Savagely clear-eyed: An interview with writer, flamenco singer, and literary translator Amaia Gabantxo by Mihaela Moscaliuc
Mihaela Moscaliuc: You are the most prolific and attentive translator and promotor of Basque literature, and have translated works by Harkaitz Cano, Miren Agur Meabe, Gabriel Aresti, Bernardo Atxaga, Unai Elorriaga, and Kirmen Uribe, among others. Perhaps acts of translation are always acts of community service, but some feel more necessary and urgent than others. As a translator, you are an artist, but you are also performing important political work—work of diplomacy, the work of a cultural ambassador. Would you talk a bit about the political and activist aspects of the work you do?
Amaia Gabantxo: The most immediate way of understanding a culture, a people, is through its art. There’s something we receive from art that informs, educates and produces echoes within us like nothing else. Nothing brings you closer to someone from a different culture, nothing makes you empathize more. A painting, a poem, a film, a sculpture, a song, can take you places you may never visit on your own, or spark connections and memories and beautiful or monstrous things that are barely there for a second and then leave you, but leave something behind, things that are evanescent but pervasive. Art plants seeds in us.
For me, translating Basque literature is activist, ambassadorial work because I understand the power of literature to reveal. You don’t exist unless you are seen. And I want the Basque people, our language, Euskara, to be seen, our perspective to count. Because it’s very different, because it’s old. Because it has survived the unsurvivable, and keeps going. It holds value and knowledge, and defiance. Not just for us Basque people, but for the world. It’s an artifact from antiquity. Euskara is a very, very old language, the oldest one, perhaps, in Europe. Many of its words show this: bihotz, heart, two+sounds; ilargi, moon, dead+light; oroitarri, monument, memory+stone; maitemindu, to fall in love, love+pain. It often feels savagely clear-eyed in its way of taking in the world. Take for instance the word for memory, oroimen, which is so close to the word for nostalgia, oroimin. Or my favorite word in the whole Basque language, gogo, which can mean mind, memory, will or longing, depending on how you use it. And this makes sense because those four things, when you really think about it, are related. I love that my mother tongue makes me think about that.
The fact that Basque still exists and it’s a thriving, growing language with an increasingly diverse and interesting literary and musical output, when it was endangered 40 years ago, is in itself a powerful activist message. It’s a message of hope and recovery, and an example that offers a roadmap to other Indigenous and oppressed languages that find themselves on the edge of extinction. Even the fact that I am here today translating Basque literature into English is part of that history of recovery. I belong to the first generation of children who were able to receive an education in Basque; I benefited from the EU’s system of grants for European college students studying across European states—and being a native speaker of Basque helped me get those grants. For me, translating Basque literature into English is part of the ongoing project to protect and inject life into the Basque language. What I’m building with my output of literary translations is external supportive scaffolding for the edifice of Basque culture that many other writers, academics, linguists and artists have been building within the Basque Country for more than a hundred years, and especially since the years of the dictatorship, when we were almost disappeared. I think that what I am doing now, translating all this Basque literature into English, exists within that narrative arc of recovery.
I often also talk about linguistic diversity, and how important it is for the cultural ecology of the world. If we are capable of understanding how important it is that we look after even the smallest of species—insects—for the health of our planet, why are we not equally able to understand that keeping the smaller languages and cultures alive is just as important for the health of our planet and our shared consciousness? Everything on the planet is part of a perfectly balanced system: not just the air, the water, the plants and the animals. As we disappear parts of this system, we kill it by a thousand cuts. We need to start to have conversations about subjects like cultural genocide or linguistic rewilding. This might sound radical, but I think people should question the rightness of speaking only one language—and a dominant, oppressor language at that. Just as people plant wildflowers in their gardens to help the bees, shouldn’t we all be making efforts to bring back endangered languages, help them thrive? Imagine if Indigenous languages were taught in US and Canadian schools as a second (or primary!) language as a matter of policy. Not only is second-language acquisition proven to increase brain-muscle, but, as I tell my students, bringing back Indigenous languages would bring back and proliferate a lot of dormant Indigenous knowledge. And this we urgently need to help deal with the climate crisis, among other things.
