La traduction de la Bible au Pays Basque. Aperçu historique
Jesus M. Zabaleta


Translating the Bible in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country)

The history of versions of the Bible in Basque language began with the publication, in 1571, of the translation of the New Testament into the dialect of Lapurdi (Labourd), by the Calvinist minister Joanes Leizarraga.

This took place twelve years after Juana de Albret, Queen of Navarre and Lady of Bearn, publicly abjured the Catholic faith and embraced Calvin's Reformation in the Easter of 1559.

The Queen of Navarre tried to impose the Reformation throughout her territories, i.e. in what remained of the Kingdom of Navarre after is annexation by the Kingdom of Castile, as well as in the Merindad of Ultrapuertos and the Bearn province.

This policy gained the adherence of the population and of the nobility of Zuberoa and even of part of the nobility from Basse-Navarre, but not of its population, who opposed to it.

The translation of the New Testament into the Basque language was a part of the plan to establish the Reformation in the country. It was basically based upon the translation into French made by Pierre Robert, also known as Olivetan (it should be remembered that the Latin Vulgate did not necessarily have any value of "originality" from the point of view of a Calvinist minister), This same text would be adopted, after several corrections, as the official one for the Calvinists and was edited in 1688, after the publication of Leizarraga´s text.

As happens in many other languages, the translation of the Bible (in this case, only the N.T.) into Basque, was one of the first books published in this language, in fact it was the second. Bearing in mind the lack of records as references, it is astonishing the degree of perfection attained in this first edition. Nevertheless, as the Reformation undertaken in the Kingdom of Navarre did not prosper, this translation did not spread as might have been expected for a work of such quality, until three centuries later. Some of the books included in the translated scripture were re-edited, mainly by the London Biblical Society.

Over the next centuries two more translations of the Bible into Basque were made. The first translation of the Old Testament, made in England by P. D'Urte (c.1700) was not published until the end of the XIX century, and its use was practically limited to its linguistic value. The translation of the New Testament was not published until 1855 in a revised version.

After a number of translations and publications by Protestants, in the first third of the XIX century, the first complete translation of the Bible appears, together with many partial translations in the third quarter of the same century. The initiative of all this vast production and effort of translating, was that of Prince Lucien Bonaparte, the eminent philologist and linguist. His interest for the Basque language and particularly for its dialectological aspects induced him to create a group of aficionados, all translators. Special mention amongst them should go to J. Duvoisin, who translated the Bible into the dialect of Lapurdi (published in London between 1859 and 1865). Another worthy was J.A Uriart, a monk from Biscay to whom Bonaparte commended the translation of the Bible into the dialect of Gipuzkoa, and parts of it into other dialects. Only the first books of this translation of the Old Testament were edited. More than the very limited editions of the translated texts themselves (from one to two hundred and fifty copies were sold), the linguistic and literary erudition of the team of aficionados and experts made great impact.

In the first half of the present century, very few biblical translations come to light, until in 1959 the complete translation of the Bible, left unpublished by R. Olabide, on his death seventeen years earlier, was published. The utter purist tendency that this translation demonstrates in its style of language made understanding very difficult and its acceptance by the public and its use in liturgy almost impossible.

The second Vatican Council promoted Bible translations again. In 1977 an Inter-ecclesiastical Commission was created for the translation of the Bible which, after publishing the New Testament, is now working on the translation of the Old Testament. Likewise, the Inter-diocesan Liturgical Commission for the translation of the Bible published its version of the New Testament in 1980.