation Prize. She is currently translating Burning Bones, a short-story collection by Meabe, as well as editing Basque Female Poets: An Anthology, the first collection to bring the wealth of contemporary female Basque poets to the public. 

Sophie Buchaillard: You are a musician, a translator and a writer – you have many strings to your bow. Did all those avenues develop together to feed your work?

Amaia Gabantxo: I come from a family of fabulous musicians and I was classically trained, but it took me a while to realise it was all part of the same love. Until four or five years ago, I had it all separate. One was the music box, the other was the literary translation and writing box, and over there was the academic box. I was compartmentalising these three areas in my life. And then I realised that what keeps pushing me is always the words, and building art with those words, whether it is on the written page or whether it is sang. Everything I sing is chosen because of its lyrical context. I can’t sing what I can’t feel. 

Sophie Buchaillard: Do you think you came to words because you grew up in a place of conflict? I guess you become a translator to unpick the meaning of things.

Amaia Gabantxo: Definitely. There is this anecdote in my family: as a child, I could only speak Basque. Then my older cousins started going to school and when they came back, they spoke Spanish. Apparently, I told my mother what do you mean there are other languages? I need to learn them all, immediately. I had an early fascination for the possibility of languages, and the structure of sounds. My father and my uncles were fishermen, out at sea in Africa, in the Middle East, in America. They were using other languages in their work and bringing people from all over the world to our lives. One of my uncles would come from Korea and bring all those objects and artworks. He would sing to us in Korean. So, there was always the Basque and the Spanish and the French of course, and then there were people from Africa who worked with my father. All those experiences contributed to making me and gave me the confidence to take the leap and go to Northern Ireland to study translation.

Sophie Buchaillard: Do you see similarities between the Basque Country and Wales? 

Amaia Gabantxo: Of course. Because of my indigenous condition, I look at the world a certain way. You don’t go through life giving yourself labels, but there was a key moment when Literature Across Frontiers invited me to go to Istanbul for a conference that took place in 2010 about minority languages in Europe. We were asked to develop links with the Kurdish community and educate people in how to maintain, develop and protect their language. The conference helped me realise I was part of a much bigger picture, that there was all those minority languages throughout Europe that were in a very similar position to our own, and that in that context Basque had done pretty well. I realised we could help others. We know how to revive a dying language and develop the structures to help it thrive.

I was the first generation that was able to study in Basque. For that to happen, a lot of linguists and activists had to do a lot of work. Then I realised that I am the first person to translate Basque into English. This happened thanks to a grant I received from the European Union to go and study in Belfast. I feel proud to be part of this infrastructure now, as a translator and an activist, to help preserve and develop minority languages. People are doing the same with Welsh, and with Gaelic in Ireland. For me one of the key responsibilities that has emerged is to link up with other minorities, and to find common goals to help elevate one another.

There is this concept I borrowed from a gallerist friend in Chicago who does a lot of community work. She calls it holding the space. For me, this is key. We have to hold the space for one another to elevate one another. This is why it is so important to me to bring out these books with Parthian and to create new links with others. For example, I will be doing a residency in Newfoundland this year, looking at the link between the Mi’kmaq and Basque languages. There is evidence that the two people met a very long time ago and that influenced the language. I want to remind people of those links.

Sophie Buchaillard: You are also editing a collection of Basque female poets for Parthian. What were you looking for in making the selection?

Amaia Gabantxo: I have been publishing Basque poetry anthologies since 2004, and in all that time I realised that I had barely translated any women. In 2014 in particular, I was commissioned to translate a definite compendium of Basque poetry ranging from 1910 to 2010, but when I received the book of forty poems, only one was from a woman, Miren Agur Meabe. I had already translated her for Parthian, so I approached them again and together we applied for a Basque Government grant to create an anthology specifically dedicated to female Basque poets. You have to understand that there is a wealth of contemporary Basque poets from the 1980s onwards because this is when the language was standardised.

In those years, a lot of new work started to emerge. There was a few I was familiar with. A few others were recommended to me. I read around, found what I liked and made my first selection. Then, I attended an event where I got to collaborate with the improvised verse singer Oihana Iguaran. As she improvised, I translated onto a screen. It was a revelation. I knew I had to include this type of work in the anthology because improvised verse singing is an iconic Basque art tradition. After that, I also included an amazing rapper of Chinese origin who is writing beautiful spoken words in Basque, to show the evolution of the spoken word and its broad spectrum of possibilities. It is hopefully a window on what has happened in the Basque Country since the death of Franco. There is this paradox with the Basque language insofar as it is the oldest language in Europe with the youngest literary culture.

Sophie Buchaillard: How do you approach the translation of poetry? 

Amaia Gabantxo: A work of translation always has two authors. That is particularly true of poetry because the significance goes beyond the page. Poetry brings tenuous connections and echoes between words and reality which are unique to that language and that context. In translation, you have to re-create those rhythms, those echoes, those evocations. The language is only the starting point. It is never entirely a lexical exercise, but an artistic one, too. Poetry is an emotional experience and that is what must be conveyed. With Basque, you also need to be mindful of issues around the colonisation of text. The original becomes a platform from which you are jumping into something else. It aims to be an artistic rendering, not a replica. 

Sophie Buchaillard: You translated A Glass Eye by Miren Agur Meabe, in which she talks about her personal experience of losing an eye in a raw style that is almost brutal. It was gripping. You are now working on her short-story collection Burning Bones. Is there an underlying message in her work?

Amaia Gabantxo: The novel and the short stories are part of a tryptic: A Glass Eye was the first. The second is Burning Bones, and the final part is Nola Gorde Errautsa Kolkoan, a poetry collection as yet to be translated into English. Throughout this work, Miren tries to illuminate the life of a woman artist. She asks how a woman can be an artist in this society? How to make art from this female condition? She tries to identify what we hold on to and how to build from absence? It is beautiful because we don’t have a lot of literature that explores the condition of being a woman artist and generating something where there is nothing is so important, especially in Basque and in Basque written by a woman. 


Sophie Buchaillard is the author of debut novel This Is Not Who We Are. She writes contemporary fiction that reflects on the anxieties of our age, using movement and migration, to connect history with our reality. Her short stories and essays have appeared inWriters & ArtistsThe ByLine TimesWales Arts ReviewThe Friday PoemMurmurations Magazinethe Other Side of Hope and Square Wheel Press and as part of the travel writing collection An Open Door: New Travel Writing for a Precarious Century (Parthian) edited by Steven Lovatt. She co-hosts Writers on Reading – The Podcast.

Burning Bones by Miren Agur Meabe and translated by Amaia Gabantxo is available here.