FROM THE FOLIO:
AN INTERVIEW WITH DRUNKEN BOAT 23’s IZIDORA ANGEL
In this interview series From the Folio, we converse with folio contributors from the current issue of the Drunken Boat magazine.
Drunken Boat 23’s Bulgarian Literature folios feature poetry and prose translations by essayist and translator Izidora Angel. Her excerpt from The Same Night Awaits Us All: Diary of a Novel, originally published in 2014 by Bulgarian author Hristo Karastoyanov, recreates significant events in the life of the great early 20th century poet Geo Milev. In DB 23’s Bulgarian poetry folio, Angel also translates one of Geo Milev’s poems as well as another by his contemporary Peyo Yavorov.
This interview, conducted through a series of emails with Angel, focuses on her translation of the novel, contemporary Bulgaria and Bulgarian literature, and her writing process and career. Izidora Angel’s The Same Night Awaits Us All: Diary of a Novel will be published by Open Letter Books in the spring of 2017.
Peter Mishler: This is your first novel in translation. Is there something about The Same Night Awaits Us All that will captivate an English audience?
Izidora Angel: I read maybe half a page of the novel and I knew: I absolutely had to bring it to life in English. I’d never had such a visceral reaction to something I’d read, a pressing urgency that I must do something with it. The fact that I actually could do something was incredibly lucky. Imagine if Dostoyevsky and Tarantino sat down in a bar, that’s what this book is like: it’s potent, political, graphic, with guns and chases and flawed heroes, numerous villains and a distinct intellectuality and a rebelliousness within that intellectuality, all set within a real period in time, featuring real historical figures and events. And I think it presents a different perspective on very well known international events that have never really been told from the Bulgarian perspective in this way: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the October Revolution, Lenin’s funeral, the terrorist attack on the St. Nedelya Cathedral in Sofia (still one of the bloodiest in Europe; the excerpt containing this part appears in this issue of DB). I think the English-speaking reader loves WWI and II literature and this offers a pretty badass take on a two-year period in between the two wars, from the point of view of two men — the poet Geo Milev and the anarchist Georgi Sheytanov — in a small country on the Black Sea that was kind of caught in between Russia and Germany’s titanic appetites.
PM: Tell me more about how familiar historical events are rendered uniquely in the novel. Are they represented in some manner that might be surprising to an English audience?
IA: I love how the author Hristo Karastoyanov explodes Lenin’s myth. The western reader has perhaps long counted on authors like H. G. Wells and André Gide for impressions on Lenin, but he, himself having lived in the West — and rather opulently, I might add — was charismatic and knew the Western intellectuals’ weak spots and exploited them with alarming skill.
H. G. Wells writes of interviewing Lenin in 1920: “Lenin… a little figure at a great desk in a well-lit room…. I had come expecting to struggle with a doctrinaire Marxist. I found nothing of the sort… For Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all ‘Utopians,’ has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians. He is throwing all his weight into a scheme for the development of great power stations in Russia to serve whole provinces with light, with transport, and industrial power.”
It was such propaganda. I mean look at what’s happening in Russia almost a hundred years later. Lenin gave this impression that Russia was on the brink of industrialization, that its citizens were well off and free, and this of course couldn’t be further from the truth. I also think the way the October Revolution is described in the book — hardly a revolution in any real sense of the word — as well as Lenin’s funeral a few years later, will add a new perspective to things we may think we know well.
PM: I’m curious about the subtitle Diary of a Novel. Could you tell me about its meaning?
IA: I think Karastoyanov did it to steady the narrative because the novel itself shoots back and forth in time between 1923 and 1925. But each ‘diary entry’ follows chronological dates in 2013 (the year he spent writing it). The author will probably tell you it’s a little gimmicky, but I personally love it, not only for the fact it’s a very clear line for me as to how much I have left to translate.
PM: What are your thoughts on the purpose or effect of the structure employed by Karastoyanov?