MM: You speak Basque (Euskara), Spanish, English, French, and you also perform (in) the richly textured language of Flamenco. What is your relationship with these languages and their relationship with one another? Have intimacies and/or tensions evolved, devolved, or shifted over time?
AG: I love being a polyglot. It’s the best gift. And it’s true, I consider music another language. All my languages inform one another. I always tell my students that every language you speak (including music, including coding, including proficiency at a sport) affords you a perspective into the world, a different pathway into reality. Maybe it’s because I’m a translator and this means that I look at languages very closely, and I’m also a singer, so I’m always thinking about positioning the architecture of my mouth and throat for better sound, but I do feel that over time I’ve become more intimate with my languages. I observe their etymologies, I watch how they inhabit my mouth, where the tongue goes, how the lips purse, how much air a word requires. All of these elements inhabit the word, its journey into the world. They tell a story. I often think of words as archeological sites.
But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. There’s something dark and complex about my relationship with my languages too. I was a very bookish child, and writing and reading in English liberated me from the guilt I felt about reading mostly in Spanish (not that much had been translated into Basque when I was growing up, and my parents’ library was populated by books in Spanish, mostly), about feeling more “literary” in Spanish—the language of our oppressors—than in Basque. About my never-good-enough French, which I always felt should have been as good as my Spanish—since the Basque Country was colonized by France and Spain, I always thought appropriating both of our colonizers’ languages equally proficiently provided a redemptive sense of poetic justice. After all that linguistic trauma, my BA in English and Irish Literature (Ulster University) felt like a never-ending freedom party. After that, being able to translate Basque into English gave me a sense of purpose, the satisfaction of making a contribution, paying back a debt to all those people who labored underground during Franco’s regime to safeguard Euskara at the risk of their own and their families’ well-being. And then, miraculously, singing flamenco reconciled me with the Spanish language, took me deeper into it. Flamenco lyrics are gorgeous. A powerful philosophy of life is buried within them and in those intelligent beats. Singing flamenco has given a lot of structure and emotional range to my voice, and this has bled into my writing, inevitably. I’ve understood things both raw and mathematical about life and art through this musical form that could never have come to me through academia, or through books, or through anything else that I know or can imagine.
So, yes, all these languages. After many years of conflicted feelings toward all of them, this difficulty in positioning them by order of priorities… my mother tongue, my stepmother tongue, my aunt tongue, my cousin tongue… I’ve come to this happy place within where I’m able to tell myself: You know what? They’re all mine. I earned every single one of them. And I love them all.
MM: You have been working on Kantauri: An Anthology of Female Basque Poets, which is coming out next year. I’m anticipating it with much excitement. I would think this has been a huge endeavor, deeply rewarding. Are you selecting and translating all the poems yourself? Would you talk a bit about the process of finding and choosing the works, the range of voices that you discovered, and some of the surprises, maybe? Were there poems that presented particular challenges?
AG: This project has been in my mind for 6 or 7 years, and I couldn’t be happier that Parthian said yes to publishing it, and that the Basque Government gave us financing to put it together. Around 2014, I started realizing that almost everything I’d translated in those first 12 years of my career had been written by men. I started trying to get more commissions for books by female writers, to demand that more women writers be represented in the anthologies I was being asked to translate, and hitting walls everywhere. I couldn’t believe it; I couldn’t believe this was happening in 2014, in 2015, even in projects led by women. I realized I would have to make things happen myself if I wanted Basque women represented in the literary world. That’s when the itch to get this anthology out started.
Simultaneously I was thinking all this, in the Basque Country, things changed very quickly. The focus, currently, is on female writers. More books written by women than by men have been published in Basque in the last few years, and women writers sell more books than their male counterparts. This beautiful and powerful turn in literature—even if it’s in the context of a tiny literary system—is something to celebrate. So I want Kantauri to be an echo of that. And I want this anthology to represent the past, present, and future directions of Basque poetry written by women in Basque, and from inception I decided to ditch all the usual parameters (number of publications, awards received, steadiness of career) in the selection process, because those parameters are a patriarchal construct, and they make for a privilege-based system. I wanted to include women at the start of their careers, women who’d published lots, women who’d given up publishing poetry—and I wanted to include improvised verse singers like Oihana Iguaran and the rapper Ningra. Historically, the Basque oral tradition kept the language and the culture alive during the the most difficult years of the dictatorship, so I wanted women who practice oral poetic forms to be represented in this anthology too.
