Angela Rodel: It Is Really Important to Hear Voices from Bulgaria & Eastern Europe

Angela Rodel at the fifteenth-anniversary forum of the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Photo by Yuliyan Hristov

It is hard to imagine a better cultural ambassador for Bulgaria than Angela Rodel. By translating into English leading works of 20th- and 21st-century Bulgarian literature, she has done more than most to convey to English speakers the inverted structures, playful rhymes, and other idiosyncrasies of modern Bulgarian and acquaint the West with the realities of life in the country.

What is more, her beautiful translation of Time Shelter, Georgi Gospodinov’s compelling novel about the dangers of nostalgia, earned author and translator an international Booker prize — the highest international recognition for a work of Bulgarian literature to date.

An American by birth, Angela has lived in Bulgaria for the past twenty years, but her connection to the country goes back three decades. What first drew her to Bulgaria was its music, which she discovered through a serendipitous encounter in college with Filip Kutev’s choral arrangements of Bulgarian folk songs. She was instantly hooked, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Alongside her translation work, Angela heads the Bulgarian-American Commission for Educational Exchange (Bulgarian Fulbright Commission), which fosters cultural ties between the two countries. Until last year, she also taught translation to Sofia University undergraduates.

We spoke with Angela upon her return from a book tour in the United States promoting the English edition of The Case of Cem, 20th-century Bulgarian author and historian Vera Mutafchieva’s celebrated historical novel of geopolitical hijinks, and in the midst of looking for a publisher for her translation of contemporary author Victoria Beshliyska’s genre-blurring novel Clay. (Keep an ear out for the end-of-March joint premiere in Sofia of the English edition and a new Bulgarian edition of The Case of Cem — pronounced like gem — by following publisher Janet 45 Publishing’s page.)

In an interview for the America for Bulgaria Foundation newsletter, Angela told us about the heightened interest in Bulgarian literature abroad, about The Case of Cem’s relevance today, about the responsibilities of translation, and about the importance of reading Eastern European literature.

America for Bulgaria Foundation: What are your impressions of the US book tour for The Case of Cem? Were you surprised by anything during the tour? The interest it generated? People’s reactions?

Angela Rodel: It was really awesome. I was charged with positive energy from the tour. I think it’s true that Time Shelter has raised the visibility of Bulgarian literature. I had assumed that most events would be attended by Bulgarians and people that I know, former Fulbrighters. And there certainly were those people, and I was absolutely ecstatic to see them. But then there were just kind of regular readers who had maybe heard about Time Shelter and had gotten curious or had read it and had come up and said, “So what else is going on in Bulgarian literature?” [Attendees were] a really nice mix of new audiences, people who were recently introduced to Bulgarian literature, and then people who are the usual audience for literature in translation from Bulgaria.

The Case of Cem had only just come out in the US on January 16, and it was only about two weeks later that the tour started. There were only a few very hardcore readers, shall we say, that had already finished it by that point. But a lot of people said, “I’ve been waiting, and I wanted to come and get a hard copy at the launch.”

The publisher did some marketing prior to that, and we got some really good feedback. A BookTokker, Josh Cook, who’s probably one of the most famous book reviewers on TikTok in the US, reviewed it very positively, which was very unexpected and very cool.

ABF: Can a book about an Ottoman prince in exile tell us something about the world today? Are there themes or messages in the novel that you believe are particularly relevant?

A.R.: I think The Case of Cem is super relevant. I mean, okay, Vera Mutafchieva wrote it in 1967, and it’s about an Ottoman prince who has an internecine war and loses and goes to Europe. But it’s also about the Cold War because her brother was a defector. Basically, this idea of this young man who is exiled from the East to the West and becomes this pawn of political influences that he doesn’t necessarily completely understand. In her own introduction, she asks “Why do we care about the case of Cem?” The case of Cem was the beginning of the Eastern question: Is Eastern Europe part of Europe? It’s always going to be vulnerable to colonial forces, be that the Ottoman Empire [or] the Soviet Union. She doesn’t say it quite that clearly in her introduction, but I feel like she’s definitely talking about the Russian takeover of Eastern Europe as well. Now, with what’s going on with Ukraine, there are many lessons to be learned about why the Ottomans were able to take over such a huge part of Europe. It’s because the Europeans are fighting amongst themselves. They’re very shortsighted. They look at their own material and financial interests and not at the larger picture — we need to defend these parts of Europe that are integral to Europe as a whole.