IA: I think the duality is great — it ranges from trivial (the author commenting on how the weather was on a particular day in 2013) to necessary (when he inserts his own political commentary about 1925). But what I find most effective in the juxtaposition of these ostensibly distant dates is the author’s very purposeful disintegration of the distance to make unabashed political and cultural parallels. An example which sticks out for me, personally, is Geo Milev having a conversation in 1925 about the fundamental pandering of literary awards. Here’s a short excerpt:
“And behold the flood of awards! The epigones scratch their amateur vulgarities onto the paper knowing full well who likes what and how, and who sits on what awards jury and where. Everything’s been thought out. Because now — the writers must choose between Vae Victis and Winners Are Never Judged! And they always choose right. So they win their awards and the following spectacle ensues: first the winners get awarded, then the same people who gave out the awards praise the ones who’ve won them, then the ones who’ve won them praise those who have awarded them in the first place! A truly awesome thing! They award them, then praise them, then award them again, and all the while, they claim to be doing all of it in the name of inspiring the budding poets . . . So when you sell your body — we call it prostitution, but when you sell your talent — we call that stardom.”
Could we not say something very similar today?
PM: Could the novel be classified as creative nonfiction? And is this ‘genre’ one that has been staked out specifically by Karastoyanov? I’m curious about how unique this novel is in comparison to other contemporary Bulgarian novels.
IA: Great question. Karastoyanov is something of a cult writer in Bulgaria — he’s written over 30 books all in a very specific style that is hard to classify, but I think Night is very much Laurent Binet’s HHhH taken to the next level. So there is definitely the ‘I’ — which is where the Diary of a Novel comes in and which could be classified as creative nonfiction since the author interjects his own parallel commentary, breaking that fourth wall and revealing some of his research. But he does that in addition to completely disappearing in this very separate world that exists within the novel, which is very much historical. So I don’t know, perhaps it straddles both genres: creative nonfiction and historical fiction.
PM: You mentioned to me in an email that Karastoyanov’s writing is directly political at times. I wonder if the author was drawn to Geo Milev’s story because of these qualities. Milev’s most famous poem ‘September’ is beautiful but does not mince words about his social and political views.
IA: Both Karastoyanov and Milev are rebels, and I can see how the attraction between the two makes sense. Of course Milev was socially ostracized and paid for the poem he wrote with his life, something that isn’t a real threat to Karastoyanov, so I suppose it means we’ve made a bit of progress. How much progress is a different question entirely. Karastoyanov isn’t sitting on a beach house in the Hamptons because of the literary success of his novel, if you see what I mean.
PM: Is this period of time in Bulgarian history of particular interest to contemporary Bulgarian authors?
IA: I asked Karastoyanov what he thought about this, and here’s his response: “It would appear that way, yes. Milen Ruskov announced a while back he’s working on a novel covering the same time period. Alek Popov wrote the saga The Palaveevi Sisters about the period of WWII in Bulgaria; Angel Igov just published The Meek, dedicated to one of the most traumatic periods in Bulgarian history — the time right after the Communist coup of September 9, 1944 and the horrific National Tribunal, which very likely massacred just as many people as the government did in 1925.”
PM: What is the political climate like in Bulgaria at the moment? I am curious what other parallels exist between Karastoyanov’s world and Milev’s.
IA: The country and its people are suffering from an extraordinary income disparity which has nothing to do with education or intellect. It borders on the absurd. There are business people who live very comfortable lives, yes, but that’s not who I’m talking about. I’m talking about the Mercedes SUV-driving, chalga-listening stratum of the population which is driving the culture into the ground . . . God save us from the nouveau riche. On the other end, you have intellectuals — the most important people to the development of a cultural identity — living on the brink of poverty, making in a month what it costs to have a casual dinner out for two. Young people are leaving the country en masse. So while the Bulgarian intelligentsia is no longer murdered outright, it is on the receiving end of open economic warfare. Bulgaria today, like the Bulgaria of the 1920s, is circling the sinkhole of dictatorship.
PM: I understand that you were able to translate the novel in collaboration with the author himself.
IA: Yes, and I’ve been very lucky. I’ve heard translators say ‘thank God so and so is dead,’ and my experience couldn’t be further from that. My author and I are in contact nonstop. I don’t think you can ever know what an author will be like when you start, but Karastoyanov has been a dream in every sense — he’s punctual in answering all of my questions, he can speak on any given line in the novel for an hour, he even wrote a 10-page afterword which does not exist in the original based simply on a Facebook chat we had. He got on a plane and traveled eight thousand kilometers to New York so we could spend 10 days at Ledig House together collaborating. And we both enjoy a good bourbon. So the man has been a master class in writing and in how to handle yourself as a writer.
PM: Can we discuss your upbringing as a translator?
