On 4 June 2015, eight literary translators from across Europe convened to battle it out at European Literature Night VII: The Translation Pitch. The challenge? To pitch a book as yet unpublished in English to a panel of publishing professionals. The prize? A PEN Samples grant, worth £250. Here, we speak to translator Angela Rodel, whose enthusiastic pitch for Bulgarian author Vladimir Zarev‘s ‘Ruin’ won her the top spot.
First of all, congratulations on your win at ELN: The Translation Pitch! The competition was fierce and the judges asked some difficult questions, so a huge well done for coming out on top. When did you first come into contact with Zarev’s work, and how did you come to take ‘Ruin’ on as a translation project?
I first came to know Zarev’s work thanks to the German media. In 2009 a Bulgarian friend of mine who was living in Germany and studying literature saw an article about Vladimir Zarev’s ‘Ruin’ in the German press and asked me to buy a copy of the Bulgarian original and send it to him – so, of course, intrigued, I bought one for myself as well! I read the novel and loved it – I am a fan of the “classic European novel” as is the author himself – and began working my way through his other books. However, since my daughter had just been born in 2009, I wasn’t able to sit down to tackle the translation until a few years later, after I met the author at a literary reading here in Sofia and we were both excited to go ahead with the project.
‘Ruin’ has proved extremely popular in the German translation. What do you think it is about the novel that translates well for a German audience?
Of course, since half of Germany lived under socialism, I think the topic itself – the fall of socialism and its consequences – naturally piques many German readers’ interest, especially since the events of 1989 had a very different denouement in Bulgaria and elsewhere in Eastern Europe than in Germany. However, I think the fuller explanation lies in Zarev’s narrative style – he weaves a solid, multi-layered plot and is not afraid to delve deeply into characters’ psychology or to wrestle with the philosophical questions the story raises. He doesn’t shy away from tackling the Big Ideas: sex, love, family, God, brutality, and power, but he does so with a sense of vulnerability and humor. It is no surprise German critics have compared him to classic European writers such as Thomas Mann; clearly the tradition that gave us Mann and Hesse and Broch still has an appetite for Zarev’s style of storytelling.
As mentioned in your pitch, German critic Martin Ebel called ‘Ruin’ “the novel about the changes in all of Eastern Europe. We expected this book to appear in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary or even Germany itself, but instead it came from Bulgaria.” What do you think of this? Why Bulgaria?
I think “the novel about the changes” came from Bulgaria precisely because the changes were so incredibly traumatizing here, and Bulgarians are still struggling with the fall-out of 1989 more than 25 years later. Unlike the Czech Republic or Poland, there was no true “revolution” in Bulgaria in which the opposition swept the communists from power; in Bulgaria, although there were public protests in the fall of 1989, the removal of the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov came about as a Party-internal coup, whose leaders then remained in power on and off for the next decade. This allowed the communist-era secret services and other members of the nomenclature to establish themselves as the new “capitalists”, while the mafia and organized crime flourished unchecked. No lustration laws were ever passed, the communist-era State Security archives have not fully been opened to this day – in short, there has been no clean break with the past. Despite being a member of the European Union, Bulgaria is still struggling with the consequences of this protracted “transition” and its legacy of corruption, nepotism and lack of transparency. Because the process here was so frustrating and painful, perhaps more so than anywhere else in the Eastern Bloc, this has provided fuel for lots of public discussion and great artwork, including Vladimir Zarev’s ‘Ruin’.
Fiction telling the story of the decline of communism in Eastern Europe can contribute to a much-needed alternative narrative on the (history of the) region and its relationship to the rest of Europe. Though set in the early 1990s, do you think ‘Ruin’ holds a particular relevance for today?
Absolutely. I think in light of what is going on with Greece right now, Europeans are starting to realize that the Balkans are a very distinct region and that many of the region’s current problems have deep roots going back centuries, making them difficult to resolve in the short spans bailout packages or even structural funds provide to “solve” the problems. It is easy to blame “corrupt, lazy” southern countries in the EU, without realizing that they are struggling under a historical burden from their communist and even Ottoman past that makes their cultures and societies quite different from their Northern European counterparts. This is not to say that Balkan peoples or Eastern Europeans are helpless in the face of history, but rather we should understand that the challenges they face are not always easily resolved by fixes that might work on other parts of the continent with very different political and social histories. I think ‘Ruin’ offers a unique window on what Bulgarians have faced over the past decades, which might be an eye-opener for their fellow Europeans who consider 1989 a watershed and who might find themselves losing patience with Bulgaria and other Eastern Bloc countries’ seeming inability to defeat the Hydra that is corruption.
How did you find the experience of live pitching to publishers in front of an audience – useful? Enjoyable? Terrifying?
I actually had quite a lot of fun with the pitch – but then again, as a musician, I am used to being onstage, usually singing rather than talking, but since I was “singing” Zarev’s praises it wasn’t so far out of the ordinary. I think I was most nervous about hearing feedback from my fellow translators on the excerpt, since we, being from the same guild, are perhaps our own harshest critics (as it turns out, my fellow translator-tribesmen were very merciful and gracious!). The publishers’ post-pitch comments and questions for the translators were extremely useful – it gave me a much better idea of the sorts of things they are looking for (or not) in a book.
What have been the most useful aides in getting your translations published – have you used any schemes, mentorships, other grants? What are the biggest obstacles facing you as a translator?
