Unai Elorriaga

NEA International Literary Award (Plants Don't Drink Coffee)
Unai Elorriaga

Photo by Debra Corrie

Transcript of conversation with Amaia Gabantxo and Unai Elorriaga

Amaia Gabantxo: In Basque, there was just a very simple line that used the verb "to fall in love."  But, you know, it seemed so clumsy because the Basque is so beautiful.  It's maitai mindu.  If you split the word, if you look at the two words that form it, it just means "love pain."  So, to fall in love in Basque, is to pain with love, you see.  So, you can never love without pain in Basque.  So, see, this is something, how could, how do you move it across?  How do you make it work in the same way?  So that's what I did.  I translated this, "I pain your lips with love."

Jo Reed: That was Amaia Gabantxo talking about translating the Basque novel Plants Don’t Drink Coffee by Unai Elorriaga. Welcome to Art Works, The program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host Josephine Reed.

In the recent past, the NEA has participated in various international literary exchanges. One such effort was a partnership with the Embassy of Spain and resulted in the publication of the English translation of the Basque novel, Plants Don’t Drink Coffee. This was a significant project because the Basque language had been forbidden outside the home during the Franco regime. And while it is now enjoying revitalization, although we still find very few Basque novels translated into English. 

So it’s a rare treat to read about this small fictional Basque village filled ordinary people looking for the extraordinary. Based on the author’s life and the small town where he was raised, the Plants Don’t Drink Coffee gives us four different stories… at its heart is Tomas, a little of boy of eight sent to live with his quirky relatives when his father becomes ill.  With the publication of the book in English, author Unai Elorriaga and his translator Amaia Gabantxo visited the United States and I was able to speak with them both….about the novel and about the art of translation.  Here’s our conversation.

Jo Reed: Unai, I'd like you to describe for us a little bit the world that you create in Plants Don't Drink Coffee

Unai (translated):  The book describes a time, a very important time in his life.  It was the year 1992.  This was the year his father died, and of course it was a very difficult time, a very dark time.  But it's very sharply imprinted in his mind, and it's a time that he remembers, he says, every single thing that happened, every single thought he had back then, the way he thought.  He remembers it very sharply.  So he wanted to make a book that contained this world of this boy that he was when he was nine, the way he perceived the world, the things that happened around him and his family and his town.  He wanted that to take shape in a book, and that's what this book is. 

Jo Reed:  Tell me why you decided to have four interwoven stories rather than a single narrative with a single narrator. 

Unai (translated):  He says that the reason for this lies very much in the family structures in the Basque country.  In the Basque country, you will have many, many members of the same family still living in the same small village.  This is the reality he wanted to represent.  So, even though it's this child's world, he thought that in order to explore this world, he needed to see it through all of the members of his family.  So his aunts and his aunts' friends, and his uncle and his uncle's friend and his cousin, all the people who were very important to him in his family, because you can't really see the world of this little child without seeing all these elements in his life that are so important to him, that sustain him and support him.  So just like these people support him as his family, the stories of these people support the narrative structure of this child's life. 

Jo Reed:  The first narrator we hear, and in many ways the central character is Tomas, who's a little boy of about eight, who wants above all else to be intelligent, which is very endearing.  And he wants to catch the blue dragonfly because that will confer intelligence upon him.  Just talk a little bit about that and how you came to that in this book. 

Unai (translated):  He says that when he was that age, when he was small, it was very clear to him that when he wanted to be intelligent when he grew up.  This was a very important thing to him, and everything he did so far as he can remember was for the purpose of becoming intelligent.  So, he would read books, and he would watch movies, and he would talk to his cousin, Inez, who is in the book.  And his cousin was a student of biology.  And he used to go with her catching insects and all this, and he became really interested in the lives of these insects.  And the idea of the insects came from that, from that chase, you know, the chase for the insect and the chase for intelligence, because when he grew up, he realized that actually not everybody seeks intelligence like he thought everybody did this. But he realized that this is not necessarily true, that the movies they tell us to watch, the books they tell us to read, they're not necessarily books or movies that are going to encourage or, you know, increase our intelligence.  So he wanted to write something that dealt with that idea, the idea of what is it really to look for intelligence, to seek intelligence, and what are the things really that bring us intelligence, the things that we seek, all the things that are imposed on us.  And that's an idea that's in the book as well. 

Jo Reed: Personal history is very important in this book with various characters trying to come to grips with their past. Can you speak to that?

