Professor Translates Popular Basque Tome to English
Visiting assistant professor Nere Lete in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures recently translated internationally acclaimed author Bernardo Atxaga’s “Two Basque Stories” into English. The book, separated into two moving novellas, examines traditional and contemporary Basque culture, the lessons of family, the elegance of ordinary things and the challenge of living in two worlds. The paperback translation was published recently by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Lete received her B.A. in Basque philology from Spain’s University of Deusto and her MFA in translation from the University of Iowa. While Basque is her “mother tongue,” she also is a native Spanish speaker, is fluent in English and studied French for many years. As an educator, she has held positions in the Basque Country at the Renteria Municipal Basque Language School and in the U.S. at the University of Nevada, Reno, University of Iowa and Boise State, where she has taught on and off since 1993 and now directs the Basque minor program.
Lete’s connection to Bernardo Atxaga began many years ago in his kitchen in the Basque Country.
“That day I went to ask his permission to translate this work as part of my master’s thesis. I thought it would take 10 minutes to get the yes or the no, but he was very welcoming, and I stayed for a couple hours chatting with him,” Lete said. “I was star-struck. He is the first Basque writer awarded the Spanish National Prize in Narrative for his novel, ‘Obabakoak,’ which has been translated into 25 languages — quite an achievement for any writer.”
The setting for “Two Basque Stories” is Boise, where Atxaga’s main character Old Martin lives. An 80-year-old Basque sheepherder, Old Martin receives two letters from the old country that stir his memory, making him reflect on what seem like separate lives.
“Old Martin is a Basque man, but his story encompasses the universal emigrant mentality that all of us who live away from our home countries relate to internally,” Lete said, adding that her thesis work on location in Boise allowed her to hear the stories of many “Old Martins” at the local Basque Museum and Cultural Center.
While most literature translated from Basque first is translated to Spanish, Lete skipped the middleman, interpreting Atxaga’s words directly.
“It is like getting a cup of tea made out of the first brewing, full of flavor,” she said, admitting that capturing the essence of another person’s writing is a serious challenge that requires maintaining the integrity of the original work and managing multiple languages and literary traditions. “If we accept as true the Latin aphorism, traductore traditore, meaning that the translator is a traitor to the original work, then any effort to convey a work in another language is doomed from the very beginning, and I don’t accept that. Translation opens a window to an author’s world that otherwise would be closed tight to anyone who didn’t speak the language of the original.”
Currently, Lete is collaborating with Boise’s Basque Museum and Cultural Center on the creation of an exhibit for the Ellis Island Immigration Museum titled, “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Basques.” The exhibit will show the journey Basques took to come to the United States and particularly the American West.
To learn more about the English translation of “Two Basque Stories,” visit this link.
By the way, the exhibit at Ellis Island sounds quite interesting, almost more interesting than the fact that one of Atxaga's books being translated into English.
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