Izidora Angel is a Chicago-based writer and translator of the Bulgarian. Her first novel in translation, the multi-award-winning The Same Night Awaits Us All by Hristo Karastoyanov (Open Letter, 2018), earned her an English PEN grant. She is now working on the book Four Minutes by Nataliya Deleva, previously excerpted in a Project Plume fiction spotlight and to be featured at the ALTA42 Conference in New York this November. She spoke to us about why she is drawn to politically-motivated art, the importance of community in translation, and her involvement with the Third Coast Translator’s Collective.
How did you originally come to discover Nataliya Deleva’s Four Minutes? What motivated you to undertake it as a translation project?
It’s funny how things work out. Nataliya’s novel found me or really, its mother did. But at the time, I had a six-month-old baby and was working full time at an ad agency. I had zero free time and no emotional bandwidth to speak of. I read enough to know it was a worthy book, unflinching, striking. So I didn’t say no, but I paused. About a year later, Nataliya and I crossed paths again at the Peroto literary awards in Bulgaria where Four Minutes won debut novel of the year, and my novel was a finalist in the translation category. I was rooting for her, and she for me, and I knew I would be leaving my ad job soon and that I’d be giving her a call. I guess I hadn’t counted on the fact that she’d found another translator by then. But I came to her with a strategy and ideas and showed her what my writing would look like, and she chose me. So, the book found me, but I still had to fight for it.
What is unique about the way in which Four Minutes tackles this topic of the treatment of marginalized people under communism in Bulgaria?
Someone familiar with the novel, I think a Bulgarian critic, said it punctures the thin layer of frost covering Bulgarian society and I find that spot-on. It challenges us to see what we might not want to see; think about the things we may not want to think about. It’s art that provokes not just for the sake of provocation, but because it has something to say. The main character, raised in an orphanage from birth, faces unimaginable daily trauma. Once she’s out, the novel examines her struggle to both integrate into society while also identifying as a gay woman, and to overcome the maddening bureaucracy and prejudice she encounters in trying to herself adopt a child. I think the book’s deconstructed narrative parallels the fragmentation of post-communist Bulgarian society where power has oscillated so unpredictably that the sense of identity has really taken a hit. We see how the main character’s self-imposed social exile is really a rebellion against the status quo, a fight for individuality. The novel also touches on how currency devaluation can affect self-worth.
What this book does with its fragmented and often poetic and longing manner is to look hard into Bulgaria’s eyes to say: time to own up.
Do you see any enduring parallels between the themes in Four Minutes and contemporary Bulgarian society?
Bulgaria today is, unfortunately, at the bad end of some pretty awful stats: it is the “saddest place on earth” as the Economist called it; the poorest nation in the EU; it suffers from the fastest shrinking population in the world, according to the UN; it also has some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe. So, we are trying to hold on to what is Bulgarian inside us but we also need some real accountability. What this book does with its fragmented and often poetic and longing manner is to look hard into Bulgaria’s eyes to say: time to own up. Face your shit. You are accountable for what happens to you. Human rights matter, humanity matters, you matter.
The book’s original Bulgarian title, Невидими, translates into English as Invisible. Can you tell us a little about the process behind the decision to make the English title Four Minutes?
Nataliya and I thought about this a lot. The invisibility theme in the novel weaves through all the stories and it challenges us to see the characters and feel their pain; it makes them salient. In English, Invisible didn’t quite sound right. We settled on Four Minutes because of a reference in the book to a social experiment in which it only takes four minutes of looking into someone’s eyes in order to really understand them, to acknowledge their existence, and four minutes is around how long it takes to read each of the short episodic chapters that weave through the main storyline.
When you look at who gets to be translated from Bulgarian, and into English, an already tiny number, you’ll still find the majority of novels translated are those of male writers (all, without exception, translated by a woman). Contemporary Bulgarian women’s works comprise less than five translations.
Four Minutes will be the second Bulgarian novel you have translated into English, after The Same Night Awaits Us All by Hristo Karastoyanov. What was different or similar in the way that you approached these two projects?
The Same Night Awaits Us All was a historical fiction love letter to fallen male writers and anarchists and to Bulgarian literature a hundred years ago. That novel came out of someone who’s almost seventy with thirty books under his belt, who doesn’t speak English, has an affinity for the inferential mood, which does not exist in English, and who challenged me with impossibly endless sentences filled with complicated technical terms on politics, printing and weaponry. His assessment of my translation was based purely on instinct and melody.