Unai (translated):  He said he realized when he was in university and, you know, he was learning about all these authors and philosophers and historical figures, and you know, he was learning all the whole life stories of these people and their works and so on.  And one day it occurred to him, why are these people so important?  Why don't we also learn from the people around us?  And he realized that there were lots of things that he could learn from his, you know, from his ancestors, from his grandfather, from the life stories of the people around him.  And in that sense, yes, that's what the book does.  It tries to look at the smaller lives, these smaller lives, these less spoken-about lives, and bring them to the fore, well, there's a lot of wisdom there that we never reach out for. Writers are always interested in the past, but this is the kind of past that interests him more than. 

Jo Reed:  So, the past of everyday life. 

Unai (translated):  Yeah.  Yeah.  The past of the small lives around him, of the small lives of these people in this village, these people with the strong personalities, these with eccentric habits.  These for him informs our intelligence as much as all the bigger voices, the bigger thoughts. 

Jo Reed:  His family was very loving and extremely excentric, which I enjoyed and am hoping is true.  Is rugby really important to your family? 

Unai (untranslated):  Yes.  <laughing>

Unai (translated):  It's not a matter of eccentricity as much as strong personalities, he says, and the village he's from, he says, it's a village with a very strong personality, and the people in his family are people with very strong personalities.  And it is true that for some strange reason, people in La Horta in this town, love rugby more than they love football, which is the norm throughout the Basque country and throughout Spain, really.  And they have a really-- they are so obsessed with rugby, they have a small rugby team that actually has become the champion of Spain, of the Spanish Rugby League.  So this is true.  I mean, he says a strong personality, but I would agree with you that it's eccentricity.  <laughter>

Jo Reed:  Well, there’s a character in the novel, Uncle Simon, who snuck onto the golf course and turned the 15th hole into a rugby field.  Is that based on a true incident? 

Unai (translated):  No.  It isn't true.  This didn't happen.  This didn't happen.  But he did it in the novel as his little revenge, because the golf course does exist in his town, and it's a golf course that was built up during Franco's time, and it's a golf course that only caters to the wealthier people of the community.  So there's a lot of resentment against this golf course in the town, in La Horta.  And for that reason, he decided, well, since we can't really do anything in reality, I will do it in a novel, and I will use this town's love for rugby to take revenge on something that, you know, someone like Franco did to us.  There was something else he said I think I'm forgetting.  Well, it doesn't matter.  

Jo Reed:  Well, it's a beautiful illustration about the way literature works.  I mean, and how imaginatively …. 

Amaia:  Yes. I know, I remembered.  He was saying something about, that's what you do in literature, you tell a lie, you know, to tell a bigger truth.  And it reminded me this is something that Juan Marsé said very recently, and that's Juan Marsé is a very important Spanish writer.  He got the Cervantes prize last year, didn't he?  Yeah.  And he said that literature is telling a lie to tell a bigger truth.  And that's exactly what Unai said now, and we hadn't talked about this, so, obviously all great writers think the same.  <laughter>

Jo Reed:  Do you come from a family of story tellers? 

Unai (translated):  He says it's funny that you mention that because he never thought about it until relatively recently when he married Sonya, and Sonya is a great reader as well, his wife.  And she told him, "Wow, it's amazing, your mom and your aunts are incredible story tellers.  They tell stories so well, so beautifully."  And he hadn't realized because this was normal to him.  He thought that this was just the way people were.  He hadn't noticed that there were people who told everyday stories about the people around them in a way that was really coherent and beautiful and graceful.  And then, he says also that his mother, even though she never went to school, I mean, she just went to school until the age of 12 or so, and then started working, like most people's parents do in the Basque country so, even though she never went to school, he says she's like a natural philologist, because she listens to people speak, and she realizes the different ways in which people pronounce things or the etymologies of words.  And she thinks, oh, listen to that word.  That word is like that word that comes from here or there.  And she's a person, obviously, with a natural talent for language and a natural love for language.  And he says he has a brother, and his brother is much older than him, and when he was a small boy and his brother was around 20, this brother of his used to write little short stories that he thought were absolutely wonderful and amazing.  But now his brother just, he works with a digger, and he's given up the writing.  He hasn't taken it any further, but it's like he's taking the baton, and now he writes those stories himself. 

Jo Reed:  The Basques have such a great oral tradition.  I mean, they are such great story tellers.  And there's a way in which you can almost hear the language as you read it.  And I guess this is a question for both of you because Amaia, you're the translator.  I don't know.  There's, a musicality to it.  I kept hearing it as much as I kept reading it. 

Amaia:  Thank you. 

