What Is Written for You: From Starvation to Salvation in Bulgaria

Angela Rodel
From the November/December 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

How did I become a translator of Bulgarian literature? Americans love to ask me this, while most Bulgarians shrug this question off, saying, “Taka ti e pisano” (“That’s what is written for you”)—by the hand of fate, presumably. While I’ve never been much of a believer in fate, or a fan of starvation, I have always had a propensity for the exotic, the off-the-beaten-path. Not surprisingly, my first celebrity crush as a child was Cyndi Lauper, and I dressed the part with bracelets all the way up both arms and a turquoise shag-rug vest. This was followed by infatuations with punk rock and finally Bulgarian folk music. You don’t have to be Freud’s second cousin to figure out why the exotic might attract a white girl from Minnesota, where the closest thing we have to ethnic identity is a vague vision of Teutonic great-grandparents coming across the ocean to take up their poses in American Gothic. (And yes, I got hit by lots of snowballs from kids who didn’t appreciate my attempt at flamboyance.) 

So how could I resist when my high school suddenly started offering Russian alongside milquetoast German, Spanish, and French? My sixteen-year-old heart skipped a beat when I saw the Cyrillic letters frolicking across the Language Arts bulletin board, the frilly, coquettish Ж, the cat-tailed Ц, and poor “backward” Я. A happy coincidence or fate? In any case, the Cyrillic alphabet led me to study Russian literature and Slavic linguistics at Yale, where I got my first taste of Bulgarian folksinging thanks to the Yale Slavic Chorus. When I heard the choir sing the first few notes of a Bulgarian song, belted out in sternum-shattering voices, I knew I had found my newest obsession: the mystery of Bulgarian voices. The tightly packed, dissonant harmonies, the razor-sharp timbre of unapologetically loud voices meant to be heard across a field or across a mountaintop—it made my hair stand on end and my whole soul resonate. I didn’t know this love affair would last far longer than Cyndi Lauper or punk rock had, and that it would be even more deeply transformational. 

In 1996, after I graduated from Yale, I was off to Bulgaria like a shot to study Bulgarian language and folksinging at the source, on a one-year Fulbright grant. But when I landed in gritty, gray Sofia at the height of an economic and political spasm brought on by hyperinflation and inept governance, the Bulgarian voice I thought I knew was nowhere to be found; the haunting voice of the shepherd had been largely drowned out in the postsocialist cacophony. That didn’t cool my interest in Bulgaria but rather stoked it, as this turn of events forced me to pay attention to the other, more contemporary Bulgarian voices on the cultural scene. 

After bouncing back and forth between Bulgaria and grad school in ethnomusicology at UCLA for more years than I should probably admit publicly, in 2004 I landed a Fulbright-Hays grant to study Bulgarian folksinging. Again, was it happy coincidence or fate that the first week I arrived, a Japanese friend and fellow Bulgarian-music-o-phile took me to a party, which just happened to be the after party of a book launch? There we fell into an hours-long jam session with a pair of Bulgarian poets, who also happened to be musicians. At the end of the night they asked me to join the band they were starting. So I did, and what subsequently became known as an “ethno-rock-poetry band,” playing at readings, book launches, literary festivals, and art performances, introduced me to the world of contemporary Bulgarian literature. One of our earliest gigs was part of Liturne (Lit Tour), a flash mob before flash mobs were known in Bulgaria. We lugged a decrepit amplifier around downtown Sofia, begging electricity from coffee shops and screeching out poetry and music to any passersby who cared to listen. Our fellow mobsters included some folks destined to become solid names in the Bulgarian literary scene: Georgi Gospodinov, Dimiter Kenarov, Angel Igov, and others. Through these adventures I realized that the literary scene in Bulgaria was surprisingly vibrant: It seemed deliciously old-world, like Paris in the 1920s, with writers gathered in circles and generations, everyone knowing everyone else (for better or worse). There was a real sense of discourse; readings took place almost every evening, followed by brandy-, cigarette-, and feta-cheese-fueled debates in cafés and pubs. The writing itself was very raw, experimental in form and content, daring and provocative, not shoehorned to fit publishers’ or even readers’ expectations.

Speaking of pubs: I was sitting in one in 2005 as my Fulbright-Hays grant was winding down, laughing, drinking, and haranguing with a group of Bulgarian writers. I recall very vividly the thought that occurred to me in dead seriousness for the first time: I could just stay. And in comparison to the forbidding landscape that is academia in the United States, the landscape of Bulgaria in the early 2000s did not look anywhere near as starvation-prone: The country had just joined NATO; EU accession was around the corner; and the arts, including literature, were in an upswing after the lean decade following 1989. So with just four hundred dollars in my bank account and no clear plan, I snipped the lifeline to my American existence. 

