Basque Poetry in English - Part 4 - Martxa Baten Lehen Notak

The First Notes of a March written by Artze.

The sun melts down the snow at the high peaks,
And it descends down the slope in a powerful stream.

In ourselves is the sun, the darkness, the ice,
The light that scratches, the heart that melts.

With heart and passion, open hand and arms,
Let’s enlighten ourselves, and see the truth.

Treading each his own path, between all of us
Opening the way for our humanity.

Everyone with ownership over their lives, nobody dominated by other
All people together in one we will have our future.

As long as there's someone hungry we won’t be satisfied
As long as there's someone oppressed we won’t be free.

This poem was turned to song by Mikel Laboa. 


I really don't think much about thinking, although I've been told by several 'gurus' across the years that I think too much. Maybe, I don't think that much because I'm inpatient and my thoughts are sometimes not forthcoming. Or it might be that actually thinking about thiking is not an easy task, although, undoubtedly, highly rewarding.

The fact is, if there is anything that we can actually state as fact, that there is one question that I have been asked several times lately: When you think, what language do you use?

Of course this question relates to my trilingualism (that is one ugly word you don't hear often), and it doesn't have an easy answer. Sometimes Basque, sometimes English, and other times, though increasingly less so, Spanish.

My mind, or my thinking, or whatever, wanders from one language to another without notice, nor logic. It's as if, I think in Basque when I think of something, but when I think of something else it's always in English.

It often depends on the language I communicated with the last time. So if I'm speaking English with someone, I'll be thinking in English.

The thing is I switch from one language to another without realising.

"And what about in your dreams?"

Oh, in my dreams I speak many more languages... I'm fluent in old norse, I can communicate myself with the naugrim, and when my dreams are set in a contemporary setting everyone speaks esperanto.

Basque Poetry in English - Part 3 - Herria eta Hizkuntza

"The Language and the Country" is a "bertso" (verse) from Xalbador a "bertsolari" (verse singer) from the French side of the Basque Country. The bertsolaris are given set poetry forms (including rhythm and length), and a theme, and they have to improvise and sing the verses on the spot. It is a difficult art with a long tradition in the Basque Country. Bertsolaris are in high demand in public festivals.

Bertsos are not poems in the strict sense. They are improvised and they are simpler and more direct than poems, but I thought I should translate some bertsos in this section too as they are an important part of the Basque culture. 

A few days ago, I was in a tavern
I witnessed two men having a heated argument
Both seemed to be good Basques
But they didn’t seem to understand each other
I listened to them with sadness

I didn’t understand very well what one
Of them was saying, he was speaking in a foreign language.
He said he cared for our country
And that, though, now under the rule of others, we should be free
“Long live to the Basque Country” he said in French

Then the other spoke in perfect Basque
Our language can’t be lost
It’s what makes us different
Because in everything else
We became French long time ago!”

Those two men, were like a tree
But one was the trunk, the other the leaves
And I don’t like that strange sight
Because though I’ve always lived in the mountains
I’ve never seen an oak with beech leaves

One praised the country like a foreigner
The other spoke the oppressor’s desires in our language
Let’s say it clear
We are lost in the fog
It’s not possible to serve two masters

By arguing, the two break the unity
I want to get together what was dispersed
Our language, and our country
Because they’re part of the same reality

Brothers, sisters, listen to me
You can’t create a human being just with a skeleton
The land is the heart, the language the soul
If you separate them, you kill what’s alive

Some talk about the land and forget the language
Others love the language, and forget the land
The language and the country can’t go separate
They both want to make us understand
That they can’t live without each other

This bertsos were turned to song by Mikel Laboa. See the video below...

Basque Poetry in English - Part 2 - Izarren Hautsa

Xabier Lete is undoubtedly one of the great poets of the Basque Country. He was one of the first to start writing in Basque when Franco was still around and the Basque language was highly suppressed. He was most prolific in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. After many years of not writing poetry he has recently published a highly praised new book. The following poem is entitled "Izarren Hautsa", which literate translates as "Stardust" and it was published in second book of poems published in 1974.