IA: I certainly didn’t take the traditional road, that’s for sure. I guess my early training as a writer happened when I emigrated from Bulgaria to Chicago as a twelve-year-old and I wrote and received letters on a daily basis from the friends I’d left behind. I’m talking 32-page opuses. But I am also greatly indebted to the school I attended in England: the University of East Anglia, which consistently turns out writers and translators of note due to its unforgiving writing demands. So although I never formally studied writing, it was at UEA that it came to me: I was a writer. I suppose translation followed naturally. I also worked at an ad agency, which will teach you to keep your mouth shut about writing.
So while I pursued writing in many forms for years — as travel writer, restaurant critic, copywriter, casual translator — the moment of clarity came when I read an interview with the renowned writer and translator Clive James in The New York Times, in which he said the funniest book he ever read was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and he followed that with the utterly unprovoked, “is there a Bulgarian equivalent, languishing untranslated? Probably not.” I wrote a snappy letter to the Times regarding that ostensibly throwaway aside, but that’s beside the point. The point for me became that bringing a novel from Bulgarian into English wasn’t just something I could theoretically do, it was my duty, and there was now an urgency to it. I found Hristo Karastoyanov’s novel, or it found me, and what followed was the thrilling and oftentimes humbling journey of entering the literary world full on and, in the moments when I wasn’t consumed by my own debilitating second-guessing, I felt like the universe was telling me, yes, you should be doing this. But I supposed artistry and torturedness go together like pâté and jam.
PM: I’d like to shift the conversation toward the poems Drunken Boat is featuring: ‘Until We Meet Again,’ (Milev) and ‘A Howling Gale’ (Peyo Yavorov). What drew you to these poems?
IA: I actually met Geo Milev’s daughter, Leda, in Sofia, while she was still alive. I was covering an art event for the travel magazine I worked for — and for as long as I live I won’t forget the image that came into my brain when Leda Mileva recalled how her father had been discovered in a mass grave, 30 years after he was killed by the government for writing the poem ‘September,’ recognized only by the blue glass eye in the right socket of his skull. He lost that eye fighting for Bulgaria in WWI, by the way. How is that for a potent image? So the interest in the person, Geo Milev, the fascination with this genius of Bulgarian literature who translated from English, French, Russian, and German and who has had just one single poem translated into English — with ‘Until We Meet Again’ now two — was planted into my mind over a decade ago. That the book I’d end up translating was precisely a book which resurrects Geo Milev the man and Geo Milev the poet, is, I don’t know … coincidence or fate? The poem itself seemed ominous to me — like he’s predicting his own death.
Yavorov’s poem is just so heartbreaking and so close to my heart for that excruciating image of the alienation and rootlessness inextricably woven into the fabric of anybody who’s ever left their country and family behind. By the time I went back to Bulgaria — my motherland — to live, work, and study as a woman in my early twenties, I had become a foreigner there too. So my now being a citizen of the world came at a price: I have been a foreigner in every place I have called home — America, Bulgaria, and England.
PM: When translating, are there ways in which someone else’s poem becomes your poem (or perhaps, more accurately your — plural — poem)?
IA: I think that yes, absolutely, once a work passes through you, it invariable carries both your DNA and the author’s. The poem as it appears in DB is mine and Yavorov’s alone in the sense that no one else would translate it exactly the same way — it would be an entirely different work. The fact no one had actually translated it before was flabbergasting and exhilarating and terrifying.
PM: I imagine that translating Milev’s poetry helped you to translate Karastoyanov’s characterization of Milev in the novel?
IA: It helped me understand him better, I think. I became a little obsessed with him because I consider him to be this unsung hero of Bulgarian literature, so I thought the way to get more inside his head was to translate some of his work.
PM: I’d love to hear more about Geo Milev as a poet and as an editor. How is he regarded in Bulgaria today?
He was a workaholic — incredibly prolific and ambitious. And he had no patience for bad writing. Karastoyanov’s theory is that he was this way because he was losing vision in his one good eye and the clock was just constantly ticking. He was only 30 when he died so like all geniuses who die young, he did an incredible amount of work in very little time — books of poetry, anthologies, translations, two periodicals — remaining singular in his achievements, and of course, tragically, forever young. So nowadays, I think in Bulgaria there was a lot of “oh there is the portrait of the famous one-eyed poet guy on the wall in school, and we study his poem ‘September’ which was a big deal a long time ago.” What this book has done in Bulgaria to revive him from that portrait on the wall has been nothing short of phenomenal. And now that we got a book deal with Open Letter, we can bring him up again.