I enjoy translating anything, really. Every poem presents itself as sort of abstract mathematical equation that I need to resolve, so I’m not very good at establishing what poses a challenge. Everything is a challenge, and everything is fun. However, I did surprise myself with the intensity of my feelings when it came to strategizing the anthology. I knew everything I didn’t want, with a passion, and eventually I was able to tell myself that that was a good starting point: the no, eza, is the Basque goddess Mayi’s starting point too. She feeds on it. I think a lot of women have been nourished by no throughout history. It’s not that bad a starting point when you think about it.
Another win for me, when it comes to this anthology, is that the Basque artist Erlea Maneros Zabala has contributed her art for our cover. Thanks to this, I feel that Kantauri: An Anthology of Basque Female Poets, will enter this world as an artifact as much as a literary object, and it’ll be made entirely by Basque women. I love that.
MM: Would you say a few words about the translated poems featured in this issue of Plume?
AG: I hope that these six poems will give readers a small glimpse of the range of voices that will feature in the anthology. These are six of the eighteen poets that will feature in it. I have tried to show you works from very different poets; Arantxa Urretabizkaia, the elder in the group, is an actress as well as a poet and novelist, and I always get a sense of the stage in her work, of a visual proposition and its progression. Miren Agur Meabe is a poet with an incredible lyrical range that can move from the mundane to the high-flown, and then to the raw and unguarded. Karmele Jaio’s poetry is observational, deals with the fundamentals, presents them in a singularly illuminating light. Castillo Suarez is the poet in the woods who’s retreated into a cabin, and comes to terms with the end of love through observing trees and their behaviors, their inhabitants and architectures. Leire Bilbao is a coastal poet— a poet of the sea, of ships and sails in turbulent waters. Alaine Agirre is one of the youngest poets in the anthology: her poems are unapologetic, nonchalant about the darker aspects of life, and vivid with the beauty of neurodivergence.
MM: Your translations bring out the originals’ inherent music, if in modified form. They have extraordinary melodic qualities. Is Euskara a particularly melodious language? Do you prioritize a poem’s music in the process of translation? Are the spirit and music of a poem always closely interconnected?
I am a very musical person. I experience all language as sound and melody, so my translations are sort of musical transpositions as much as everything else. It’s true also that Euskara is a very melodious language. It’s agglutinative, which means that suffixes pile up at the end of nouns and verbs. This means, on the one hand, that you can have one single word pregnant with a lot of meaning and, on the other, that poets can have a lot of fun rhyming, with all those suffix-pileups. So yes, Euskara is particularly well suited for poetry making. Basque poetry is always aurally enticing.
As for whether the spirit and music of a poem are interconnected, I think they are. In my mind, the music of the poem relates as much to how the poem sounds as to how the poem moves—how its meaning moves, what that conjures up in terms of movement— emotional and sonic movement. Words have bodies, they are bodily entities, they occupy the air in particular ways. You have to play with all of it, all of the textures and movements and sounds of the poem, not just the lexical meaning. I find that so reductive, so sad and small, when someone just translates “the meaning” of the words on the page. What is meaning, anyway? Where does it reside? Focusing on the idea of lexical meaning shrinks the heart of a poem. It’s wrong.
AG: I have watched the beautiful Basque video-poems that you produced during the pandemic. Was there anything in particular, during the pandemic, that led to this project?
