Editor’s Note: We continue this year’s Sozopol Fiction Seminar retrospective with work by Molly Antopol and Lee Romer Kaplan. Read Part I here, featuring writing by John Struloeff, Jane E. Martin, and Michael Hinken.
The Messiness of Translation: A Conversation with Miroslav Penkov
by Molly Antopol
During our time together on the Black Sea, in the gorgeous seaside town of Sozopol we spent a good deal of time discussing issues of translation. Because of Bulgaria’s relatively small market, and tiny percentage of their writers being published in English, it’s a topic that resonates for Bulgarian writers on a very practical level. The subject really came to a head for me when the group returned from Sozopol to Sofia. It was there, during a roundtable discussion about “The Future of Translation,” that I encountered Miroslav Penkov, whose stories I had already enjoyed in a number of American journals.
Penkov was born in 1982 in Gabrovo, Bulgaria, and arrived in America in 2001, where he entered the University of Arkansas, earning a BA in Psychology, followed by an MFA in fiction. His debut story collection, East of the West: A Country in Stories, has recently been published in the U.S.US by FSG, as well as in translation in ten other countries. In Bulgaria, his own translation of the stories will soon be published by Ciela, under the title “На изток от запада.”
After spending a week in Sozopol thinking and talking so much about Bulgarian literature and translation, Penkov put flesh on the bones by describing what it was like to write a book about Bulgaria in English—and then to translate it into his native language himself.
Back home in San Francisco and missing my new friends and Bulgaria, I read Penkov’s collection and fell in love with the book. These stories give much to admire: they’re ambitious in terms of structure and scope, beautifully written but never showy, and the global forces that shape the characters are as much a part of the narrative as their inner lives. Penkov writes directly about history and politics, but somehow maintains a lightness to his prose—indeed, these stories are both emotionally fraught and laugh-out-loud funny.
The Sozopol Fiction Seminars provided me with a much more complex way of seeing Bulgarian literature, and translation more generally. I left Bulgaria challenged by a host of new questions that I hadn’t even known how to ask before visiting. Shortly after I returned home, Penkov was kind enough to answer some of these questions. Excerpts from our exchange are below.
Molly Antopol: One of the things I admire most about these stories is how big they feel—larger political and historical issues seem to extend so naturally from your characters’ everyday lives. Were you purposeful with this during the writing? Did it emerge naturally? Or would it simply feel impossible to write about Bulgaria without social and political concerns making their way into the stories?
Miroslav Penkov: I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to write Bulgarian stories without considering history and politics. Some of the finest examples of Bulgarian short fiction concern themselves with the everyday life of ordinary people—say, peasants in the countryside—and turn a deaf ear to the politics of the day. But I would say that for me, at this time in my life, it is impossible to write about Bulgaria without getting the past involved. At this time in my life, I cannot help but feel, much like some of the great writers of the American South – Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter – that to understand the present, we need to first make sense of the past; that the two are linked inseparably.
We all know that in writing fiction following a line of cause and effect is paramount. One thing occurs and leads to another. A character interacts with his surrounding world and out of this interaction the story’s plot is generated and the story moves along. But I believe that when it comes to history, this cause and effect connection can be reversed, that the present can not only influence our understanding of the past, but can also shape this past. I believe that out of our present we can invent and create personal versions of a past that, in reality, might never have existed. I don’t mean this in some scary Orwellian way, of course. I’m talking merely about discovering personal truths in history, achieving a personal understanding of the past that might not be applicable to someone else.
Some really great advice for writing short stories is to get in, get out, and not linger. But I wanted to linger. I wanted these stories to flow really large across land and time, to gain momentum, feed off past and present and future, and move not only forward like rivers, but rather backward and forward simultaneously like whirlpools. As you can guess, in short fiction this is often a recipe for disaster. Consider for example the title story, “East of the West.” It’s a story that takes up more than thirty years of the narrator’s life, that concerns itself with a million wars, with communism and its fall, with the narrator’s love for his cousin, with the tragic death of the narrator’s sister and her fiancé, with the death of everyone close to the main hero, and on and on and on. A good workshop might tell you that all this is more than the story can handle, that all this makes the story lose focus. But I don’t think of the short story only as a fragile thing, as something only glimpsed in passing.
How long after living in the states did you begin to write fiction in English?