PM: In the biographical note that precedes your translation of his poem, you mention his translation of well-known figures in Western literature. I wonder if he was trying to bring Bulgarian literature into conversation with these others by translating them.
A lot of them — Shakespeare, Wilde, Storm — were already dead. But he did continuously seek out peers and contributed to publications internationally. He was the conversation as far as Bulgaria was concerned. He personally sought out the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren when both were in London — by writing to The Observer. How great is that? The two became good friends. But Geo Milev was one person and he died almost one hundred years ago. The most heartbreaking thing is that it has taken almost a century for Bulgarian authors to actually reenter the international conversation in any meaningful way because great literature depends not only on its creators — it cannot exist without the lifeline that is translation. And that is a serious responsibility.
PM: Did Milev choose more political poems for the anthology? I am wondering about his taste and what kinds of poems he chose to bring to a Bulgarian audience.
I think he just liked good writing. And he was so, so good at translation. He actually translated Hamlet, which is incredible. One of the collections he edited and one which I love is Anthology of the Yellow Rose, and it includes, alongside Bulgarian poets and others, Milev’s translation of the poetry of John Fletcher (‘Aspatia’s Song’), Oscar Wilde (‘Requiescat’), and Elizabeth Browning (an excerpt from Sonnets from the Portuguese). The theme of the anthology is ‘lyrics on blighted love,’ so for the men it’s lots of death and dead women, basically. The woman writes about herself, naturally.
PM: Because you are translating both poetry and fiction, is there a way for you to distinguish between the two genres in terms of your approach to translating?
IA: Translating poetry is definitely something new for me and quite exciting. And hard as hell. I find that poetry demands a precision which doesn’t necessarily exist in fiction; the latter gives you more room to breathe. With poetry, every single syllable matters, the length of every line, the rhyming structure, if there is one.
Here’s a verse, which Geo Milev mocks in the book because it is part of that oft-lauded, much-awarded style he so despises:
“Inside the poky hovel,
At dawn I’ll spin a loom,
At night, alone, I’ll snivel,
A necklace of black gloom”
So here I had to not only do a good job translating it, but perhaps even inject it with a certain amount of hysteria to support his point that it might be over the top. Which… I don’t know, is it? It’s also written by a man — Yordan Stubel — posing as a woman in the poem (which we lose in the translation, because English doesn’t conjugate verbs based on the sex of the speaker).
PM: Are there any specific challenges that comes up consistently when translating literary works from Bulgarian into English?
IA: Idiomatic English stuns me with its complex beauty, but the grammar to me is a walk in the park, whereas Bulgarian grammar is extraordinarily nuanced — over 40 tenses across different aspects and moods. Take the inferential mood for an example: the narrator retells a happening in a way as to say, “I wasn’t there when it happened, but this is how it maybe, probably did go down.” This is, by the way, how Karastoyanov’s entire novel is written… So to say there are consistent challenges that at times make me want to throw something across the room and scream would be to soften it up for you.
I’ll give you an example of how just one particular word can torture you for hours. In the novel, Geo Milev talks about coming back from fighting in WWI, a war he barely survived, enduring 14 surgeries in Berlin afterward, including having part of his rib put in to replace the brow bone which had been blasted off together with his right eye. He says “we came back from the front ‘izkorubeni.’” Just the different definitions of the word izkoruben in the Bulgarian dictionary take 21 lines. So it could be gutted or hollowed out or empty or incurved or devastated. In the end, I chose excoriated, because musically it does such great justice to the original, and its meaning — to skin, to torture — adds a new depth.
So once you get over the fear you might be horribly wrong you have the opportunity to create something new.
PM: I am curious about your translation of the title of Milev’s poem. You mention that it literally translates to ‘Diary’ and yet you’ve titled it ‘Until We Meet Again.’ Can you walk me through your process of selecting this title?
It felt to me so much like a love letter — which I suppose all poetry is — and his repeated use of ‘sbogom’ which means goodbye, but literally translates as ‘be with god,’ like the French ‘adieu.’ made me feel like he was saying ‘goodbye for now, we might meet again here or in another time.’ Of course I could be totally wrong in doing this and responsible for the downfall of Bulgarian literature.