The biggest obstacle was breaking into the English-language fiction market, since Bulgaria, unlike most countries even from Eastern Europe, did not have a “Big Name” in prose (Kundera, Kadare, Ivo Andric etc.) that could help open the door for other writers; Bulgaria was essentially the black hole on the literary map. The lack of a Bulgarian Nobel Laureate is a cause for national teeth-gnashing and even hand-wringing even to this day! Thankfully, the absolutely wonderful Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, an NGO dedicated to supporting Bulgarian creative writing and fiction in translation, has been a key ally in getting Bulgarian novels published, since they were able to provide funding for the translations and pique US and UK publishers’ interest in Bulgarian literature. Prior to and in parallel to working with EKF, I had had some modest success submitting short stories and poetry to literary magazines, although that, too, is very difficult and takes an enormous amount of time and effort, more than most literary translators can afford to invest without starving or being forced to translate legalese to survive. But thanks to the EKF and their translation competitions, a new wave of Bulgarian literature has swept over the English-language market, and it has become much easier for me to pitch Bulgarian fiction to publishers – they now have a point of reference, as it were.
On publishing the most recent Literature Across Frontiers report on translated literature in the UK, LAF Director Alexandra Büchler found that “most Eastern European languages are seriously underrepresented and we are clearly missing out on entire swathes of literary landscapes in our immediate neighbourhood.” Why do you think there is such a dearth of literature being translated from Eastern European languages into English?
I think geo-political factors play a role to some extent – in the 1990s, after the fall of communism, there was heightened interest in the region, although Bulgarian literature, which was then exploding with poetry (and very good poetry at that!), missed the boat in some sense by not producing a highly visible prose work, and so we ended up in that absent swathe. During the 2000s, Eastern Europe was perhaps seen as passé, while other regions came into the spotlight. Perhaps the recent crisis in Ukraine will refocus attention, although this is a rather awful way to win back the limelight. Of course, there is also the cultural problem of native English-speakers’ often unspoken prejudice that translated = second-rate or “difficult”; just as subtitled movies have a hard time gaining traction, translated books also suffer from a stigma. Finally, from a purely literary standpoint, authors from Eastern Europe, where creative-writing programs do not really exist and hard-core literary editors à la Maxwell Perkins are a very rare thing indeed, often write fiction that is more experimental or raw than what would make it to the market in the US or UK – sometimes it takes a more adventurous reader to appreciate its charms, which can be disconcerting to audiences used to things being more ironed-out.
You mentioned in your pitch that the Bulgarian government has just created a Center for the Book to encourage the translation of Bulgarian literature. Can you expand a little on this initiative – what are its aims, and do you think we’ll see more Bulgarian literature here in the UK as a result of it? What do you think governments/cultural institutions can do to encourage more literature to be translated?
The National Book Center of Bulgaria at the National Palace of Culture has recently been founded to support both the publication of books by Bulgarian authors in Bulgarian and to provide funding for translation of Bulgarian books abroad. I would definitely like to think we’ll see more Bulgarian literature in the UK – and the US; until now, publishers were apprehensive of taking on the entire financial risk of publishing literature from a little-known country, since many publishers specializing in translation are boutique presses with small catalogues. But now that they see that Bulgarian institutions are firmly backing their own writers and willing to put their money where their mouth is, this should go a long way towards convincing publishers who may have been hesitant to promote Bulgarian literature. For small languages, for better or for worse, I think it is crucial that governments, cultural institutions and NGOs play the role of intermediary on the international publishing stage, otherwise it is extremely difficult for writers and translators to get their work out there.
In an ideal world, which UK publisher would you hope picks up the rights to ‘Ruin’?
I would be ecstatic to see ‘Ruin’ published by the likes of Canongate or Grove or Peter Owen! But the most important thing is that the publisher feels as passionate about this work as the author and I do.
And finally, the elevator pitch! Can you sum up the book in three sentences for us?
‘Ruin’ is a novel about the economic and spiritual destruction Bulgaria suffered during the turbulent “Transition” from communism to democracy. In the early 1990s, the main character Martin Sestrimsky, a middle-aged novelist, is reduced to physical and creative impotence: terminally unemployed, unable to write, he is slipping into alcoholism. Martin’s wry, first-person narrative chronicles his descent into ruin, but his creative salvation comes in the form of a parallel story about the Transition’s new elite – the mafia thugs and white-collar criminals who have hijacked the country.
Angela Rodel is a professional literary translator living and working in Bulgaria. She holds a BA from Yale and an MA from UCLA in linguistics. She received a 2014 NEA translation grant for Georgi Gospodinov’s novel ‘The Physics of Sorrow’ (Open Letter, 2015), as well as a 2010 PEN America/Heim Translation Fund Grant for Georgi Tenev’s short story collection ‘Holy Light’ – the first time a Bulgarian-language work has received either award. Her translations of Milen Ruskov’s novel ‘Thrown into Nature’ (2011), Zachary Karabashliev’s ‘18% Gray’ (2013) and Angel Igov’s ‘A Short Tale of Shame’ (2013) have been published by Open Letter Books. Her translation of Georgi Tenev’s ‘Party Headquarters’ will be released in fall of 2015. The UK publishing house Istros Books published her translation of Virginia Zaharieva’s novel ‘Nine Rabbits in 2012’, which was rereleased by Black Balloon in the US in 2014. Her translation of Ivan Dimitrov’s play, ‘The Eyes of Others’, was performed at the Ohio Theater in New York City in September 2012. Her poetry and prose translations have also appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including McSweeney’s, Little Star, Granta, Two Lines and Words Without Borders, among others. In 2014, she was awarded Bulgarian citizenship for her translation work and contribution to Bulgarian culture.
This interview was originally published on English PEN Writers in Translation blog on 13th July, 2015