I arrived in the U.S. in 2001 and there was this schizoid fragmentation in my mind when it came to my writing. On one hand, I wanted to be a writer. On the other, I couldn’t quite understand how I would start writing in English. On one hand I gave myself an impossible deadline – to get a story published by Christmas of my first year; on the other – I was sincerely convinced it would take me ten years before I could start writing in English. In reality, I started writing in English immediately. Within the first month of my arrival, I had translated a story I’d published in Bulgaria and sent it out to a sci-fi contest. The story was returned to me with a kind instruction that I should double-space it, print it on one side of the page only, and resubmit.
There are things about writing that transcend language and culture. Creating convincing characters is one such thing. And writing in English has been a good thing for me. Because my “command” of English doesn’t come close to my “command” of Bulgarian, I’m less likely to make pompous moves in my English prose, less likely to try to be too cute and smart, to try to dazzle the reader with a spectacular turn of phrase. Writing in English has made me pay closer attention to individual words (something that was not so obvious when I first started), it’s taught me to choose only the right ones, to check my ego at the door and surrender myself to what is often the simplest, most elegant way of unfolding a sentence in service of character (something that was even less obvious back in the day).
While working on the collection, did you feel like you were translating these stories from the Bulgarian in your head into English?
No. Such translation used to happen in my head early on, when I was just beginning to learn English in high school. You babble like a baby and search for the right word in your head. You feel stupid, because you can’t express yourself, and the scary thing is that your interlocutors too often perceive you as stupid, which is, often, a mistake. It’s this feeling of stupidity and embarrassment that prevents me from ever wanting to learn another language. And, of course, laziness.
But after a few years of studying, I started thinking in English and such word-for-word translation was no longer necessary. And yet, in writing I wanted my prose to have a distinct Bulgarian feel (which, in all honestly, it will have regardless of whether I want it to or not). I like, for example, how Hemingway can make his foreigners speak an English that on the page sounds like Italian, or Spanish, distinct, foreign. And I wanted to invest my prose with such oddity, especially because seven of the eight stories in the book are first person narratives. I wanted to come up with as many distinct Bulgarian voices as I could, strong enough to cross an ocean of language and speak to the American reader convincingly of this distant and unfamiliar world.
Living in the U.S. and writing about your native country, did you have specific (real or imaginary) readers in your mind? For example, did you find that you had to explain certain parts of Bulgarian life to readers who had never been?
I think it’s dangerous to write toward satisfying a particular reader, but I also think it’s silly not to consider who you might be writing for. Over the years friends would ask me about Bulgarian literature and I would say – yes, yes in Bulgaria we have divine poetry, and some really great prose. Would I recommend an author or a book then? I sure could. But you’d have to learn Bulgarian first. Why? Because nothing has been translated, or if it has a) the translation might be poor and b) the book is most certainly out of print. So I wanted to write such a book that would show Bulgaria—its history, people—a book which, when someone asks, “Hey, how about that country of yours?” you would say (if you’re Bulgarian in the U.S.), I have a book for you. Of course I realize how pretentious I’m sounding. But the sad truth is that until you come up with good translations of Bulgarian books that stay in print, until more Bulgarian writers start writing in English, this book will be one of very few books in English about Bulgaria by a Bulgarian.
Were there particular challenges, technical or otherwise, that you struggled with when writing these stories? And are there parts of writing that come easily to you?
Challenges? How much time do you have? First of all, there was the question of self-belief. I always knew that I would be a writer, but I didn’t always believe it. When I first started writing in English, because I was so poorly read, I was aware of only two other writers who’d written in a tongue that was not their mothers’: Conrad and Nabokov. This was a big psychological weight, but luckily I was younger, very naïve, clueless, stupid, and because of this courageous; and—because of this—I didn’t pay much attention to this weight; I simply wrote. Then, there is the challenge of people telling me that no one in America would read anything about Bulgaria. Many friends and teachers have genuinely supported and encouraged me while I wrote the stories. But plenty others, and I have no idea why they wouldn’t just keep this opinion to themselves, would come to me and say, flatly—no one will read about Bulgaria here, no American will care. I still don’t know how true this is. Sometimes, like when you sent me the questions for this interview, I feel hopeful. Other times, I feel very low.
And then—and this would be the final challenge I’ll mention for lack of time—there comes the writing itself. I had a really, really difficult time getting the majority of these stories to a place that made both me and my editor happy. I don’t presume to give aspiring authors any advice, but I’ll say this—don’t expect to get a story done on a first draft, don’t feel discouraged when you don’t get it right on a first draft and try to find joy in rewriting, because writing truly is rewriting. Amen.