I was stunned, when I first started reading it, how relevant it is to the current day. Which maybe says something kind of depressing about human nature — that within the last 600 years, we haven’t learned too much.

ABF: Have you noticed any differences in how The Case of Cem is perceived by readers in English compared to Bulgarian readers?

A.R.: All of my conversation partners were Americans, and they had clearly read the book. They weren’t that familiar with the Ottoman context, so they didn’t go in with necessarily a negative [perspective]. The dominant Bulgarian historical narrative has been that the Ottomans were these enslavers, and it was a terrible thing for Bulgaria. Of course, there were terrible things that happened during that period, let’s be clear, but it was also a much more nuanced historical period. [American readers] weren’t necessarily against the Ottomans or on the side of the Europeans. Maybe they were more willing than Bulgarian readers to have a positive feeling about Saadi and about some of the other Ottoman characters. I think part of the reason it was able to be published was that it was very critical of the West. The Westerners generally come up looking pretty craven, and I think it was interesting for [American readers] to see that perspective.

ABF: Were there any aspects of The Case of Cem that were particularly challenging to convey in English due to cultural differences? Were there linguistic or stylistic elements that you found particularly challenging to transfer to English?

A.R.: Vera Mutafchieva was an Ottomanist. She was one of the founders of Ottoman studies in Bulgaria, so clearly she had a vast knowledge of Ottoman culture and language. So she just throws the reader in; from the first page, there’s tons of Turkish-isms. Bulgaria has borrowed a lot of Turkish-isms, but even then she uses a lot of Turkish-isms that aren’t part of the Bulgarian language. I think she does that deliberately to give you a sense that you’re in this foreign context. I think she’s working those two levels: this is a story about an Ottoman prince, but it’s also about Bulgaria. She keeps that tension between the two levels, but in English we don’t have that register. English has borrowed a few Turkish-isms, but not many. We’ve got grand vizier, we’ve got pasha, we have khan, and that was helpful. I wanted to keep the sense of foreignism or that sense of a very specific place that she creates with the Turkish borrowings, but also not scare away the English reader on the first page by peppering them with all these [foreign words]. And it’s not fashionable to use footnotes in English; it takes the reader out of the text.

What saved me is that all of the narratives are first person, and they’re explaining their actions to this court of history. It’s a really interesting structure. All the witnesses are being called before this court, and they’re explaining, so I can just kind of slip in my own explanations alongside theirs. If there’s something that I think should be kept in the original, whether it’s Turkish or something else, some historical juicy tidbit that I think is important to keep specific, it really helped that it was all this first-person narration, so I could make it sound like the narrator is just explaining that as well to the jury of history.

Angela Rodel and Georgi Gospodinov at the fifteenth-anniversary forum of the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Photo by Yuliyan Hristov

ABF: Unlike Time Shelter, for which you worked directly with Georgi Gospodinov on some of the finer points of language and content, how was your approach different with The Case of Cem and with any other novel whose author is no longer among us? Does it give you more freedom or less, not having that dialogue or the certainty of an author’s stamp of approval?

A.R.: I generally almost always work with the author if they’re willing and able. And I have to say, I’ve been extremely lucky. It’s a privilege working with English, let’s be frank. It’s the dominant language, and most authors are very generous with their time with their English translator. I wouldn’t necessarily see it as a disadvantage, but I have much more of a sense of responsibility [with posthumous works], and I kind of feel more concerned about whether I am doing justice to the author’s voice. I’m kind of their voice in English, and is this the way they want to be presented, how they want their characters represented? It’s definitely an added level of stress because I can’t go and say, “Is this the way that you imagine your characters or your novel or your voice in English?”

