Catalan Literature in the World: Speaking with Izaskun Arretxe

December 16, 2019   •   By Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi

I FIRST MET Izaskun Arretxe in 2018, during a brief visit to Barcelona. It was a warm fall day, and a friend and I had spent the morning hopping from one food market to another, eating jamón and squid-ink rice along the way and drinking Empordanès wines, which are bold and earthy and divine. We were not tipsy, but rather in what we jokingly referred to as an “elevated mood.” We walked from L’Eixample toward Avinguda Diagonal, talking about the unique brilliance of Catalan art, literature, cuisine, and architecture, and before we knew it we had arrived at what Catalans refer to as the Quadrat d’Or (the Golden Square), where Josep Puig i Cadafalch’s Palau Baró de Quadras sits alongside other gorgeous modernist palaces by Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner. It is a stunning view that surprises and delights me anew each time I see it. 


We had arranged a meeting with Izaskun, the literary director of the Institut Ramon Llull, which promotes the study and translation of Catalan literature. Before we sat down, Izaskun gave me a tour of the building. I was stunned. Entering the building, much like inhabiting a fantastical novel, requires viewers to suspend their disbelief, to become hypnotized by a complex, plural aesthetic that draws from Arab, medieval, Gothic, and Surreal aesthetics and materials alike. It is punctuated by arched doorways, gilded ironwork, floral stucco reliefs, ceramic tiles colored with flowers and trees, lavish columns, and glasswork skylights. It is a highly imaginative work of art.


It made perfect sense for the IRL to be housed in such an idiosyncratic historical building. The spirit of the Catalan people is equally astonishing: it is resilient, joyful, celebratory, and resolute. Once we sat down, Izaskun and I spoke about how these very qualities have been reinforced through Catalonia’s history, a history marked by cycles of political, economic, and legal oppression. Months after that meeting, Izaskun and I continued our conversation over email. We discussed the IRL’s mission and history, her personal relationship to Catalan, the current political crisis brought on by the Catalonia independence referendum in 2017 (which passed but was declared unconstitutional by the Spanish government), and the brilliant Catalan women writers who are only now being translated into English.


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AZAREEN VAN DER VLIET OLOOMI: Can you describe the mission and history of the Institut Ramon Llull? What was the sociocultural and political context that led to its founding?


IZASKUN ARRETXE: The mission of the Institut Ramon Llull is the promotion of Catalan language and culture around the world. I have three areas of work: literature, languages, and universities and creativity, which includes the international promotion of Catalan theater, cinema, music, visual arts, design, and architecture. The IRL is associated with the Government of the Generalitat of Catalunya, the Government of the Balearic Islands, and the City Council of Barcelona.


The Institut was created in 2002. Its foundation corresponds to a moment of institutional consolidation, when we felt the need to undertake exterior cultural promotion alongside other European countries.


Catalan is spoken by nine million people across Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia, Andorra, and the town of Alghero in Sardinia. It is a language that has survived great odds. The medieval still resurfaces in contemporary political discourses in Spain; for example, the new charter of self-government for Catalonia contains historical references dating back to 1359. Can you walk us through a brief history of Catalan language from its status as the official language of the Crown of Aragon to its decline after the War of Succession in 1714? 


Catalan is a language derived from Latin, first written down in the 12th century. The process by which it spread to all the territories where it is spoken today occurred between the 13th and 16th centuries, coinciding with an age of political, economic, and cultural expansion. After the 16th century, Catalan suffered decline as a language of culture, owing jointly to political, economic, and cultural factors, such as the unification of the Spanish kingdoms, the relocation of the court to Madrid, and the Decrees of Nueva Planta — laws instituted by King Philip V with the intention of creating an absolutist regime, which included a ban on the use of Catalan in the administration of justice. This situation was not reversed until the end of the 19th century.


What are the main funding sources for the IRL? How have funding trends shifted or changed as a result of the recent political crisis?


The principal sources of funding are the three governments that comprise the Consortium behind the Institut: the Generalitat of Catalunya, the Government of the Balearic Islands, and the City Council of Barcelona. With regard to the recent political crisis, the most direct consequence is that, for two consecutive years, we have been working on extended budgets, which make it possible to maintain already-existing projects, but make difficult the creation of new initiatives.


Despite this, we continue to work, in the area of literature, to promote more translations of Catalan literature, so that the voices of our authors might be heard throughout the world at festivals of literature and other events; for this, we seek to sponsor quality literary translators working in all possible languages. We go to all the most important fairs in the world, work closely with editors and agents in Barcelona, hold seminars on the translation of literature, bring festivals of Catalan poetry to the attention of international poetry organizers — this year we have a program with more than 120 activities and 150 authors (Catalan and Argentinian) at the Festival of the Book in Buenos Aires, where Barcelona was the “invited city.” It was quite exciting!


The IRL sponsors Catalan Language Instructors abroad. Some of the top universities in the United States — like Columbia, Harvard, and Berkeley — offer Catalan language classes. How are these funds acquired and distributed, and how do these relationships come about?