Unai (translated):  Well, the thing is that Basque has a great oral tradition but not-- even though it's the oldest language in Europe, our literature only really starts to be written down in the 19th century.  So, there's a great oral tradition in the balladic tradition. So there's a great balladic tradition, and there's a great tradition of fables as well that were collected by Ascue.  And there's a lot of these material that has existed and been preserved in the oral tradition but has not been written down.  It's only in the 19th century, as I said, that written literature starts to happen, and even then, at the beginning it was all religious and because the literature of the Basque country in Basque only really started to happen from the '60s onwards, and then secretly because of Franco's regime, obviously.  And it's only started developing since that time.  So it's a relatively new tradition in that, and he was saying very interestingly that no one has still started making literary games with the existing oral tradition, and this is something he feels that needs to be done.  Maybe he'll do it. The other thing that I wanted to add to this is what you said the other day, as well, which is really good, there's this enormously strong tradition of improvised versing in the Basque country.  It's unbelievable.  Back in December, there was the latest improvised verse singing championship, and 14 thousand people attended a poetry event.  This doesn't happen in any other country.  This tells you how strong and how powerful this oral tradition is.  If 14 thousand people can attend a poetry event in the Basque country, I think this means it's a pretty good country, you know.  And that's why I was really very pleased that you said that you could hear the musicality in my translation, because this is something that's very important to me because when I first read the book, I loved the way it sounded.  I loved the rhythms of it.  I loved the way it moved, and I'm a musician.  I'm a singer.  So, when I got the commission to translate it, I read it three times in a row just so that I would get this voice, that it would be there in my head and would come naturally to me when I wrote it down in English.  And it was a very interesting process because Unai told me, "Oh, you need to look at the Spanish translation because I tweaked a few things.  I changed a few things in the Spanish translation, and I need you to put them in the English."  And I started reading the Spanish translation, but I realized that it was interfering with my creative process because Basque, like English, is a very compressed language.  It's a very direct language.  If you look at the sentence in Basque, it will contain very few words, the same in English.  If you look at the same sentence in Spanish, it'll probably have four, five, six words more.  So, the sentences in Spanish are longer.  So, for this reason, the Spanish translation was interfering with my process to allow me, you know, to come to the kind of translation that I wanted to come up with.  So, I did that journey without looking at the Spanish, because for me it was very clear that I could replicate a pattern from the Basque into the English, but it would get lost if I interfered-- if the Spanish interfered with that process.  And that's something to do with my ear, I think, with my musical ear.  I think that's what happened. 

Jo Reed:  Well, can you just talk a little bit about translating.  Because people often think you're doing this word-for-word. That's not the case.  It's an interpretation, is it not? 

Amaia:  Yeah, totally.  Translating literature is a creative process.  It's the same process as creating something from scratch, I think, because you have this original text, but then you have to make it work as a piece of literature on its own.  And for that, you can't, as I say, you can't be traumatized by the lexical meaning of what was there before because literature isn't just words.  You know, when you put several words together in a sentence, you create a world.  And that world is not going to be the same world if you just repeat word by word what was said in there.  See, when I read something in Basque, there are all kinds of evocative things that come with it, you know, because every word will remind me of something or will be associated to a song, a lyric, something my grandmother said, something my father said, you know.  That's how we, all of us, approach language.  So, a translation that is a good translation, has to do that all over again, you know.  And you can't just say, okay, you know, “gori” is red, because it isn't just, you know.  There are so many things that come with gori and so many things that come with red.  You know, there's a whole universe behind it.  And this is the kind of journey that I always strive, you know, to undertake, because it's for me, translating literature isn't just something that I do because I can speak the languages.  It's something that I do because I love literature, you know, and I am trying to create more literature and to give people literature that they wouldn't otherwise have access to, which is really sad, you know.  There should be more opportunities to translate books because I think that the Anglo-Saxon world misses out a lot of amazing literature.  Only three percent of books published in the U.S. and the UK are in translation. You're missing out a huge world of literature, and it's a very sad state of affairs. 

Jo Reed:  And very, very few books in Basque. 

Amaia:  Yeah. 

Jo Reed:  You had mentioned Franco earlier, and the repression of Basque, not just in writing but the language itself.  And since his death and the end of that regime, there's been an enormous revitalization where earlier they had thought Basque would be a dead language within 50 years.  In fact, it's like Irish.  It's been reclaimed, and as I said, revitalized?