It’s the same with Ivaylo Petrov [Angela translated twentieth-century Bulgarian writer Ivaylo Petrov’s Wolf Hunt, а novel about the communist regime’s nationalization of Bulgarian agriculture, ed.]. I worked very closely with his widow, Ofelia. But she, too, felt like it wasn’t her place to necessarily say what he would have thought or wanted. She’s a translator from French, so she knows. She was actually very helpful in giving me context, and she knows the kinds of questions and concerns translators have. With Vera Mutafchieva, I did talk to a lot of her students, colleagues, literary critics that have studied her work. I read maybe more than I would normally… I usually like to find out what people are saying about a certain book, critics, because it’s an interesting view. Especially with authors who are no longer with us, [critics are] a great resource of how to possibly interpret [their work].

Sometimes you have to make executive decisions, like there was this thing, I am convinced it’s a joke. Vera Mutafchieva is a very highly respected historian, and the book was incredibly well researched. When you think that this woman didn’t have the internet, she didn’t have Google, and the level of historical detail… it’s incredible. But there’s this one chapter where there’s this character called Battista Spinola, who’s kind of like a hired thug, a hired blade for the Italian nobility. I looked online, in Google, and there is such a historical character, and he’s actually Doge of Genoa. To me, this is a joke on the historian, Vera Mutafchieva’s part. She’s kind of having a dig at this historic character. This is politician’s ethics. He was a hired thug and then he became the Doge of Genoa. I couldn’t find anything online that said anything about the biography of the Doge of Genoa. I think it might be just invented on her part. This would have been something fun to ask her. So I was like, “Should I footnote it? Should I not?” But I decided I’m going to leave her joke. Because a joke isn’t funny when you explain it, right? I’m sure at this time only historians got it. And if historians pick up on it, then she’ll have her little laugh in the beyond…

ABF: You also worked on the translation of Cem non-linearly. Can you tell us a little more about that?

A.R.: Only at the end. I don’t want to have a spoiler, but there is a character that’s very dear to my heart that… it’s not a good ending for that character, let’s just put it that way. I was so invested in this character… I’m of German descent; I’m a very by-the-book person. I always work on a book from start to finish. And I got to that point [in The Case of Cem] and I’m like, I can’t go there. I can’t do this purely emotionally. I was so attached that I skipped that chapter and just went on. Because you get this first-person narration, and you just really live with these characters, and you get inside their heads and their emotions.

[The reason] the book came about [is] because I had worked with the US publisher, the editor there. We had a really good working relationship, and that was maybe ten years ago. When [the publisher’s] Croatian partner read Cem in Croatian, because it’s been translated into Croatian, he said, “Oh, this is a great book, and there’s no English translation.” He was talking to the American publisher, who reached out to me and said, “Do you know this book?” And I’m like, “Of course I know this book.”

After Wolf Hunt, it was so hard to find a publisher for a classic. They usually want someone like Georgi [Gospodinov] who can go to festivals and do interviews. It took me seven years to find a publisher for Ivaylo Petrov. So this was totally out of the blue, a publisher coming to me and saying, we want to publish this book, a classic. It was this Croatian-American partnership, and they had access to the book in Croatian and decided they wanted to publish it [in English] and reached out. It was a very serendipitous chain of events.

When I first started getting into translation and realized this is something I wanted to do, I was looking for books and I asked [my then husband] about [suggestions for] classical books. I was young and naive and didn’t understand that classics are not very saleable. I said, “What book should I read from the classic Bulgarian canon?” And he thought for a minute, and he was like, The Case of Cem. This was one of the first classic Bulgarian novels that I had read.