In regards to teaching, every year universities request a subvention from the IRL to help finance the cost of a professor of Catalan studies, with the respective contributions of the IRL and the university established earlier. Some of these contracts are regulated by a collaboration agreement (though perhaps in the United States this is less common). And those with chaired professorships, of course, have set contracts.


Some universities (such as Berkeley) offer Catalan education without our help, though we contribute to (or finance) the organization of academic and cultural activities which complement and increase the visibility of their academic programs. We also offer programs that sharpen the Catalan fluency of students at all universities — e.g., summer programs in Catalan-speaking territories, as well as specialized courses, for instance on translation. All these initiatives are part of the “Language and Universities” area, directed by Ariadna Puiggené. 


The institute aims to bring Catalan authors and books to the international market. How does the institute decide which authors to feature in their promotional booklets? Are there Catalan women writers — contemporary and otherwise — you would like to see translated into English?


To begin, it is very important to establish that we do not sell an author’s rights — this is what agents and publishers do; instead, we help promote literature. This means that we work side by side with those who sell publishing rights, but our role is to act as patrons of literature and facilitators of international editions.


We also have to go further than publishers, as we have a specific duty with respect to the classics and to genres which are not in great demand, such as theater and poetry.


Even so, when we go to literary fairs (and we attend many through the year: Frankfurt, London, Paris, BEA, New York Rights Fair, Beijing, Bologna, Guadalajara, et cetera), we certainly produce promotional materials focusing on concrete works and authors. We do this because of the specific dynamics at such fairs, where meetings are limited to half an hour and one has to bring concise material to present. Every year, we produce catalogs of contemporary Catalan fiction and of literature for children and young adults. Every two years, we do the same for nonfiction, which is the fastest-growing genre worldwide at the moment; we also prepare a biannual catalog of contemporary classics, which we periodically revise to ensure international attention for important works, and to include new titles.


Since our materials aim to present a view of the literary works produced throughout the year, we seek to include generational, geographic, gender, and genre diversity, and promote the offerings of a variety of publishing houses.


It is a complicated sudoku: mostly because we must be up-to-date on what is published, read and evaluate everything, and make our selections. We do this most of all within the literature “area.” At the meetings, which you should see, everyone defends their proposals and we “fight” until we come to agreement, which is very enriching.


Regarding classics by female writers, when we decided a few years ago to renew the classic authors that we presented around the world, we realized that we had included very few women writers, and so undertook to incorporate some for the first time: Aurora Bertrana, Montserrat Roig, Víctor Català (a.k.a Caterina Albert), Cèlia Suñol, Maria Mercè Marçal, just to name a few. And little by little, the translations are coming. What has been very useful as material to present at fairs is the book that Raig Verd and the Barcelona City Council will publish in English, Women Writers in Catalan, which highlights 55 women writers, classic and contemporary. English-language presses ask about this book and see it as valuable, and we are sure that there will be further new translations of Catalan women authors forthcoming.


How do your relationships in the literary world aid Catalonia during this moment of crisis? Do you think book fairs and other events help the effort toward establishing Catalan autonomy?


Culture and literature are always a window linking a country to the world; they permit one to explain one’s country. In a moment when the world is paying attention to our political situation, I think it’s useful to know about our underlying cultural history. This can help with understanding our situation.


What was your relationship to Catalan language and literature growing up?


My family is Basque, and my family linguistic environment is Castilian. But my parents, surely on account of their Basque origin, have great sensitivity for the linguistic reality of the place to which they emigrated. At the beginning of the ’70s, when this wasn’t an obvious move, they made sure to enroll us in a Catalan-language school. Franco had not yet died. I always say that we were immigrants from a “normal” country, who arrived in a new linguistic reality, different from that at home, and integrated: it’s as if, for example, we had emigrated to England.


And it was by way of us, the second generation, that my parents began to speak Catalan; I remember my mother paying me and my brothers to speak in Catalan, to push us to learn it. From there, my relation with the language was very normal, at school, at the Institute — I’ve been very comfortable in a Catalan-speaking environment, to the point that, when it came to deciding my path of study, I chose Catalan philology, with a specialization in Catalan literature.


Who is your favorite historical writer? Favorite contemporary writer? 


If I had to choose a classic writer, it would be Ausiàs March, a great poet of the 15th century, for the radical modernity of his focus on the great dilemmas of humanity — which he explores with a tremendous expressive force. There are a variety of anthologies translating his poems into English; the most recent is by Robert Archer.


Because of my position, it would be inelegant to choose a favorite Catalan writer (there are so many good ones!) —so I’ll instead highlight Bernardo Atxaga, a Basque author with an extraordinary sensitivity, with a style all his own, which permits him to speak without artifice about contemporary political and social topics, as well as about the depths of human nature.


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Note: This interview was translated from the Spanish by Mihow McKenny, a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Notre Dame.


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Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi is the author of Call Me Zebra.


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Banner image: “Palau del Baró de Quadras (Barcelona)” by Enfo is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.