Your collection is coming out in eleven countries—congratulations! What was it like to translate these stories yourself for the Bulgarian edition?
Absolute agony. And I’m still working, I have two more stories to translate. I’m pleased with the results. I think that certain parts sound more alive in Bulgarian, more colorful, messier in a good way. For reasons that I mentioned above, I tried to make my English prose economical and elegant. But I cannot employ such economy in Bulgarian. In Bulgarian these first person narratives are somewhat messier, somewhat more deeply rooted in dialect, and that’s the only way they could work. Had I chosen to strive for elegance and economy in Bulgarian, I would not have been able to create convincing Bulgarian voices. So, reinventing these voices has been a really agonizing experience, because I also don’t want to rewrite the stories and get away from the original. The whole endeavor has been torturously slow. I wrote them faster than I’m translating them. But then, what’s the rush (other than a deadline from a publisher, that is)?
And as far as the eleven countries… It all happened so unexpectedly, so fast. I think it caught everyone by surprise. But these wonderful publishers across Western Europe (and Israel, I should not exclude them) seem to have really liked the stories. As far as my Slavic brothers… no interest so far. So, Slavic brothers of Russia, Poland, Serbia etc. – why you no want my book?
Who are some of your favorite Bulgarian writers—and are there particular writers who haven’t yet been translated into English, but who you wish would be?
See? The inevitable question. There are two Bulgarian writers that I like who write in English. I recommend Kapka Kassabova and her memoir Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria. I also recommend Nikolai Grozni’s memoir Turtle Feet, which is not about Bulgaria, but about his days as a Buddhist monk in India. He also has a novel coming out, Wunderkind, which I’m excited about. That one, it seems, will be all about Bulgaria. Years ago, in the university library in Arkansas, I found Anton Donchev’s now classic novel Time of Parting. I recommend that one, as well. I also recommend what I consider to be the greatest short story collection in the known universe: Wild Tales by one of my all-time favorite writers, Nikolai Haitov. These are stories written in such peculiar dialect that even translating them into conventional Bulgarian would kill most of their beauty. But there is a translation out there (Unesco Collection of Representative Works. European Series) and the translator, Peter Owen, has done a really good job, considering he was attempting the impossible. Kapka Kassabova, whom I mentioned earlier, has recently translated short stories by Deyan Enev, a Bulgarian writer I really like. The book, Circus Bulgaria, was published in the UK.
What I wish for is that someone would publish an anthology of Bulgarian short fiction, starting with the classics and moving forward in time. I was able to find one such anthology in the library, but the translations were pretty stiff and unconvincing. We need a duo like the terrific Pevear-Volokhonsky to do for Bulgarian literature what they’re doing for Russian.
What are you working on now?
I’m fighting with the Bulgarian translation of the stories. I’m at the end of the rope, I’ve hit a massive wall, and somehow I have to make myself go on. Thank you for lending me a compassionate ear. Then I’d like to write a novel. I really like short stories, but for me the novel is what writing is really all about.
by Lee Romer Kaplan
I’m a fiction writer for a reason: there’s safety in imagined worlds. I’ve chosen two professions—acting and writing—in part because they make use of my own stories without exposing them. In fiction, you can speak your truth without telling your personal truth.
In Sozopol, however, I ended up sharing a hotel room and my own stories with my Bulgarian counterpart, the lovely and brave Paullina Petrova. Despite our very different histories, Paullina and I connected because we’re both rewriting ourselves, as women and as artists, after years spent trying to be anything but fiction writers. My avoidance of the writing life led me first to theater, then to law school, and more recently to education. This past year, I taught composition, creative writing, and literature to community college students in Manhattan while my behemoth of a novel sat in the proverbial drawer, awaiting revision. Paullina’s avoidance tactics seem less obvious, if equally effective: she runs a business and a household, and cares for two young children.
The first time I saw Paullina—a petite woman with a dark blond ponytail and covetable baby-blue platform sandals edged with metal studs—we were waiting to load our suitcases onto the bus from Sofia to Sozopol. That first morning, unsure how profound the language barrier might be, we didn’t speak. A few hours later, the bus stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, and I noted the “Nationalization” of the Fellows’ seating arrangements that soon unfolded: Americans at one table, Bulgarians at another. Not unexpected on the first day, of course—and by the end of the seminar we would all be sitting together—but at that moment, there were still borders between us.