Mikel Laboa, a famous, and recently deceased, singer wrote a beautiful song based on this poem and I have included a video of Mikel Laboa singing the song at the bottom of this post, which is one of my all time favourite songs. If I was castaway and my iPod only had one song it would have to be this one.

Izarren Hautsa

Izarren hautsa egun batean bilakatu zen bizigai,
hauts hartatikan uste gabean noizpait ginaden gu ernai.
Eta horrela bizitzen gera sortuz ta sortuz gure aukera
atsedenik hartu gabe: lana eginaz goaz aurrera
kate horretan denok batera gogorki loturik gaude.

Gizonak ba du inguru latz bat menperatzeko premia,
burruka hortan bizi da eta hori du bere egia.
Ekin ta ekin bilatzen ditu, saiatze hortan ezin gelditu,
jakintza eta argia; bide ilunak nekez aurkitu
lege berriak noizpait erditu, hortan jokatuz bizia.

Gizonen lana jakintza dugu: ezagutuz aldatzea,
naturarekin bat izan eta harremanentan sartzea.
Eta indarrak ongi errotuz, gure sustraiak lurrari lotuz,
bertatikan irautea: ezaren gudaz baietza sortuz,
ukazioa legetzat hartuz beti aurrera joatea.

Ez dadukanak ongi ahi daki euketzea zein den ona,
bere premiak bete nahirik beti bizi da gizona.
Gu ere zerbait ba gera eta gauden tokitik hemendik bertan
saia gaitezen ikusten: amets eroak bazterturikan,
sasi ziki√Ľak behingoz erreta bide on bat aukeratzen.

Gu sortu ginen enbor beretik sortuko dira besteak,
burruka hortan iraungo duten zuhaitz-ardaska gazteak.
Beren aukeren jabe eraikiz ta erortzean berriro jaikiz
ibiltzen joanen direnak : gertakizunen indar ta argiz
gure ametsa arrazoi garbiz egiztatuko dutenak.

Eta ametsa bilakaturik egiaren antziduri
herri zahar batek bide berritik ekingo dio urduri;
guztian lana guztien esku jasoko dute sendo ta prestu,
beren bizitzen edargai; diru zakarrak bihotzik eztu,
lotuko dute gogor ta hestu haz ez dadin gizonen gain.


Across time stardust became life matter
and it was dictated that from matter we sprung
and so we make our choices again and again
without pause: we work to move forward
all of us bound to earth by a chain.

Man is compelled to reign over his kingdom
that battle is his life and truth
and he perseveres, cannot stop the motion
of law and light: the never ending search for ways,
the painful delivery of a code that costs lives.

Man's duty is to knowledge, to learn and change,
to be one with nature and establish relationships,
and remain: to win the war on no with a yes,
because no is what we have, so we go on.

The trunk we shoot off from will give life to others,
the young branches that negate death
will build further and, should they fall, raise again
and walk further; with the light and evidence of facts
they will validate our dreams forever.

And as the dream is legitimised into truth
an old country will hesitate down a new road;
all will be ready and eager to take what was built by all,
to complete our lives: but dirty money has no heart
we shall rein it in so that it won't grow taller than man.

This poem was turned to song by two artists, the poet himself and Mikel Laboa. I like both versions, but I find that Mikel Laboa's version is far superior to Xabier Lete's musically. See the two of them below...

Basque Poetry in English - Part 1 - Gure Oroitzapenak

Today I open a new section in this blog. I know that perfect translations don't exist. Even less so, when the translator (myself) is not a professional translator, and even less so (is that even possible?) when you attempt to translate poetry. But I will endeavour to translate and share some of the poetry that I've enjoyed since I was a kid and that has never (at least to my knowledge) been translated into English.

We open this section with Joseba Sarrionaindia's "Gure Oroitzapenak" (Our Memories).

Our memories,
Like the shafts of wood
Of the sinking ships,
Don't disappear to the depths of the sea,
Don't head to any harbour.

Our memories,
Like the shafts of wood
Of the sinking ships,
Float away on the sea forever
Driven by the waves
And with no direction

The poem was also turned to song by Mikel Laboa. See the video below.