The #basquevideopoems project was born soon after the start of the 2020 Covid-19 quarantine. In the early days of the pandemic, I saw a home video of the Basque author Bernardo Atxaga reading “Adam eta Bizitza” (“Adam & Life”) at his kitchen table during lockdown, drinking coffee, and thought, what a perfect poem for the pandemic: it’s about Adam and Eve’s first flu after they leave paradise. I had translated that poem into English, for the anthology 6 Basque Poets, which was published by Arc Publications in the UK in 2007. So I decided to make a video-poem with it. Once I’d done that one, another poem from the same anthology kept calling me, Ricardo Arregi’s “66 Lines from the City Under Siege,” a poem about the poet’s empathy for an alternate self sheltering in a city under siege very much like his own. I felt that was me in my little loft in the South Side of Chicago, thinking of my family and friends in other cities across the world, sheltering in place too. So I did that one as well, and in the process realized I had a project. I would take one poem from each poet in the anthology, selecting poems that spoke to the pandemic, and make six Basque video-poems for the Covid-19 gods, as an offering. I told myself I would do a video-poem weekly. The #basquevideopoems project became, ultimately, a sort of diary of pandemic feelings, and my very personal method of maintaining sanity. I ended up making 7 videopoems, by the way. 6 + 1 bonus track.
Thinking back now, I can’t believe that I made all those video-poems between April 3rd and May 16th 2020. I produced them in a sort of blind fever. I guess I was trying to stay sane and contribute something beautiful, soothing, enduring, at a time of so much distress.
MM: You did manage that for sure. The video-poems console and soothe and also cut to the core. It’s so interesting to think of them also as offerings, as poetic hecatombs of sorts.
You are an interdisciplinary artist whose creative ingenuity and curiosity seem to be constantly at work searching, probing, experimenting, rearticulating and reframing. Are you working on any other projects besides the anthology and the video-poems?
AG: I’m translating two other books: Miren Agur Meabe’s Burning Bones, a collection of her short stories (for Parthian too), which is a companion piece to her novel A Glass Eye (Parthian, 2018), and Old Dogs, Old Bones by Unai Elorriaga, for Archipelago Books. These two books, along with the anthology, will come out in 2021 and 2022. I’m also working on a collection of hybrid essays; one piece, “Bele & Zozo” was published in the Massachusetts Review in the recent Spring issue, and another piece, “Of Bats & People,” is forthcoming in the same journal soon. These are essayistic fictionalized memoir pieces sprinkled with bits of literary translation. Each one is about a Basque author—and about other things too, such as domestic violence, neurodiversity, war and intergenerational trauma. I’m also working on what I call a novel in flamenco form, which is structured like a playlist, a concert in two sets; each “chapter” has a flamenco lyric (song) as a point of departure. This is a hybrid musical-literary project. I want to record the songs that initiate each chapter for readers to be able to listen to them.
On the less-literary and more musical side, I’m creating a soundscape with the Basque improvised verse singer Oihana Iguaran. It’s for a project in Wales. I can’t say too much about it, but I’m very inspired by what we’re doing. It feels like a new form. It will incorporate music, spoken word, and recordings from the natural world, including the underwater world—which I inhabit almost daily since I started free-diving 10 months ago. I just bought a hydrophone, and, honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about a piece of equipment. So much happens in the oceans… and we don’t have the smallest clue. It’s very exciting to feel this clueless and intrigued about something so old and so… everywhere.
Six Basque Female Poets from Kantauri: An Anthology of Female Basque Poets, edited and translated by Amaia Gabantxo (Parthian, UK, 2022).
“Poem 24,” from Txoriak etortzen ez diren lekua (Erein, 2017)
but something like pewter
where our faces stare back at us misshapen,
the monsters that we are
more monstrous still.
I guess they’d like to avoid
us breaking the mirrors
and slicing our wrists
with the fragments.
Or maybe they want to ensure
we don’t stare at ourselves for too long
and get frightened.
ez dira ispilu
estainu antzeko bat baizik
non gure buruak deformatuak agertzen diren
eta beira zatiekin
ebitatu nahiko dute.
Edo geure buruari begira geratzea
behar baino gehiago
izutu ez gaitezen.
“Washing Machine,” from Scanner (Susa, 2011)
I bought a washing machine the day you died.
When I opened the porthole
my feet got wet,
The water took me by surprise.
Blue rivers run through my breasts, you know that,
saltwater overspills out of my mouth.
The washing machine’s hatchway looked out to sea,
and suddenly in between the soap and the mop up
I knew the waves had taken you,
I put my fingers inside the machine’s drum
and looked for you in vain.