Happily, literary translator Angela Rodel—an American linguist who came to Bulgaria on a Fulbright seventeen years ago and has lived and worked in the country since 2004— offered to make the introductions. The Bulgarians, who’d been having an animated discussion in their native tongue, fell silent as she and I approached. Ivan and Yana, the two most fluent in English, engaged me in conversation, but Paullina just said her name, which I didn’t quite catch, and smiled. We didn’t yet know we’d be paired as roommates, and so after a few pleasantries we said goodbye and once again boarded the bus.
In fact, I didn’t learn that Paullina would be my roommate until she was—that is, until Elizabeth Kostova noted the two of us standing next to each other in the lobby of the Hotel Diamanti, gestured first at me and then at Paullina, smiled, and asked if we’d like to room together. I think we both nodded assent, blushed, and looked at our feet. We stumbled upstairs to the room together, lugging our bags, both trying to be polite, engaging in unintentional slapstick, each of us saying, “After you,” and the other replying, “No. Please, after you.”
During my adolescence and young adulthood, I moved house constantly, shuttling between Israel and the US, and for a time, Europe. I rarely stayed in one place long enough to call it home. This constant uprooting forged an urgent need to claim new spaces as my own; in Sozopol, as soon as we entered our room, I began to unpack, careful to take exactly half the space in our shared armoire and bureau. Paullina dropped her bags by the sliding glass door to our patio with a view of the Black Sea, mumbled something I didn’t understand, and when I wasn’t looking, quietly left the room.
I didn’t know what to make of my new roommate’s abrupt departure, and so continued putting my things away, wondering whether she felt as awkward as I did about sharing a room with a stranger. Fifteen minutes later, just as I finished unpacking, my roommate returned, holding aloft a plastic bag filled with beautiful, fresh red and yellow cherries.
“Wherever did you find such lovely cherries?” I asked. In answer, Paullina held out her hands, full of fruit. “Duvduvanim,” I said. “That’s cherries in Hebrew.” Paullina repeated the word and laughed, a mischievous, knowing laugh that’s impossible to describe, but which once heard, cannot be forgotten. She told me the word in Bulgarian, and we sat in companionable silence for a while, absorbed by the pleasure of eating perfectly ripe cherries.
Paullina then insisted I take the double bed. For herself, she chose the daybed, a single. Later, she told me that she preferred having a small bed all to herself, a luxury for a mother of two, who’d been sharing a bed with her children’s father, her first and only sweetheart, since she was a teenager. Later that night, we lay in our respective beds, listening to the sea, and eventually, despite the considerable language barrier, began to tell our stories. We discovered commonalities. Not only do we wear the same size shoe, we are the same age. The people who love us call us by similar nicknames: her “Polly” to my “Lili.” We’re both aspiring novelists who don’t (Polly) and cannot (me) write short stories. The novel excerpts we submitted for translation into each other’s languages both feature young boys who embark upon magical journeys and have complicated relationships with their fathers.
We also discovered difference: Polly studied mathematics and I can hardly balance my checkbook. She’s the mother of two gymnastics-loving little girls, whose father’s been her partner, in work and love, for twenty years. Previously engaged but never married, for now, I’m single in New York City. Paullina’s lived only in Bulgaria; I came of age in Northern Israel and Berkeley, California, and have lived in the Middle East, Europe, Mexico, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York.
And then there’s this: for both of us, adolescence marked the turning point in our sense of ourselves as writers, but in entirely different ways. My adolescence sparked my writing life, but for Paullina, her teen years marked the end of her life as a poet, and initiated a twenty-year moratorium on writing until she discovered prose, and, very recently, began the first of two novels-in-progress.
My seventeenth year was spent during the Lebanon War on Israel’s northern border. By that age, I’d lost friends in the war, and I’d begun to question long-held beliefs, asking whether it was indeed tov lamoot b’ad artzeinu—good to die for one’s country—as I’d been taught in school, a question that haunts my writing still. I wrote earnest, and sometimes awful political poetry and songs about the impossibility of peace in a world so bound by history and violence. Paullina, living in what, for a little longer, would still be Communist Bulgaria, was writing love poems, two of which were published in a children’s literary journal, despite her lack of “connections,” which means that the work itself must have been very good.
Not long after the first of the two poems was published, late on a weekend afternoon, Paullina received a call summoning her to the office of the editor-in-chief. Upon arrival, she was handed an anonymous letter addressed “Dear Comrade Editor,” which accused Paullina of plagiarism, an act she explained to me by using the phrase “stealing poetry.” When she got to this point in the story, I laughed, because it struck me as absurd. Accused of stealing poetry? It sounded like a Kafka story. But Paullina assured me she’d been threatened with “consequences” if she did not confess to having copied a famous poet’s work and submitted it as her own.