Here's for Hope - Howard Zinn

History is and always has been one of my passions. Reading about the past has helped me understand where we come from, and why and how the world is today. At the same time history has always been written by the victors, never by the defeated or oppressed. This is perfectly expressed in one of Bertol Bretch's poems "Questions from a worker who reads". 

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Year's War. 
Who else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man?
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions. 

Looking at history with critical eyes, and retelling the story from a different point of view is essential and Howard Zinn understood that. It is not about rewriting history for our own purposes but rather retelling history and filling the huge gaps that official history has left throughout time. The perfect example of this is Howard Zinn's most successful and influential book, "The People's History of the United States" where he retold the 'discovery' of America by Columbus focusing on the indigenous point of view. Where he wrote of the expansion of the settlers to the west destroying the lives of the indigenous from the natives' point of view. The struggles of black people and workers from their points of view. 

Howard Zinn's parents were migrants from Europe. They worked in factories. They had very limited education. Howard lived through the great depression, and worked in the shipyards. He joined the army corps and went to Europe as a bombardier during World War II, where amongst other things he participated in the first ever use of napalm. It has often been referred to as "the good war", but he never saw it as such. At his return he put all of the medals that he had received inside an envelope and labeled the envelope: Never again.

Years after the war, and having finalised his studies as historian, he returned to some of the sites he had bombarded to do some research. What he found confirmed his deepest fears. Most of the victims of the bombings were civilians (civilian casualties in WWII have been estimated to be 50% of the total). Here's a fragment from Wikipedia.
On the ground, Zinn learned that the aerial bombing attacks—in which he participated—had killed more than 1000 French civilians as well as some German soldiers hiding near Royan to await the war's end, events that are described "in all accounts" he found as "une tragique erreur" that leveled a small but ancient city and "its population that was, at least officially, friend, not foe." In two books, The Politics of History and The Zinn Reader, Zinn described how the bombing was ordered—three weeks before the war in Europe ended—by military officials who were, in part, motivated more by the desire for career advancement than legitimate military objectives. He quotes the official history of the U.S. Army Air Forces' brief reference to the Eighth Air Force attack on Royan and also, in the same chapter, to the bombing of Pilsen in what was then Czechoslovakia. The official history stated, that the famous Skoda works in Pilsen "received 500 well-placed tons, and that "Because of a warning sent out ahead of time the workers were able to escape, except for five persons."
This marked him for the rest of his life. Howard Zinn had seen poverty, had seen the suffering of workers, he had seen the horrors of war first-hand, and now the consequences of war.

In an interview with Mark Gordon Howard Zinn talks about how unacceptable war is and how we have come to justify the unjustifiable. You can watch the video here. As a sample, here is a transcript of Howard Zinn's answer to Mark's first question: Can we ever have a just war?
I don't think so anymore. If we ever could in the past, the technology of warfare has reached a point where war is always the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people. Wars were at one time fought between armies, soldiers killed soldiers. Now, and we heard tonight doctor Gino Strada, the Italian war surgeon tell us, that the victims that he takes care of in the hospitals in Afghanistan and Iraq are 90% civilians, 30% of them children. In a situation like this war can not be accepted any more as a way of solving any of the problems we have in the world.
As the History teacher in the Spelman College in the 50s, a college for black women, he witnessed the beginning of the civil liberties movement and joined the sit-ins and protests, for which he was expelled from the college.
He was also one of the first intellectuals to oppose the Vietnam war (see the photo above: Howard Zinn being arrested on the right) From then on, Howard Zinn has not only been a tireless anti war activist, but also a historian who has been able to build bridges between intellectuals and the general public. His works have been read by millions of people.

Looking at the world, it is easy to despair, Howard said, but we should not, and he explained why when he was invited back to Spelman College to address the students in 2005, fifty years after he was sacked. His address was entitled Against Discouragement, and it has been widely published, you can find the address here.

The latest article that Howard Zinn wrote was recently published in The Nation, where he delivered a very sharp and critical assessment of Barack Obama's first yeas as president. He started the assessment saying: 
I've been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama's rhetoric; I don't see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies. As far as disappointments, I wasn't terribly disappointed because I didn't expect that much.
And he finishes the article in a typical Zinn way. 
I think people are dazzled by Obama's rhetoric, and that people ought to begin to understand that Obama is going to be a mediocre president--which means, in our time, a dangerous president--unless there is some national movement to push him in a better direction. 
Howard Zinn died last week. We will miss his sharp insights. His fierce activism. His messages of peace. His warnings against war. His words of encouragement and hope. But his writings will stand the test of time.