Four Minutes is quite on the opposite side of the spectrum in every conceivable way. It’s Nataliya’s first novel; it’s quite feminine and emotive. Just getting into the head of a woman is a territory far more familiar to me. I feel freer with it. Nataliya lives in London and works in marketing just as I do when I’m not writing, and her English is perfect. She can comment on phrases, tenses, word choice, the novel’s positioning. So our work has been incredibly collaborative, organized, and efficient, and often, in real-time.
What connected these so seemingly different works for me, is that both make very strong, serious political statements that I align myself with.
You have been selected to read from Four Minutes at the ALTA42 2019 conference in Rochester, NY this November. First of all, congratulations! Considering the book uses “its own distinctive post-communist context to tackle universal issues”, what aspects of the book do you believe an American or Anglophone audience will relate to and why?
Thank you very much for the kind words. We were thrilled that ALTA42 chose our proposal for the Slavic language segment in their Alexis Levitin Bilingual Series. I’m hopeful it will bring us closer to finding the right home for the novel. I will be reading from a vivid and unforgettable passage in the book. The main character is now out of the orphanage, struggling to integrate. She gets a job at a squat shop — those are unique to Bulgaria. The New York Times wrote about them, too. They are these makeshift basement liquor and cigarette shops halfway below ground.
One freezing night, the main character finishes her shift at the squat shop and has nowhere to go. She’s homeless and starving and chain-smoking and imagining this Christmas Eve feast with her family. Outside of that daydream, it’s 1999. Bulgaria is on some kind of verge. Poor, with massive inflation, stressed-out people, it’s in a political freefall. Nataliya summons the image of the Little Match Girl, which I’m sure you know. It’s a devastating image. So it’s just another brilliant example of how Nataliya seamlessly ties the specifics of a locale: the squat shop, currency inflation, political uncertainty, with these universal issues: wanting to be warm, and safe, and loved, to be surrounded by family.
How would you evaluate the level of representation of contemporary Bulgarian women authors on the national stage? What about in English translation?
Women in Bulgaria write, and many write really well. Yordanka Beleva, Zdravka Evtimova, Kristin Dimitrova, Dostena Anguelova, these are just some contemporary Bulgarian women writers and poets whose work is powerful. But if you look at the big literary awards in Bulgaria, say the top three, Helikon, Hristo G. Danov, and 13 Centuries Bulgaria, you’ll see that for the last nine or ten years for each, there is maybe one, at most two women, who’ve won the big prize: novel of the year. So that’s pretty sobering. When you look at who gets to be translated from Bulgarian, and into English, an already tiny number, you’ll still find the majority of novels translated are those of male writers (all, without exception, translated by a woman). Contemporary Bulgarian women’s works [into English] comprise less than five translations. Some poetry collections, Virginia Zaharieva’s Nine Rabbits, translated by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon), and Albena Stambolova’s Everything Happens as it Does, translated by Olga Nikolova (Open Letter). There’s really nowhere to go but up, which I’m fighting for.
Translation — like writing, which it is — can be such a solitary endeavor, so the collective mind is incredibly important for community, knowledge-sharing, and innovation.
Last but not least, you are also a co-founder of Third Coast Translators Collective. Can you tell us a little about the vision behind the initiative and what you are working on currently?
You know, translation — like writing, which it is — can be such a solitary endeavor, so the collective mind is incredibly important for community, knowledge-sharing, and innovation. I should clarify that I am a co-founder in the sense that I was part of the birth and structuring of TCTC as we know it today — a branded, thriving Chicagoland collective with a strong digital presence. The true founders are Lucina Schell and Jason Grunebaum. They started the original Chicagoland Translators Group out of which TCTC came about.
The vision now and forever for our group, as I see it, is to create and nurture a community where minority languages and mainstream languages co-exist with equal passion, where translation matters and is not hidden work. We work in over a dozen different languages, from Arabic to Basque to Hindi to Japanese, and we advise each other on every step of the process, from the first translated sentence of the manuscript to where to have the reading event after publication. It was precisely at one of our TCTC workshops that I was told I must absolutely pursue Four Minutes as a project. And I did.