As a linguistics geek in my heart of hearts, I had always thought translation would be fun, yet had never seriously considered it as a career. But now, faced with survival beyond the apron- and-purse strings of the university, I looked around and found a gig: translating for Vagabond, a lifestyle magazine of sorts for expats in Bulgaria, whose editor in chief was Anthony Georgieff (picture the quintessential cigar-chomping, green-visor-wearing editor of Hollywood lore, but with a cigarette and fedora instead). Not only did this gig stave off starvation, but to this day I am thankful for Anthony’s unminced words, which were a necessary crash course for me in nuts-and-bolts editing and translating, which my fancy Yale education in linguistics and literature hadn’t provided me with. I learned not to hover too closely over the original text, but also not to take too many liberties with the style and content. On the side, I continued translating literature informally as I had done over the past year, helping out friends and friends-of-friends who needed poems, short stories, and novel excerpts translated into English—as well as writing query letters to magazines and publishers. Most of these early efforts disappeared into the void that is the English-language publishing world, sinking like a brick in a bog. Who had heard of Bulgaria then, let alone Bulgarian literature? Bulgaria had no Nobel laureate, no Big Novel as most Eastern European countries had. My first “real” literary job with the promise of “real” pay was working with Georgi Tenev to translate his Party Headquarters—which had won the Vick Prize, given annually for the best Bulgarian novel, but which, due to a string of errors that I can in hindsight call comedic, has not yet seen the light of day. It will be published by Open Letter in February 2016.

Although there were good translators working from Bulgarian to French and German at that time, native speakers of English willing and able to translate Bulgarian literature were few and far between. So perhaps it really was “written for me,” or perhaps it was just a happy accident, but I turned out to be in the right place at the right time: I was a native speaker of English with close ties to the Sofia literary scene, and the wonderful Elizabeth Kostova Foundation (EKF) had just fired up in 2007, beginning to lay the necessary groundwork to get English-language publishers and magazines interested in the black hole that Bulgarian literature appeared to be to the outside world. Thanks to EKF and its outreach efforts, I was eventually able to get paying jobs translating Bulgarian literature practically full-time. The threat of starvation receded, replaced by the hope of salvation: There was so much good meat for the soul out there, calling out to be translated. And finally some American publishers were ready to join the feast. 

The bulk of this new soul-meat—for me, at least—was the new prose coming out in the 2000s. To give a brief history of recent Bulgarian literature: The year 1989 remains a muddled boundary in Bulgaria. Unlike the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia or the smashing of the Berlin Wall, what happened here was more akin to an ignoble perestroika, an internal coup in which communist insiders deposed the longtime dictator, Todor Zhivkov. While a change to democracy ensued, the state security apparatus and much of the nomenclature remained largely in place, with the communists-turned-socialists winning elections on and off for the next two decades while reformers struggled with the frustrating lack of lustration laws and political will to curb corruption. 

Against this tumultuous backdrop, it is not surprising that in the 1990s Bulgarian writers largely turned inward—producing highly psychological, confessional writing, often experimental in form. This was not only a rejection of communist-era monumentalism, but also a demonstrative way to give the bird to the perceived degradation of Bulgarian culture. During this time, poetry was the chosen genre for many writers, given its commercially antithetical nature. This, however, combined with the dearth of dissident prose from socialist times, made it difficult for Bulgarian writers to ride the post-1989 wave of interest in Eastern European literature, which was centered primarily on prose. 

Much of this changed with the international success of Georgi Gospodinov’s Natural Novel, which was published in Bulgaria in 1999 and released by Dalkey Archive Press in English in 2005, and is both highly postmodernist and erudite yet infinitely readable. Indeed, the early years of the twenty-first century saw a surge of novels from Bulgarian writers who, like Gospodinov, were previously better known for their poetry, as well as from younger writers who had come of age postsocialism and who embraced an international idiom with the novel as its flagship form.  