I cried out of my mouth
my ears my belly button
my hands my skin,
and now I have dead rivers in my veins,
and a new washing machine.
Zu hil zinen egunean labadora bat erosi nuen.
oinak busti zitzaizkidan,
ezustean harrapatu ninduen urak.
Erreka urdinak ditut bularrean, badakizu,
itsasoak gainezka egiten dit ahotik.
Labadoraren eskotillatik itsasoari begira izan zen,
bat-batean xaboi eta trapu artean
olatuak eraman zintuela jakin nuen,
garbigailu barrura atzamarrak sartu
Eta zure bila aritu nintzen alferrik.
Ahotik egin nuen negar
eta orain hildako ibaiak ditut zainetan,
eta labadora berri bat.
“We have dead ones now,” from Orain hilak ditugu (Elkar, 2015)
We have dead ones now.
a dead mom or dad.
Now we know
what to do,
who to call,
a flower garland costs.
out of our hands,
and lizard tails
inside our grasp.
Now the geraniums in the balcony are dead
and we throw them in the dumpster
red plant pot and all.
Back then we were with someone,
someone would call our names
and we’d say
Now a friend calls you,
when rarely anyone calls you,
asking for help.
Her partner’s threatened her
and she’s alone
We’re alone now.
The dead are our friends now,
And we know what to do.
Back then we didn’t know how to ride a bike.
We still don’t.
“Orain Hilak Ditugu”
Orain hilak ditugu.
hildako ama edo aita.
zer egin behar den,
zenbat balio duen
hegan irteten ziren
eta gure atzamarren artean
bizirik irauten zuen
Orain balkoiko geranioak hil zaizkigu,
eta zakarrontzira bota ditugu
loreontzi gorri eta guzti.
Orduan norbaitekin ginen,
norbaitek gure izena esan
Orain lagun batek deitu dizu,
inork deitzen ez dizunean,
Bikote ohiak mehatxatu du
eta bakarrik dago
Orain bakarrik gaude.
Orain hilak ditugu lagun,
eta badakigu zer egin behar den.
Orduan ez genekien bizikletan ibiltzen.
Orain ere ez.
MIREN AGUR MEABE
“Instructions for walking around the city of Bilbao,” from Hogei urte hutsa dira (Planeta Clandestino 212, 2019)
Hold the rope.
Hold the rope so you don’t get lost in the crossroads.
Feel the damp.
Feel the damp in your shoes and inside your eyes,
it’s what causes the weight of souls to gather mostly in bridges.
Think parallels, see railings and look diagonally at those lying on sidewalks, at their
I’m a piece of shit, might just as well never been born.
Listen to the symphony of parks
choking the birds and castrating tree seedlings one bite at a time.
Walk through church porticos.
Walk through church porticos, and go from altar to altar seeking solace
like a wandering Dido tangled in the shadows.
Swallow spit when you ask the server in a square surrounded by little mansions
Something that’ll take me to Shangri-la? Excuse me, did you say tequila?
Oh, just something strong with olivas…
Live in museums for a while.
Live threads of centuries in aprons covered in scales, in baskets
full of trash.
Rub your breasts.
Rub those two angels of abandoned flesh
and inhabit the skin of those who learned to burn every candle.
Oh to be loved by the city that singsongs I’m a box, I’m a zoo, I’m a folder:
there’s always room for another beast here, as in God’s little black book.
Check that your wings are on, know there are no golden apples in the dark.
Count the toes left on your feet, sick dove.
And hold the rope, hold the rope, hold the rope.
“Hirian ibiltzeko jarraibideak”
Soka ukitu bide-gurutzeetan ez galtzeko.
Umeltasuna igarri zapatetan eta begien barruan,
arimaren pisuari zubietan biltzera dei egiten dion zer hori.
Paraleloan pentsatu errailek bezala eta diagonalki begiratu
espaloian etzandakoari, mantari, ardo-brickari, txakurrari,
kakaputza naiz, hobe nukeen sekula jaio izan ez banintz.
Parkeetako sinfonia aditu.