Teddy Bears and History

People call them 'teddy bears' and it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But why I hear you ask. Well, it's because I know where the name comes from. Let me explain.

At the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century, there was a man bent on power and war in Washington: Theodore Roosevelt. He was the head of US Department of the Navy when he forced conflict with Cuba and the Philippines. President McKinley didn't want any conflict, but Roosevelt would not have it any other way. In fact he very famously stated: "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."

So he sent ships towards Philippines without telling the president. He also forced the situation and took the first opportunity to invade Cuba. He even quit his job in Washington, organised a group of mercenaries around him named Rough Riders, and headed to Cuba to kill those bastards by his own hand. Later, he described the day of the San Juan Hill battle as the greatest day in his life.

Roosevelt was clearly in love with war and conflict, and he wanted the United States to head into imperialist territory, proposing the annexation of Cuba and Philippines.

After McKinley was assassinated Roosevelt became president, and I must admit that as a president he did some good things: he fought corporate trusts and he was a strong supporter of conservationism.

So what's his relation with 'teddy bears'?

Well, here's what Wikipedia says.

The name Teddy Bear comes from former United States President Theodore Roosevelt, whose nickname was "Teddy". The name originated from an incident on a bear-hunting trip in Mississippi in November 1902, to which Roosevelt was invited by Mississippi Governor Andrew H. Longino. There were several other hunters competing, and most of them had already killed an animal. A suite of Roosevelt's attendants, led by Holt Collier,[1] cornered, clubbed, and tied an American Black Bear to a willow tree after a long exhausting chase with hounds. They called Roosevelt to the site and suggested that he should shoot it. He refused to shoot the bear himself, deeming this unsportsmanlike,[2] but instructed that the bear be killed to put it out of its misery, and it became the topic of a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman in The Washington Post on November 16, 1902.[3] While the initial cartoon of an adult black bear lassoed by a white handler and a disgusted Roosevelt had symbolic overtones, later issues of that and other Berryman cartoons made the bear smaller and cuter.[4]

So there you go, Roosevelt thought himself too much of a man to kill a bear that was already trapped, because he loved action and danger. If he was face to face with the bear, just the two of them he would surely have killed it with his bare hands. Anyway, he ordered the bear to be killed anyway - to put it out of its misery. What a gentleman! Here's a picture of Theodore Roosevelt with a 'teddy bear'.

The fact that 'teddy bears' are named after him is quite ironic, a children's toy named after a man of such imperialistic dreams of grandeur, a man who rejoiced in war and killing, and a man who considered every human living in the third world as uncivilised people that could simply be crushed and used to for US interests and purposes.


Eguzki Lore

In the Basque Country, the eguzki lore can be found hanging from the main door of the traditional houses so as to protect them from evil spirits. Whilst the name of the flower translates literally as "sun flower" this is not the sun flower used for oil and seeds. A more appropriate translation would be "flower of the sun", but in English it is known as a thistle, and it grows in alpine regions.

In the Basque tradition, the house represented a sacred place where one lived in harmony with the land and the forebears. This place was protected by a constantly burning fire that lit the way for the souls of past family members and friends, by offering of food gifts to the dead, and by the eguzki lore.

The flower hanging on the wall represented the sun, but more importantly it acted as a guardian to the house. It is said that evil spirits, mainly 'lamiak' (mythological creatures with bird-like features that roamed the lands and loved stealing children from homes) were not good with numbers. When they found an eguzki lore on a door they had to count every single leave in the plant. As they struggled to count them all, and had to start counting again and again, the sun would rise from its sleep and the spirits would have to flee.

The Basque Country has been for centuries a predominantly catholic culture (although that is actually changing, and as in most of Europe, atheism is gaining ground), however, the ancient pagan traditions have lived amongst catholic belief and rituals to this day.

The eguzki lore still hangs in lots of houses in the Basque Country today.