Although it’s an axiom of the writer Bernardo Atxaga that ‘To answer one question you need at least 5 hours; if you don’t have so much time available, it’s better not to answer at all’, in the 10 minutes of free time which was all we had at our disposal, he seemed to manage to unfurl his books in response to my five short questions. Conversing with and meeting Bernardo Atxaga (or Joseba Irazu Garmendia) in real life is an unforgettable experience, as is reading his books.
1) The interesting thing about you is that you are both the author and translator of your books. When you ‘self-translate’ from Basque to Spanish, aren’t you tempted to once again enter into the role of author and to change the original text?
In the first place I’d like to point out that I work together with my wife who is a translator. At home we constantly discuss linguistic questions-we talk about the words, about how to translate and how not to translate and in the final analysis it’s not possible to change anything. There are no translations, only variations. It’s the same as in music-Summertime by Janis Joplin or Summertime by Doc Watson or Summertime performed by an orchestra.-those are variations on the same theme. The literary text is fickle-as soon as you touch it, it changes. The idea is that you change a comma, after that you say-Hm, let me change this colon too, let’s get rid of this line, oh and this one too- and they you are: the text has changed. To put it simply, you create two texts with the same meaning. Here lies the crux somewhere, although it’s almost impossible to explain what exactly happens when you translate.
2/ What language do you dream in?
I don’t know if there’s any mystery concealed in dreams, I think not. I dream in the language in which the participants in the dreams themselves speak. Here’s an example: last night I dreamed about a friend from high school who speaks in Spanish and the dream was correspondingly in Spanish. Other times I dream about my daughter…she speaks in the Basque language. The dreams depend on who you’re dreaming about.
3/What makes you feel happy in the winter?
In the winter? Happiness in the winter is connected to fire. My mother tells me an interesting story. When she was little, she went and stood with the other children in front of the fire, by which I mean the hearth, and nothing could make either her or the other children go to lie down in their beds. It’s the same with today’s children and the television-they don’t want to unglue themselves from the TV to go to bed. And that’s how it was actually: they, the children, stood in front of the fire and felt infinitely cosy with the shapes made by the flames and everything else. That was the height of fun. I think that to be happy a winter would have to have a fire in the hearth, soft music and a book or then again a conversation in pleasant company.
5/Your dream destination?
Once I wrote a poem, which starts like this:
There is a homeland and that’s the everyday
The life we live each day
In other words our true homeland is the place where we live permanently or for most of our days. My wish is to live more or less happily in the place where I’ve been destined to live. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be excursions or trips, but they’re exceptions and I don’t want to turn my life into a series of exceptions, no. For me it’s everyday life that’s important, I don’t need any more than that.
* This conversation with Bernardo Atxaga originally is in Spanish. Translated into English from Bulgarian : Neil Scarth.