Amaia:  Yeah.  A lot more people speak Basque now than they did back then, although I don't think that there was ever a risk of it dying as a language because people spoke it at home.  You know, they weren't allowed to speak it at school or speak it in public, but it was, it's a language that's very loved, you know, and that's when I said, very, you know, I think very perceptively the other day in one of our readings.  It's probably the only language in the world where a four-year-old child will tell you off for using Spanish instead of Basque, you know, tell you, "Speak Basque.  You should be talking in Basque.  You speak Basque.  Why aren't you using it?"  And children will tell you this. My nephew, for example, tells my mother, his grandmother, off if she speaks in Spanish.  You know, this doesn't happen in any other part of the world.  But there's been a huge effort, you know, to, yeah, revitalize the use of the language.  That's another thing, that we are from the first generation of children that were able to get their whole schooling in Basque.  So in a way, I think that maybe we feel that, you know, we have to do something for our language, something else, you know, because we were the first ones to be given this privilege.  Maybe the generations that have this now so easily available to them, maybe they don't feel that debt, but that maybe we do, I don’t know.

Jo Reed:  Well, do you?  Do you feel like a trail blazer in some ways? 

Unai (translated):  Definitely yes he does feel that he has to do this for this language.  He said yeah it's true, probably a child that grows up in the States or, you know, elsewhere, probably won't feel that, you know, he or she ever has to sort of rescue a mother tongue, but we feel that very strongly.  And he, you know, he said that personally he always thought that he would have to do something for it, in however a small way.  And at the same time, he said that the Basque country is a country that's always losing the battles.  You know, it loses all the battles.  We don't win any battles ever.  We don't win at football.  One day. 

Jo Reed:  Rugby. 

Unai (translated):  Yeah.  His town with that rugby, you know.  Rugby's the only exception, obviously, you know, he says.  But, you know, we're also a country of very headstrong, optimistic people.  So, even if we lose lots of battles, every now and then we win one.  Like this one, you know.  We have Plants Don't Drink Coffee in English, and we are here in the States, showing it to a lot of different people, talking to lots of different people about it.  And that's what keeps us going, you know, because that's the only thing.  I mean, that's what life is like, isn't it?  You know, a huge disappointment peppered by some good moments.  <laughter>

Jo Reed:  Well, let's just talk about one of the good moments, and that is the process by which this book was chosen to be translated into English.  How did that happen? 

Unai (translated):  He was saying Amaia will be able to tell this story better than I can.  <laughter> Because, well, it's true, but it was something.  The way it happened was I read a lot of Basque literature, and I choose the authors that I like, and I translate little bits.  I translate short stories or a few poems here and there, things that are self contained, and then I send them off to journals, magazines, whereever, in the hope that, you know, at some point in the future, something will come back and, you know, and something good will come of it.  And this is exactly what happened then.  I translated one of Unai's short stories "Zatka Grukas" (?). It's a very good short story, and it was published in a journal, and Jill Schoolman from Archipelago Books came across it and she loved it.  And at the time, she was looking for something to publish.  And then simultaneously at the same time, I think she came across an article about Unai.  So, there was this synchronicity to those two events.  And then Jill got in touch.  And then I told her, "Well, look, if you publish it, we'll be able to get a grant from the Basque movement to pay for the translation, and we can apply further grants as well if that doesn't work out, so we can find a way of getting it off the ground."  And we did.  And here we are today.  And we're hoping that we're going to do the next book as well, and hopefully many others after that. 

Jo Reed: I have a final question, which is:  I want to know how his family and town responded to the book. 

Unai (translated):  He said that people have taken it really well.  They really like it and they're very proud of him.  And in particular, he says, there's this character in the novel, Gursud.  And Gourd is based on a person who really exists.  His name is Gursud.  Gursud in Basque means lie, so his name is Lie.  Everybody calls him lie because he's always lying.  You know, you'll see him in the morning, and he'll tell you that he has three daughters, and you'll see him in the evening, and he'll say that he has two sons, and then you'll see him the day after, and he'll say he has no children whatsoever.  And so he lives in this completely fictional world, and he doesn't really know, you know, who he is half the time.  And he has read the book.  Goursud has read the book.  And he loves it, and he says he loves it so much, if ever a movie gets made, he wants to be the main character in it.  <laughter>

Jo Reed:  Well, we'll wait for the movie, then.  Amaia, Unai, thank you very, very much, both of you.  I enjoyed the book enormously, and I really felt like people were telling me stories, which was just lovely.  So, thank you. 

That was author Unai Elorriaga and his translator Amaia Gabantxo talking about the novel Plants Don’t Drink Coffee and the art of translation . You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the assistant producer.

The music is "Halcyon Bluff" Composed, performed and recorded by E. Ryan Goodman.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. Next week, we’re off to Shephardstown, West Virginia and the Contemporary American Theater Festival. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Basque writer Unai Elorriaga and Amaia Gabantxo, translator of Elorriaga's novel Plants Don’t Drink Coffee, discuss the book as well as the art of translation and the Basque language. [25:50]