PM: I wonder if there are certain effects of the Bulgarian language that would be impossible to recreate. What about this language is unrepresentable in English?
IA: There are some great single-syllable relays in Bulgarian that are near impossible to render — ’a,’ a kind of sharp right turn that could mean ‘but,’ ‘moreover,’ ‘therefore,’ ‘and there you have it,’ to name some. Karastoyanov’s language in the novel is itself beautifully archaic without being impeding — he doesn’t give his characters 1920s slang, thank god, but there are still some great older words like ‘dodeto,’ essentially ‘to what extent’ or ‘close to’; ‘podir,’ meaning ‘behind’ or ‘in his trail’; or the more transitional ‘ta,’ meaning ‘and so’ or even the novel’s ubiquitous ‘tai bilo,’ ‘that’s how it was,’ which the author uses to great effect when he wants to peak his head into the narrative and remind us this is a reimagining.
So yes, a part of me dies when I have to sacrifice that potency with something so ostensibly trivial as ‘and so it went.’ But hazards of the profession, I suppose.
PM: Is there an ethics of translation that you ascribe to?
IA: Thank you for asking this. As a writer, as a translator, first and foremost I am a woman. I recognize the massive shortage of women writers in translation, so the fact that I am now translating a novel written by a man about a writer with futurist leanings — let’s not forget Marinetti’s futurist manifesto in which he writes, “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice,” — the irony of all this isn’t lost on me.
I have many responsibilities to the work I carry through. In this instance, one of my responsibilities is to keep constant track of the female narrative in the novel. Karastoyanov writes women with great care and love, but when we were at Ledig House and going through the text line by line, he added what I found to be fascinating detail on two female characters that was not in the original text. I had to ask him that we add it to the English text. It speaks to his enormous character that he agreed.
PM: Are you working on your own poems, fiction, essays, or memoir? In what sense does your experience as a translator relate to this work?
IA: Translating is writing, and I think people tend to forget that, so yes absolutely, working on this novel has done wonders for my writing. I published an essay last year called “Breaking Bulgarian” about the process of translating the novel and a UK agent called me when she read it, telling me I should be writing a book. So it’s been on my mind, especially something in which food plays a main role. I’m in love with MFK Fisher and I’m always reading and rereading the gorgeous pavé of hers that is The Art of Eating and I’ve noticed that even when I write fiction I need to write about food to bring the necessary weight to a dynamic. But so much of my mind even opening up to the idea of my own book and of writing in all its forms is thanks to working on Karastoyanov’s book. When you translate a novel, you are essentially reverse engineering it. Pulling it apart word by word has stirred up my own writing in a new way because being this close to it, I often say “Oh I see what he did there!” and seeing the artistry is inspiring. I also think there is a very good chance soon we’ll be working on a screenplay adapted from the book. Everything you do takes you on its own journey, I think.
PM: How often do you travel to Bulgaria? Who do you spend time with there?
IA: I don’t think there’s a more beautiful place in the world than Bulgaria in summer and I hadn’t been in a few years, but I went for six weeks last year and it felt exactly like it should — home. I brought my babies and my husband and my mom and sister and took them to the seaside. I saw my father, my aunts, my cousins. It fed my soul.
PM: I wonder how your writing colors what you see when you visit.
Both my writing and my translating are colored by the fact I’ve spent half my life in Bulgaria — I’ve lived the Bulgarian language, it’s my native tongue. But I’ve also lived the English language. Experiencing language on the ground is, of course, essential for a translator, but I would encourage any artist to travel relentlessly and to live her art.
PM: When looking at the Bulgarian folios published in Drunken Boat do you see anything coming through in the writing which you are particularly proud of — a spirit or quality that stands out that you’d like to highlight?
IA: I have chills from looking at it! I am so stricken by the eloquence of the language, and of the translation, of the biographies of these young and not so young people, each with a journey very much alike and so different. I recognize so many names: Velina Minkoff, Dimiter Kenarov, Zdravka Evtimova, Vladimir Poleganov, but there are so many that I don’t, which makes me so happy. It means that we are pulling up more chairs around the small table Bulgarian writing occupies in world literature. I couldn’t be more proud and more humbled to be sharing space with these fellow artists.
Peter Mishler is Interviews Editor at Drunken Boat, and is a poet and educator living in Kansas City.