ABF: Just over half a year ago, you and Georgi Gospodinov received a Booker prize for Time Shelter. Did you anticipate the impact and recognition that the book would receive? Has it changed anything for you?

A.R.: No, I think it was beyond our wildest dreams that we actually got it. I think we hadn’t even dared to assume that we would get it. So I think, and this is something Georgi [Gospodinov] has said many times in interviews, that it’s a great recognition of him and myself personally, but also the fact that it’s opened doors to Bulgarian literature has been so amazing. On this tour I met up with some people in the literary industry, publishers, and for the first time they’re like, “What’s going on in Bulgarian literature? What’s new?” Usually, it’s me knocking on their door and being like, “Hey, there’s this really cool Bulgarian book.” And they are just sitting there like, “No, we already have one Bulgarian book in our catalog. Thank you.” I really do sense this curiosity and excitement… Thinking about it, unfortunately, Bulgaria sort of missed the initial train, which was right after the fall of the [Berlin] Wall, of interest in Eastern European literature. The format that the international literary scene wants is the novel, and what was going on in Bulgaria then was poetry. We have so much amazing creative poetry, and that’s where Georgi started. But there wasn’t the Bulgarian novel or the Milan Kundera of Bulgarian literature. I think this is really finally putting Bulgaria on the map. We have world-class literature, world-class novels in this tradition, and people are all of a sudden like, “Wait, what else have we missed?” I’ve been super happy that there’s a new generation of translators… For example, there’s a Bulgarian woman, Yana Ellis, who just won a PEN UK [grant] to translate Zdravka Evtimova, which is awesome.

ABF: An award like the Booker is certainly a high point, but what about the beginning of your career in translation? At what point did you decide you wanted to convey Bulgarian culture to the outside world — through translation?

A.R.: I was a linguistics major at Yale as an undergrad. It was funny. I thought I would be a comparative literature major because I studied Russian and German, and I always loved languages, even as a kid. So I got there, and I remember taking [classes] in freshman year, and people were so pretentious. (laughs) I was just like — and maybe this was my own immaturity — I was just like, “I can’t take this. What else can I do that’s about learning languages, but not talking about French theory for four years?” So I became a linguistics major.

I was at Yale as part of this recent book tour, and they now have a translation initiative, like most universities offer translation studies, sometimes it’s not a degree, but you can get a certificate. But back when I was a student, somebody must have been translating, but either I didn’t find them, or it wasn’t a thing. I never understood that it was a possible career path. For somebody who’s interested in literature and language, this was a cool marriage of those two things.

So, I came to Bulgaria. I actually went to UCLA first, and I did my master’s degree in linguistics. And I still never thought about translation as a career. It was really when I was here in Bulgaria and met my husband, who was a writer, and all of a sudden people were like, “Hey, I’ve got this poem, would you mind trying to translate it? Or I’ve got this short story.” I started doing it and I liked it, and I thought, “I could do this!” First of all, there’s a need for it; I enjoy it. People think that I’m okay at it. Then, thank God, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation was getting started right when I was getting started, 2005–6–7, right in there. If it hadn’t been for them, I don’t think I would have had anywhere near the career or success because they taught me the business side of it. I feel like I knew the language, I knew the culture. I’d been here. But you need to know the business side, too. What are the journals and publishers that are interested in literature in translation? Because there’s not that many, and they’re a very specific subset. How do you pitch things in translation? What’s the publishing ecosystem? And they were the ones who started bringing editors, publishers, professional translators. They taught me the ropes. These are the publishers that don’t need you to have an agent, because with most things in English, you have to have an agent. The publishers don’t take unsolicited manuscripts. You can’t just walk up to Penguin and be like, “Hey, I’ve got this author.”

Being part of EKF’s seminars, I learned, I met people, and that’s how most of my translations have come about, somebody that I met through them or through part of their network. Then these are the types of foundations that support [translation] and give grants.