So how I did I dig into this meat? Since I became a translator rather by accident, I had to devise my strategies from scratch. Unlike translators who work with “big languages” such as Spanish or French, I unfortunately didn’t have an MA program or even a community of fellow English-speaking natives, off whom I could bounce my linguistics woes (although plenty of English-speaking Bulgarian friends were invaluable in this regard). For example, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire for nearly five centuries, thus some of the most colorful words in Bulgarian today are Turkish borrowings that, when used in place of their Slavic synonyms, add a facetious flavor, like a good inside joke. (Juxtaposed against the dull Slavic turgoviya for “trade” or “business,” the Turkish borrowing alushverish, with its tang of not-quite-aboveboard wheeling-and-dealing, is far more vivid: To my great amusement, in Istanbul I have seen stores advertise their alushverish in broad daylight!) The liveliness these Turkishisms continue to inject in the Bulgarian language can most clearly be seen in Bay Ganyo, a late nineteenth-century fictional character invented by Aleko Konstantinov. In the novel of the same name, a group of college students tells stories about Bay Ganyo, an archetypal backwoods slyboots and huckster of rose oil who goes around Europe committing cringeworthy cultural faux pas. Interestingly enough, however, to the twenty-first-century reader, Bay Ganyo himself actually sounds more vivid and “contemporary” thanks in large part to the Turkishisms that pepper his speech, while the students describing his exploits sound irretrievably archaic and stilted to the modern ear—a testament to the enduring power of this lexical subset in Bulgarian language and literature. The anguish for the English-language translator is that we have no corresponding register that captures the tongue-in-cheek tang of this vocabulary—perhaps certain Yiddish borrowings such as putz and shyster in American English come closest, but they lack the whole corresponding cultural-historical paradigm that Turkish borrowings in Bulgarian bring in tow.

Socialist terminology is another bugbear for the American translator of Bulgarian literature, since we again have no sociohistorical parallel, while much of contemporary Bulgarian literature addresses the country’s socialist past. One hallmark of socialist-speak is its bombastic nonsensicality—highfalutin phrases that upon further inspection are devoid of content, or rather, the content itself is in the very bombastic sense of the words rather than in their meaning. Hence the translator is faced with the uncomfortable task of trying to capture this pathos-laden hollowness without sounding merely like a bad translation. This challenge has dogged me for years, most recently rearing its head in Georgi Gospodinov’s The Physics of Sorrow, my translation of which was published in English by Open Letter this past spring. The novel is a rumination on childhood, which for Gospodinov was lived out under socialism and hence inextricably linked with it; the author makes use of socialist-speak, often for comic or nostalgic effect, as in this “Letter to a Young Comsomol Member”:

Dear Young Man, 

There are moments in a person’s life that are never forgotten. Today, with trembling hands you untie the knot of your scarlet Pioneer’s neckerchief, replacing it with a red Comsomol membership booklet. This is a symbol of the great trust the Party and our heroic and hardworking people have in you. 

Be decent and daring in word and deed! Dedicate the drive of your youth and the wisdom of your mature years to that which is dearest to all generations—the Homeland!

Here at least I was saved by the fact that Gospodinov himself comments on the absurdity of the language: “Yet another stellar example of socialist-speak. I now see that it is a mouthful: Be decent and daring in word and deed! Dedicate the drive.… What are all those Ds, why make the tongue scoot along on its ass?” In Georgi Tenev’s Party Headquarters, however, another work riddled with socialist-speak, I’ve had to plunge wholeheartedly into the pathos, hoping the reader will follow suit and recognize this as a deliberate stylistic choice. 

The poetic aspect of Bulgarian prose is another challenge, with Gospodinov again as a good example. He cut his teeth as a poet, thus the sound of his prose, the rhythm, is extremely important. Indeed, much of the expressiveness of The Physics of Sorrow comes from this poetic sensibility—the emotional impact comes from his brief, poignant snapshots of being. I was lucky to be a translator in situ, living in the epicenter of Bulgarian literary production during the months I worked on the translation. I would get together regularly with Gospodinov to pick his brain, run ideas past him, and ruminate about the best ways to tackle a particular passage—all over coffee, of course. 

So, when asked another question Americans love: What are you doing in Bulgaria? My facetious answer is “Having fun!” But it’s actually not at all far from the truth. Being a translator of Bulgarian literature is one of the best, most intellectually and spiritually fulfilling careers I could imagine—despite the lurking specter of starvation. I prefer to see it as artistic salvation from the workaday world, an outlet for my own creativity, which also allows me to give back to this strange and wonderful country that has been kind enough to take me in and offer me a home. It has been an honor for me to serve as a bridge through which the international literary community has come to know wonderful Bulgarian works. And as portentous as it may sound, now that I have a Bulgarian passport, I seem to have gotten a Bulgarian state of mind right along with it: I just might agree that through some strange twist of fate, these books and this translator’s life that I have come to love were in some small way also written for me


Angela Rodel is a professional literary translator living and working in Bulgaria. She received a 2014 NEA translation grant for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel The Physics of Sorrow (Open Letter Books, 2015), as well as a 2010 PEN Translation Fund Grant for Georgi Tenev’s story collection Holy Light. Five novels in her translation have been published by U.S. and UK publishers.