She refused, courageous child, insisting the poems were hers. The editor then asked if he should call the now doddering poet’s wife, and appeared surprised when Paullina said yes. The poet’s wife responded that the poems, though good, were not in fact her husband’s. Despite this, the editor, who did not apologize, informed Paullina that her work would never again be published in the journal’s pages. “Cut down,” as she put it, Paullina resolved to stop writing, and for twenty years, she did just that—not writing a verse, except in the invitations to her children’s birthday parties.
After Paullina fell asleep, that first night in Sozopol, I thought about my favorite Yehuda Amichai poem, which speaks to those moments when “the waters are pressing mightily.” I thought about Paullina at seventeen, and how writing—giving words to our beliefs and imaginings, our secrets and truths—represents what Amichai calls “daring”: “how much daring is needed to love on the exposed plain when the great dangers are arched above.”
And I thought about the fact that though I consider myself a secular Jew, I come from a tribe that traces everything—light, the separation of sea and sky, the names we call ourselves, all varieties of human suffering—back to “the word,” or perhaps more accurately, the written word. I thought about how writing fiction keeps me safe, allows me access to other lives, and sometimes, how scary writing feels, especially when I think about finishing my novel, the fear that the book will not be good enough, or attract intense scrutiny of my life and my character, or anger people I love. These thoughts stayed with me for the remainder of our time at the seminar.
After Bulgaria, I returned to New York for just three days before leaving for the first of two artists’ residencies that would take up the remaining three months of the summer. When I applied for those residencies, I said that 2011 would be the summer of my novel revision. But even as I typed those words, I was afraid they might not be true. My dear friend and mentor, the only person who’d read the book and knew where I was heading, had died before being able to provide feedback on the manuscript. I had no idea where to start, how to impose structure on what felt like an unwieldy, too long and mostly non-linear manuscript. Now at Ragdale, the second residency, which will end in three short weeks, I’m writing this essay as a way to stave off returning to the novel. And so, I am thinking about Polly, and about her courage, imagining her at seventeen, and the fierce grace with which she told her story of being accused of stealing poetry, and about the way her poetry was stolen from her. I am thinking about why we write, and why sometimes we’re afraid to write, and who Paullina and I would be if we weren’t writers.
Since our talk that first night in Sozopol, Polly and I’ve begun a longer conversation about being women who write, and how the energy for writing often gets channeled into care taking, and making a living, and loving the people in our lives. We’ve each expressed just how joyful and terrifying and magical it is to allow ourselves time and space to write. I wrote myself into adulthood, even though I stopped for many years, too. Now, I’m channeling Paullina at seventeen, taking strength from her courage, and facing my manuscript. Maybe the key is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. Maybe the way in is just making my way in.
Molly Antopol is a recent Wallace Stegner Fellow and current Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, American Short Fiction, The Mississippi Review Prize Stories, Nimrod’s Prize Stories, Croatia’s Zarez, and on New York Public Radio and NPR’s This American Life. She lives in San Francisco, where she’s finishing up a collection of stories and beginning work on a novel.
Lee Romer Kaplan spent her early years in Berkeley, California and Northern Israel. While studying at Haifa University, she taught theater and literary arts as conflict mediation tools in a program for Muslim, Jewish and Christian youth. She’s performed, written and directed shows with theater companies in the US, Israel, and Europe. In addition to an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College, Lee holds a law degree from University of California at Berkeley, and practiced as a civil rights and poverty lawyer for five years before returning to the arts. For now, she lives in New York City, teaches writing at Borough of Manhattan Community College and is on the teaching artist roster at Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Her upcoming debut novel, The Flight of the Lesser Kestrel, takes place primarily in Jerusalem during the first Lebanon War.
The 2012 Sozopol Fiction Seminar: May 24 – 27
Ten scholarships, valued at approximately $1,600 each, will be available to attend the 2012 Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Sozopol, Bulgaria. Funding will support five fiction writers working in English and five fiction writers working in Bulgarian. Scholarships will cover tuition fees, room and board, in-country transportation, and 50% of international travel expenses. Writers of any nationality are eligible to apply.
- Application deadline is March 7, 2012.
- For more information, or to apply, please visit the EKF Website.
- 2012 faculty members: Elizabeth Kostova (US), Barry Lopez (US), Deyan Enev (BG), and Krassimir Damianov (BG/ES).