I feel that I sort of backed my way into it. A lot of people start out learning how to be a translator formally, and then they start practicing. I started practicing willy-nilly and then learned how to be a professional translator. When I started teaching at Sofia University, I was like, “I’d better read some theory of translation.” It was interesting that most of what I ended up reading then and making part of my courses were things that I had kind of intuitively arrived at, but I also make linguistics and talking about structure a big part of how I teach translation, because I think that that’s maybe the not-as-sexy part that gets overlooked. People want to talk about the fun part — cultural realia, dialects, and jargon. That’s fun, and I like that as well. But if you don’t know what’s going on structurally between two languages, it’s a problem. So, I have a weird professional path to Bulgarian translation.

ABF: How do you pick what books to translate? Is it a book’s potential to say something to the world at large? What draws you to embark on a translation?

A.R.: It depends. I read a lot of Bulgarian literature because I want to know what’s going on, what’s the pulse. When I find something that resonates with me, if I hear how I think the voice should sound in English when I’m reading it, I’m like, okay, I could translate this. There are many lovely works of Bulgarian literature that I like and I think are interesting, but I have no idea how they should sound in English. I’ve made that mistake of translating something that I don’t have this sense of resonance with, and it’s not good for me. It’s not good for the author, it’s not good for the text. It doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthy piece of literature. I just think that you have a certain wavelength that you have to be on to be able to do justice to the piece.

Then we have to be realistic. Is it something that’s going to be able to see the light of day in the US? That’s why I hadn’t even pitched Vera Mutafchieva earlier because it was so difficult to get English publishers interested in classics. I have so little time to translate now that I have a day job. If I’m going to be putting my heart and soul and giving people hopes, I want to have something I can see where it would fit in the contemporary English-language literature and translation marketplace, or that there’s a publisher that I think would fit really well with this. You have to think about not just the artistic, but also about whether there is going to be an outcome that will be good for the author and the work.

ABF: Do you remember what drew you to The Case of Cem?

A.R.: I remember being very pleasantly surprised that it’s so avant-garde in terms of the way it’s structured and how it’s this court of history, and it’s very funny. And the characters are so [relatable]. It’s 500 years ago, but you can relate to Saadi. You can relate to even the creepy grand master of the Knights of Rhodes who’s doing all these awful things. They’re very real, and they sound very contemporary. That to me was very unusual because, I don’t mean to say that there aren’t other great historical novels in the Bulgarian canon, but the tone and the style was so different and so unexpected. I really liked the way she makes them come alive in terms of their psychology. And it doesn’t feel anachronistic. It was very interesting to see a historical novel that was able to be historically accurate, but also be very accessible to the contemporary reader. And that was something I hadn’t seen in some of the other works that I’ve done.

ABF: Who is your best source of information about the finer points of language and context? Who are your consultants, or does it always vary?

A.R.: My husband, Victor, first of all, he’s a linguist. He’s half Bulgarian, half Hungarian, and he speaks Hungarian, but he teaches Arabic at Sofia University. He has a really interesting group of languages that he works with, and he speaks English, of course, fluently. Many of our conversations are about language and about how language is used. It’s a natural extension that I’ll ask him about my translations. He’s a hugely important resource.

That said, I don’t speak Turkish, and there was a lot of Turkish in [The Case of Cem]. Victor has some colleagues because he teaches in the Arabic department, and they’re right next door to the Turkish philology department. So that was useful to have people that speak Turkish that I could talk to about how to spell things. That’s why we ended up spelling the names and the terminology the way they’re spelled in Turkish. Why did you spell the character’s name C-E-M? Well, because that’s the way modern Turkish uses the Latin alphabet, and that’s the way it’s spelled. It would have been weird to use D-Z-H in the Bulgarian transliteration of a Turkish name.

With every project, you use different consultants, people that know the history.

