“Today, more people than ever are publishing in Basque, with a vitality and plurality that deserve to be a point of reference”.
Since 2010, the Etxepare Euskal Institutua has been working to promote the presence and visibility of the Basque language and contemporary Basque creation at an international level, promoting international cooperation, as well as exchange and communication between creators, professionals, agents and institutions. Convinced that language and literature are two of a country’s most important assets, they encourage the dissemination of Basque writers and their works. To this end, among other things, they offer translation grants to make Basque literature known and thus make it accessible to other audiences.
We spoke to Irene Larraza Aizpurua, its director general, to give a brief overview of the situation of Basque literature in the run-up to the forthcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, where Spain is the Guest of Honour.
Could an essence of Basque literature be defined, something that makes it unique with respect to literature created elsewhere and in other languages?
A large part of Basque literature is written in Basque, and this is what I am going to refer to, as it is our priority as an institute to give visibility to the culture created in the Basque language, which must face challenges often unknown or ignored by the hegemonic languages. On the other hand, in the very fact that literature is written in Basque, a minority language but one that is alive and vibrant, lies one of its main particularities and contributions to world literature.
Basque literature has gone from the oral tradition to the reinterpretation of the rural world almost in the key of magical realism in the eighties (Obabakoak, by Bernardo Atxaga…) to the current literature, in which the urban and contemporary realist aesthetic is imposed. In the last three decades, the civil war and the political conflict have had a strong presence. Today, the growing number of female authors and the rise of feminism are bringing other issues and perspectives to the fore. But the uniqueness lies not so much in the themes or aesthetics as in the fact that these three generations are now publishing simultaneously; today more is being published in Basque than ever before, with a vitality and plurality that deserve to be a point of reference.
Who are the best-known Basque authors outside Spain?
Undoubtedly the most translated and internationally known author is Bernardo Atxaga. Other authors such as Kirmen Uribe or Harkaitz Cano have followed in his footsteps and stand out within a group of established creators such as Mariasun Landa, Miren Agur Meabe, Iban Zaldua or Itxaro Borda, and which is growing with the increasing presence of the following generations: Eider Rodriguez, Katixa Agirre, Karmele Jaio, Uxue Alberdi….
“Translators are often the best prescribers of our literature and the best strategy for its dissemination”
Are there any successful strategies when it comes to publicising one’s own lyrics? Is it necessary to rely on a best-seller or is there room for exporting less concrete, but still indigenous elements, such as certain ideas, scenarios, currents…?
The National Literature Prize won by Bernardo Atxaga in 1989 was an indisputable turning point for the take-off of our literature beyond the Basque Country. A leap that would allow his work to become known, first at the national level and later in the world. And it allowed the rest of Basque literature to follow this path.
In other words: first of all, invisibility must be overcome. And then, above all, we need to value literary quality and a voice of our own. To be more specific, it is clear that Basque literature written by women already occupies a space of its own, also in its translations into Spanish. It is very likely that in a few years’ time we will be talking about a current or “brand” of Basque literature based on this sensibility and this subject matter.
What is the main barrier when trying to disseminate a Basque work abroad?
Literature written in Basque always requires translation for its international dissemination; it is an essential step. Beyond one or another promotional strategy, a literature such as Basque literature faces by definition additional challenges… The step of translation from Basque into Spanish is a first step towards visibility and a possible international leap. Even so, authors such as Kirmen Uribe have published work translated directly into English, and there are initiatives – with the support of the Etxepare Basque Institute – that encourage the training of foreign translators to work from the original work in Basque. Translators are often the best prescribers of our literature and the best strategy for its dissemination.
Do you think that audiovisual works have an easier time crossing borders, that the audiovisual can pull on the literary?
There are many film adaptations of literary works in Basque, and they are on the increase. In fact, there are new projects that will be released in the coming months. Basque literature is undoubtedly an important source of inspiration for audiovisual works, and the latter is a very effective vehicle for literary works, as is music or the performing arts, with which literary creation is closely linked.
What is the state of health of Basque publishing houses?
Basque publishers continue to struggle, as they have done to date, to guarantee their sustainability. At the same time, it is very interesting to note the generational change that is taking place in the “historical” publishing houses, which are incorporating very young editors, with a large presence of women; there are also new emerging publishing houses, which bring a renewed vision. The impact of all this will undoubtedly be evident in the coming years.
“Basque literature is an important source of inspiration for the audiovisual work”
It is common for efforts to be focused on exporting certain attractions aimed at encouraging tourism, such as beaches and gastronomy, and not so much on cultural and literary aspects. Do you think that our own culture is cared for and sufficiently supported?
I believe that whatever support is given to culture is meagre, and that it is urgent to reformulate the concepts of investment and return and the narratives by which we define ourselves. It is essential and urgent to value culture as a mechanism for preserving our values, our identity, our critical spirit and our own health as a society. It is the only thing that makes us truly unique and valuable.
Over the last few years, which literary event would you say has been the most useful in terms of promoting Basque literature outside our borders?
I would mention above all the Guadalajara FIL and the Frankfurt and Bologna Fairs, which Basque publishers attend and where we work in parallel to ensure that Basque writers are also represented. On the other hand, a long series of international festivals with which we collaborate regularly and which are accomplices of the Etxepare Basque Institute when it comes to opening “Basque Windows” in their programmes, with the participation of authors and various parallel activities, are fundamental. Among the latter, I would highlight the recent collaborations with the festivals Québec en Touttes Letres and the Edinburgh Book Fair.
Irene Larraza Aizpurua
With a degree in Communication Sciences from the University of Navarra and a long career in the cultural field, she has held various positions of responsibility in the areas of communication and cultural management. She began her professional career as a broadcaster and editor at Herri Irratia. Subsequently, she was in charge of Promotion and Dissemination at the Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea cultural centre in San Sebastian; she held the post of Head of Promotion, Communication and Editorial at the musicians’ representation agency Syntorama; and she worked at Tolosa Town Council as coordinator and director of Culture. Since 2012 she has been part of the Etxepare Euskal Institutua team, first as head of Communication, then as director of Promotion and Dissemination of Culture and, since 2018, she has been the general director.