The Spanish Riveter: Dictionaries and the Railroads: Translating Basque by Elizabeth Macklin

In the Basque Country, there used to be a saying, or a joke, or possibly just a metaphor, to the effect that, no matter where you wanted to go, all trains went to Madrid first. Madrid being the hub of Spain, so that of course you had to go there first, even if it was at an acute angle to where you wanted to go. For the three northern Basque provinces in France, the transfer point would be Paris. In any event, English was not on the map. 

English was not on the map when I first began studying Basque, during a year-long poetry fellowship in Bilbao, in 1999–2000: I was in a total-immersion class, where we all left our mother tongues outside the door. At the first session, we were given two Basque phrases, printed beside the blackboard – ‘What is ________?’ and ‘How do you say ________?’ – and for ten hours a week only, that second blank was allowed to be in erdara, ‘the other language’. For the rest of the students, erdara was Spanish. In my notebook I drew pictures for definitions, trying to get a grip on this language isolate by not relating it to anything verbal. The sensation was similar to being aged two, with that periodic dose of the crankily impatient disorientation of two-year-olds.

I had a Basque-English dictionary in my Bilbao apartment, a bare-bones, 669-page paperback published by the University of Nevada Press, which I’d found in a Barnes & Noble some six months before I left New York. When I got it home, the first thing I did was hunt down the original title of the second Basque novel I’d read in my makeshift preparations for a year of things Basque. On the copyright page of Bernardo Atxaga’s The Lone Man was ‘Gizona bere bakardadean’. Gizon was man; bakardade, solitude; but bere was ‘adj. his (own), her (own), its (own)’. The next column over was berekoi: ‘adj. selfish, self-centred (used with the 3rd person sing.)’. Whereas ‘selfishly adv.’ was ‘berekoiki, neurekoiki, zeurekoiki’, taking care of the first and second persons. Browsing around, I was struck by the number of farming terms, fishing terms, pastoral terms, as if the dictionary catered to the Basque diaspora. It nevertheless had words I needed, like ‘perhaps’ (agian, beharbada, menturaz). For surfacing from immersion it was useful; in a year or two the thumb edge of the pages had turned a deep nicotine brown.

In February 2001, I was introduced to what my Basque tutor and I came to call San Morris: ‘Let’s go see what San Morris has to say.’ This was the Morris Student Plus Euskara-Ingelesa English-Basque dictionary, an imposing, twelve-hundred-page hardcover tome, barely touched in the Santurtzi school library, where the erdara was overwhelmingly Spanish. It had come out three years before, in 1998: the first definitive Basque-English dictionary ever, compiled over nineteen years by one Mikel Morris. I recently found out that San Morris went online later that very year. Morris, an American, ran an English school in Zarautz, on the Basque coast, and his dictionary, though extremely helpful, sometimes seemed designed more for Basque speakers learning English than the other way around (1).

Looking up words in Basque is tricky, in part because the ‘a’ you see at the end of a word may be an article, and if you put that in the search term in Morris online you’ll get: ‘Barkatu, baina sarrera hau ez dago hiztegian. / Sorry, this entry is not in the dictionary.’ Diminutives, dialect words – Basque has five main dialects, in addition to Unified Basque, or Batua, which was standardised in the 1960s – any variant spellings, all get that response.

Also online is Elhuyar Hiztegia. Its webpage offers you a handy drop-down list of root words as you type, and if nothing drops down, you will often get taken to Spanish or French entries, which are more expansive than the English. The site is in Batua only and is minimalist or diffident in its English definitions.

For words that don’t appear in either place there is the unabridged dictionary of the Euskaltzaindia, the official academy of the Basque language. There, dialect spellings will cross-reference to the Batua spelling; a tree or bird will appear with its Linnaean genus and species. Unfortunately, the definitions and usage notes are in Spanish or French, and not in English.

So that is the sequence of dictionaries I use when I’m making a translation, along with the elbow of a Spanish- or French-English dictionary if needed, plus – and especially – a thesaurus. Mostly I’m floating up from my old-time rebus vocabulary and whatever I’ve learned in the meantime; the sensation of searching for an English word to translate into is effectively the same as searching for a word while writing. Translating from Basque to English has got to be entirely different for someone brought up in the language – the enviable Amaia Gabantxo, for instance, who was born on the Biscayan coast and learned her English later. And, in fact, over the past twenty-some years the map has shifted: direct translations from Basque to English and elsewhere have multiplied.

The last thing I translated in 2022 was the soundtrack for Loti (H)errena, an unclassifiable album-book on the subject of sleeping and waking. (An accurate but unsatisfactory English title would be, I decided, ‘Sleeping Beauty (Hobbled)’.) Most of the texts and lyrics are by the super-neoteric Basque writer/poet Harkaitz Cano, and when I had been through all my dictionaries, one of the last unsolved problems was the word atxurtu, which didn’t appear at all in Morris or Elhuyar, and for which the Euskaltzaindia gave two possibilities, both agricultural: burning, as in clearing land by fire; or hoeing, breaking ground. In the context of Cano’s postmodern theatre piece about a wild, late-night party with Spaniards, neither of those made any sense. I flagged it for him: ‘digging [burning? atxurtu?] for truth’? The word, Cano wrote back, had become an urban idiom, and in American English might be something like ‘wasted’.

Elizabeth Macklin

(1) Mikel Morris has since completed a still larger dictionary, the Morris Magnum, though it isn’t yet online.

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