The Spanish Riveter: Translating Asturian by Robin Munby

‘Escribo nuna llingua que mui pocos falen, que munchos menos lleen.’

‘I write in a language that few speak, and even fewer read.’

Xuan Bello, Hestoria Universal de Paniceiros

A few months ago, I was getting ready to pitch a novel in translation. It was a great book, and as soon as I finished it, I knew I wanted to try to get it published in English. So I prepared a sample, workshopped it, wrote up some other pitching materials, identified a few publishers I thought might be a good fit. I felt like I was making good progress. Next on my list was to see what grants might be available to support the cost of translation. For smaller, independent publishers – the kind of publishers most likely to publish a translation from a minoritised language – grants are often a dealbreaker.

There was one in particular I had in mind: the translation grant from Acción Cultural Española, a Spanish state agency that supports cultural initiatives. The AC/E grant aims to help promote literature from Spain around the world. I knew it was open to work written in Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Basque. The novel was written in Asturian, so surely it would fit the bill. Asturias is in Spain, after all. I wrote to them to ask if a novel written in Asturian would be eligible for the grant. The answer was regrettably no.

In the grand scheme of things, this anecdote might seem a little trivial. It’s possible that the issue of Asturian’s eligibility had never even arisen before. But as I’ve learned in the relatively brief time I’ve spent exploring writing from the region, this is just one small example of a much wider set of barriers facing Asturian literature and the Asturian language in general.

Asturias is a small place, about a third the size of neighbouring Galicia, with just over a third of its population. As well as Spanish, Asturias is home to two regional languages, Asturian (asturianu) and Galician-Asturian, which is spoken in the west. Given that these languages exist in a complex state of diglossia with Spanish, precise figures for the number of speakers vary, but a 2017 study from the University of the Basque Country reported that around 25% of people in Asturias over the age of sixteen self-reported as being able to understand, speak, read and write in Asturian. Xuan Bello isn’t wrong to say it’s a language with few speakers. 

However, it’s not just the relatively smaller size of the Asturian language that sets it apart from Spain’s better-known minoritised languages. Asturian also has a different legal status. Spain’s 1978 constitution stated that the country’s regional languages could be recognised as co-official, alongside Spanish, in their respective autonomous communities. Galician, Basque and Catalan all have this co-official status. Asturian does not. 

This accident of history – due partly to the stigma attached to it as a language spoken predominantly among poorer, rural communities – means that Asturian has not received anything like the same institutional support as these other languages. This has significant implications for Asturian-language education, and the ability of Asturian speakers to use the language in daily life. It also has its repercussions for Asturian literature. 

When Xaime Martínez, winner of Spain’s 2019 Premio Nacional de Poesía Joven, made the decision not to write in Spanish anymore, only Asturian, he was well aware of what this would mean in practical terms. Not only would his potential readership be dramatically reduced, but his work would no longer be eligible for many national awards, including the prize he had just won. Nevertheless, Martínez, along with many others, writes in Asturian anyway. 

These writers are at the forefront of the battle to keep the language alive, and many are actively involved in the growing campaign for it to be granted the official status it has missed out on for the last half-century. In the meantime, and despite all the obstacles they face, they are at the heart of a thriving literary scene.

As for me, I should mention that I live in Madrid, not Asturias. My exposure to Asturian has been, overwhelmingly, through literature. At first, a few poems and short stories, which I stumbled through with the help of an online dictionary during the fog of lockdown. This was enough to spark a serious desire to learn more.

Soon I was ordering book after book from publishers such as Trabe, Impronta, Radagast and Hoja de Lata. These are among the growing number publishing original work in Asturian in just about every genre you can think of, from poetry to detective novels, fantasy to literary fiction. Meanwhile, through Asturian-language journals like Formientu, I have discovered a generation of younger Asturian writers. As a reader, it was a thrill to discover a world of writing to which so few English speakers – in fact, few readers at all outside of Asturias – have access. As a literary translator, ditto. 

When it comes to translating Asturian literature, I’m an absolute newcomer. Asturias, however, has no shortage of translators. In 2021, the regional culture ministry set up the Casina de la Traducción in Cadavéu, a space to promote translation to and from Asturian, while the first Congress of Audiovisual Translation into Asturian was held at the end of last year in Ḷḷuarca. Not to mention the fact that many Asturian writers are themselves translators, helping to bring literature from around the world into their language.

Among them, a smaller number have also begun translating Asturian writing into English. AsturPoetry, for example, a project started by the poets Laura Marcos and Daniel García Granda, in collaboration with Fulbright Scholar Carinna Nikkel and a group of other native English speakers, aims to translate the work of fifty Asturian poets into English. Their recent pamphlet, published independently in a run of just thirty copies, and titled AsturPoetry: a whimsical anthology of Asturian poetry in translation, offers a wonderful introduction to several generations of Asturian poetry. This mini-anthology was one of many works exhibited at the Asturias stand at the 2022 Frankfurt Book Fair, the first time Asturian-language writing has been represented at the event.

Even from my peripheral position here in the Spanish capital, where our regional government would prefer to imagine that Madrid is Spain, and that languages like Basque, Catalan and Galician, let alone Asturian, don’t exist, I can sense that Asturian literature is on the cusp of something. It may be some time before Asturian achieves official status, but for now, writers like Xuan Bello, Laura Marcos, Xaime Martínez, Berta Piñán, Nicolás Bardio, Blanca Fernández Quintana, Francisco Álvarez, Vanessa Gutiérrez, Pablo Texón and Raquel Menéndez, and plenty more, keep writing books that are well worth reading. And for a translator like me, that’s what really matters. 

Robin Munby

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter page.

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