This is kind of a funny story. There’s this order of French monks, the Hospitallers. They’re not just French, they are European monks that are the Knights of Rhodes, but they’re very important. The grand master is a very important character because he’s basically the one who understands how valuable Cem is and essentially makes him a prisoner. You hear all about the structure of the order, and even on Google you cannot find that kind of detail. Vera Mutafchieva basically was translating the terminology into Bulgarian. I couldn’t figure out what the original terminology is even in French. I reached out to Marie Vrinat, a French translator [from Bulgarian]. Consulting with her, I found the French translation of Cem at Sofia University Library, went, got it, looked to see what [it said], and then consulted with her….

When you don’t have access to the author, you’ve got to do a lot of digging.

ABF: How do you handle cultural nuances and references in Bulgarian that may not have direct equivalents in English?

A.R.: I think this is where as human beings we are not going to be replaced anytime soon by AI or by Google Translate. I think these platforms are a tool that we should use, and we shouldn’t hide our heads in the sand, but I think that the really hard part about translation is the cultural translation. There are words that are kind of being translated one for one, but then there’s the entire cultural context, cultural understandings that need to be explained. When you have to explain [culture], you have a number of different tools at your disposal. Of course you have footnotes, but those are not fashionable in English. Actually one of the big publishers of Bulgarian literature in the US does not allow footnotes in their books.

You have what’s called stealth glossing. It is where you try, in a stealthy way, to slip in the explanation as if it was part of the original text. In Cem, I was able to do this as the characters are explaining other things anyway. But sometimes it isn’t too stealthy; sometimes it kind of shows that you’ve shoved it in the text. You can sometimes try and find a cultural equivalent if it’s not that crucial to the story. I can’t explain what banitsa is, but people in the States should know spanakopita, the Greek version.

Sometimes if the publisher will allow a foreword, you can talk about the big picture in a translator’s foreword or an afterword. But not all publishers are open to that. I was lucky that I was able to have a foreword in Cem, and actually Vera Mutafchieva has a foreword as well. It was kind of interesting to hear from both the translator and the author.

ABF: This is a really exciting moment for Bulgarian literature, thanks in large part to your ambassadorship of it, so to speak. What can Bulgarian literature say that’s important and relevant to the rest of the world? 

A.R.: I think Eastern European voices in general are super important now when we’re seeing all the disinformation and fake news. You have an entire region of the world, including Bulgaria, that lived through 50 years of disinformation, like propaganda. During the socialist period, people developed strategies and mental resilience to what you are constantly hearing, something that’s fake, that’s false. And you’re finding ways to maintain your mental resilience and maintain a critical approach to this and how to get access to other voices and have a sense of dignity and truth and authenticity despite this. That is a huge lesson for us in the West, who only in the last five–ten years, with Facebook and social media, have found ourselves on the receiving end of fake information and awash in a sea where we don’t understand what’s real, what’s fake, what’s believable. I think that’s why Time Shelter is so resonant because Georgi [Gospodinov] talks about the experience of living in a culture that’s still grappling with the aftermath of being forced to be in fake environments. That’s why I think it is really important to hear voices from Bulgaria, but also from Eastern Europe, because they have a lot to teach us about living in an environment of disinformation. We’re about 500 km [310 miles, ed.] from Ukraine. We’re probably less than that from Israel and Gaza. In this area of the world, there are a lot of conflicts that are going to be defining for this century. Bulgaria was called the 16th republic of the Soviet Union. It’s not so farfetched that Russia could see that it has an interest here and try and defend those interests, or the problems between various religions, Christianity, Islam, Judaism. I think there are so many conflicts that we can understand, and why these conflicts have become what they are today, [by understanding] the people living in Bulgaria, in this region.

And Bulgarian literature is beautiful. They’ve retained a little bit of something folky, having out-of-the-box narration styles, like Georgi with his fragmentary [narrative style] or Vera Mutafchieva with this really kind of wacky storytelling… Bulgaria hasn’t been colonized by MFA programs that tell you this is the way you need to write. Just in terms of pure creativity, in the approach, in the way you tell stories, Bulgarian literature is super valuable.

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