Parkeetako sinfonia aditu txoriak urkatuz
eta zuhaitzen kimuak hozkadaka zikiratuz.
Arkupeak zeharkatu eta aldarez aldare jardun soseguaren bila,
itzalean artean alderrai dabilen Didoren pareko.
Listua irentsi jauretxe arteko plaza bateko kamareroari galdetzean
ekarrikoaldidazutilabatzikutarekin? barkatu, tekila bat?, ezgildabat.
Tarte batez museoetan bizi.
Mendeen pildarrak bizi eztakadun amantaletan, burdin brintzaz beteriko otzaretan.
Haragi abandonatuzko aingeru bi horiek igurtzi eta
bela-oihalak erretzen ikasitako emeen larruan jarri.
Hiriaren gogokoa izan nahi izan, ahapeka kantuan ari delarik
kutxa bat naiz, zoo bat naiz, karpeta bat naiz:
hemen beti dago tokia beste pizti batentzat, Jainkoaren zerrendetan legez.
Hegoak jantzita dituzula egiaztatu,
jakinik ilunpean ez dela urrezko sagarrik.
Oinetan geratzen zaizkizun behatzak zenbatu, uso gaixoa.
Eta soka ukitu, soka ukitu, soka ukitu.
“I left” from Irautera (Elkar, 2019)
I left because I wanted to stay.
Hide my wounds,
cry in theaters,
find you in songs
stare at the calendar,
be born of a bison,
try to see you again,
sleep under two blankets,
fuck a co-worker,
wear your t-shirts to bed,
open the postbox.
I left because you wanted me to stay.
Joan nintzen geratu nahi nuelako.
Antzokietan negar egin,
Kantetan zure bila aritu,
Bisoi batez erditu,
Berriz zu ikusten saiatu,
Bi edredoi erabili,
Lankide bati larrua jo,
Zure t-shirtekin lo egin,
Joan nintzen geratzea nahi zenuelako.
“Palm Trees” xx. Mendeko Poesia Kaierak (Susa, 2000)
Sometimes you wish
you lived in a warmer country.
Right here, for example,
in this country
whose mere name
fills your mouth with the taste of fruit,
where palm trees
magnify the faintest flutter of air.
It seems to you
that rain eats away your colors
that sometimes you need
warmth without surprises
a star that won’t hide.
Sometimes you wish you lived
in a warmer country.
But come a spring morning
in seeing the line of the horizon
swim among the soft clouds
you think, dreamily,
that in this light there’s no room for fundamentalism,
that’s something that happens only in sunny climates.
And just then the clamour of thunder
whips the skies and the earth.
Batzuetan, gustatuko litzaizuke
herri epelago batean bizitzea.
Hementxe bertan, adibidez,
ahoa fruta zaporez
betetzen duen herri honetan,
palmondoak haize izpirik ahulena biderkatzen.
euriak jan egiten dizkizula koloreak
noizean behin sorpresarik gabeko epeltasuna
kale egiten ez duen izarra.
Batzuetan, gustatuko litzaizuke
herri epelago batean bizitzea.
Baina udaberriko goiz batean
zerumuga laino goxoen artean igeri ikusterakoan
pentsatuko duzu, ametsetan,
argi honetan ez dagoela lekurik
hori herri eguzkitsuetan gertatzen dela bakarrik.
Orduan, trumoi izugarri batek
zigortuko ditu zeru lurrak.
Amaia Gabantxo is a writer, singer and literary translator specialized in Basque literature—a pioneer in the field and its greatest contributor. Her translations of Unai Elorriaga’s Old Dogs, Old Bones (Archipelago Books) and Miren Agur Meabe’s Burning Bones (Parthian) are forthcoming in 2021 and 2022, as is Kantauri: An Anthology of Female Basque Poets, which she’s editing and translating for Parthian. Her most recent hybrid memoir/essay pieces about Basque authors and flamenco are published in the Massachusetts Review, The New Engagement and in Words Without Borders. Her album KANTUZ: 1931, recorded in Chicago, was released in 2019. To watch her pandemic Basque videopoems go to www.amaiagabantxo.com