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Angela Rodel who presents Bulgarian literature to the English-speaking world

Bulgarian authors are so distinctive, she says

Photo: library

Angela Rodel from the US chose to live and work in Bulgaria 15 years ago. Since then she has been singing Bulgarian ethno songs with the musicians from the band Gologan, has acted in several films by prominent Bulgarian film directors, but, most of all, has been making every effort to get to know the language and translate Bulgarian authors. It is her work as translator that has made Angela an ambassador of Bulgarian culture in the English-speaking world. Two years ago Angela Rodel was shortlisted for the American PEN club awards for her translation into English of Georgi Gospodinov’s The physics of sorrow.

She was born in Minnesota and studied linguistics and Russian at Yale. There she joined the Yale Slavic Chorus and from the instant she heard the music of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, she fell in love with Bulgarian folk music. Angela came to Bulgaria in 1995 to take part in the Koprivshtitsa folklore festival and her passion for folk music evolved into love of the country, language and culture. In 1996 Angela moved to Sofia on a Fulbright scholarship and studied literature, music and folklore. But the choice she had made was severely tested almost at once – in the winter of that same year Bulgaria was plunged into a deep economic and political crisis. Protests swept across the country and angry crowds stormed parliament building in Sofia. Angela still remembers how difficult times were for people in Bulgaria then, when hyperinflation melted their monthly salaries so they could not cover even their basic needs.  “That was the moment I realized what contemporary Bulgaria was like, what kind of people lived here,” Angela remembers. Despite her busy schedule, Angela Rodel now teaches translation and editing at Sofia University’s faculty of Slavic studies. She feels very much at home there and says that having a good ear for music helps learn a foreign language faster.

“We, translators are usually in the background, but it is a good idea if we too could present our work as part of this entire literary industry,” Angela Rodel says. “Translation is a form of art. I feel I am the right person coming to Bulgaria at the right time. A crucial moment in my own development as a translator but also in the development of Bulgarian literature translated into English, was the establishment of the Elizabeth Kostova foundation. Elizabeth is herself a writer married to a Bulgarian, and she realized she needed an institution of this kind to take care of the translation. I had never studied translation before, I was just a linguist, but then friends kept asking me to translate this poem or that story. Now I am happy to say I have been teaching at Sofia University for 5-6 years and I can see there are many Bulgarians who grew up with English, studied English abroad. They come back here and that gives me the hope that there will be someone to pick up translation after me. In 10 years’ time there will be more people like me and that means more authors can be translated, and more publishers can release translated literature by Bulgarian authors.”

Bulgarian writers whose books she has translated talk about Angela with gratitude and admiration. They say she is a role model for many Bulgarians who, like her, want to follow their dreams.

“In the US book translation is an entire industry,” says Angela. “To get to the point of publishing just one book you have to go through all stages – from university, creative writing lessons, three reviewers and editors. In America everyone asks you why you used this word or that, so you inevitably come to the point when you get in a rut. That is precisely what I like about Bulgaria – authors are so distinctive.”

Her translation list includes works by dozens of Bulgarian contemporary writers but also:

“I am now translating Georgi Markov, it is difficult because he is specific, he talks about his own period, the 1960s, about the age of socialism. So far I have worked with authors whom I can call up and ask whatever I need to know, now it is a bit more dangerous – I am by myself and cannot discuss anything with the author. Readers who have no idea of how things were under socialism can never understand the things Markov wrote. There were things he himself could not talk about directly but only hinted at, so I have to add information for the sake of readers in our day. I am in contact with his wife Annabel who helps explain things to me, but even she does not dare touch Georgi Markov’s work.”

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