Chejov vs Shakespeare: interview with Zaldua and Robertson

Euskara. Kultura. Mundura.

2019-02-28

Writers Iban Zaldua and James Robertson will participate in the Chekhov vs Shakespeare initiative, within the 2019 Scotland Goes Basque program, promoted by the Etxepare Basque Institute. From February to July, they will exchange twelve letters, writing six each; in them they will reflect on Europe, identity, language and literature, and the exchange will allow to know the point of view of the authors on these subjects.

Writers Iban Zaldua and James Robertson will participate in the Chekhov vs Shakespeare initiative, within the 2019 Scotland Goes Basque program, promoted by the Etxepare Basque Institute. From February to July, they will exchange twelve letters, writing six each; in them they will reflect on Europe, identity, language and literature, and the exchange will allow to know the point of view of the authors on these subjects.

Why did you accept the invitation to participate in Chejov vs. Shakespeare?

Iban Zaldua: First and foremost, because I’m a curious person and the project aroused my curiosity. I’m always ready to stick up for Chekhov because he was a storyteller and I think his humility and devotion to small things are more effective literary tools than Shakespeare´s tendency toward chaos. And secondly, when Donostia was the 2016 European Capital of Culture, I was asked to take part in the project, but I wasn’t able to for personal reasons. The proposal seemed interesting to me so this edition will help me fill that gap.

James Robertson: For three reasons. First, I am interested in other so-called ‘minority’, ‘regional’ or ‘lesser-used’ languages, because of my own use of Scots and interest in Scottish Gaelic. Experience has shown me that similar issues and challenges political, cultural, linguistic, translational often apply to these languages wherever they are located in the world. Basque language and literature, of which I am quite ignorant, are therefore immediately interesting to me.

Second, I want to build connections between Scots and other European languages, including Basque. As someone who wishes to see Scotland as an independent country committed to European and international co-operation, I am appalled by the whole Brexit saga and keen to make direct links between my country’s culture and that of other parts of Europe.

Third, I am interested in the process of translation and what happens when words and ideas travel between different languages.

As a writer, what do you expect from this project?

I.Z.: I would like the project to serve as an incentive: starting to create from a proposed theme, much like commissioned work, lets you explore new ideas, travel other paths ... I hope the project surprises me. If I was involved in "turbocapitalist coaching", I’d have to say something about "moving out of my comfort zone", but I won’t for everyone’s sake ... I personally hope to learn about Scotland, the Scottish people, society and literature.

J.R.: To learn more about Basque language and literature; to have my own priorities and positions challenged; to apply some of the things I learn from Ivan Zaldua to my own practice; to produce more work in Scots as a result.

Did you see the set of letters you are going to write as part of your literary work?

I.Z.: For better or worse, everything we create is part of our work. As time passes, writers regret certain things. There’s no way around it. In any case, I´ll try to do my best to made sure the material I write for this project doesn’t fall into that category. Anyway, I’d say that to a greater or lesser extent, everything we write is personal, although this epistolary format can leave my "I" more exposed than on other occasions.

J.R.: Yes. These letters will be as carefully constructed as a poem or piece of fiction. I want them to be statements of my opinions and observations that I can defend for some time. Also, they will be published for others to read, so they had better be as good as I can make them!

You are going to exchange letters with Iban Zaldua / James Robertson. Did you know each other?

I.Z.: No. That means there may be more of a surprise factor during our relationship. I like that aspect.

J.R.: No, we have never met and his work is new to me. I am reading some of his essays and short stories in translation (in English) in order to learn more about him and his writing.

You are going to share thoughts about topics such as Europe, identity, language and literature. Do you have any particular concern that you would like to share or talk about?

I.Z.: I’m concerned about all these issues: the European project – or at least one of the projects – is in deep crisis, and I believe that hard times are coming. Identity, because as time passes, I have more doubts. I’d say that 25 years ago I was more certain of my identity than I am today. Languages: Euskera and Scot are minority languages that have a hard time keeping themselves alive, and that is a great challenge. And literature because, among other things, more and more "literary products" take precedence over literature itself.

J.R.: Yes, as indicated earlier, these topics are very important, especially at the moment with Brexit and given the uncertain political situations of Scotland, the Basque country, Catalonia and other parts of Europe. Literature, identity, language and culture all affect, and are affected by, political circumstances. I don’t think it is possible for Iban and me to write these letters and not touch on the political dimension.

We tend to write fewer and fewer letters. Do you like the format? Do you still write letters?

I.Z.: Well, I think I´ve never stopped writing and sending letters, even if I don’t do it by hand, as before. This exercise that I´m going to do with James is not going to stray too far from my usual letter writing: the biggest difference will be that instead of writing the texts in Gmail or Outlook, we’ll use a word processor, so we can later send the document as an attachment to those responsible for the translations. This is how I´m going to work; In fact, that’s how I do it nowadays anyhow. I write letters with a word processor and then copy them to email. Anyway, I am aware that email is becoming obsolete, and increasingly shorter and instantaneous systems are becoming more frequent. But I think that, whether shorter or longer, I’ll always write letters, even if I don’t use a pen, paper, envelopes or stamps...

J.R.: I don’t write many actual letters, nor do I receive many. Nearly all of my correspondence is by email. There is something civilised and permanent about a letter, especially a physical one printed and signed and posted. It requires care to write a good letter. Again, this is an excellent reason for participating in this project!

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