Our Man storms Sofia…

   Further to Tom’s adventures amongst the poetic heartlands, hedonists and difficult breakfasts in Montenegro and Croatia follow him as he heads over to Bulgaria to immerse himself in Sofia’s o’er-brimming literary life…

Sunday 31 July

There’s a long string of coincidences behind my standing in our hallway with a rucsac full of poetry books, magazines and an English-Bulgarian-English dictionary and with a boarding card for the late-night flight from Bristol to Sofia. The short version is that, in 2013, I read part of my one-man show I Went to Albania at the University of Portsmouth. Afterwards a student came down to the front and asked me if I’d ever been to Bulgaria. Less than six months later I was in Sofia as a guest of Vasilena’s family and talking with her artist sister, Marina, about an online project which would surface in January 2014 as Colourful Star – quite possibly the only Anglo-Bulgarian poetry/visual art project on the internet. Since then I’ve taught myself Bulgarian (at least to read and write – my conversational Bulgarian still suffers from my appalling accent), begun translating Bulgarian poetry and plays and – thanks to an ever-expanding circle of Bulgarian friends – somehow been invited to spend a month at the Literature and Translation House as translator-in-residence. This visit is also going to coincide with the publication of Unknown Translations – a volume of poems which I originally wrote in Bulgarian while I was learning the language and which a publisher in Sofia is publishing in a bilingual edition. The prospect of making this trip is simultaneously exhilarating and daunting.

Monday 1 August

For the first time in my life, I’m met at an airport by someone holding up my name on a sheet of paper. Monica – from the Sofia Literature and Translation House – and I take a cab to the flat where I’m staying and almost inevitably the conversation turns to post-referendum Britain. I do my best not to give too despairing an answer but my comment that I’ll be looking to see if I can find a job while I’m in Sofia gives the game away.

The flat’s in a block in a neighbourhood that’s not far from the city centre. These blocks might look grim from a distance but I know from previous visits that it’s a different story inside. Sure enough, my flat is much bigger than expected – a one-bed apartment with a large sitting room, kitchen-diner and bathroom, not to mention a couple of balconies. I sit on one of these, watching the dawn come up, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.

At 4pm, I meet Monica and we go to the Literature and Translation House itself. Its director, Yana Genova, shows me around. We discuss what I’m going to be doing – the work I’m translating, the talks and readings I might give. As what will be the fiercest storm of the Sofian summer sets in, Yana drives me to the National Theatre where I meet my Bulgarian publisher, Emilia Mirazchiyska, and the poet-translator Alexander Shurbanov for the first time. I spend my first evening in Sofia comparing notes on poetry and translation while lightning cracks open the sky.

Tuesday 2 August

Walk into the centre for the launch of Alexander’s English-language book Foresun, to which I’ve contributed a couple of translations. Unlike UK book launches, this is a bit of a free-for-all. People from the audience get up and read Alexander’s poems. I give a short talk explaining why I consider Alexander’s work to be both beautifully understated and humane. Then I read my translations before hearing their originals read aloud for the first time. It strikes me that this is a wholly more civilised way of doing it than having the author witter on about their book for twenty minutes and then effectively begging the audience to buy it.

Wednesday 3 August

Read the poem ‘Burning Omaha’ at the reading room in the gardens outside the National Theatre. It’s a great little project – a miniature library that doubles as a tourist information booth. I’m filmed for posterity talking about my work and reading the poem. In the evening, there’s dinner with Emilia, her husband Ivo and Aksinia Mihaloyva – a fine Bulgarian poet whose latest book has been justly rewarded with awards in France. Aksinia stumps me by asking if I can describe some recent trends in English poetry. I come up with a rather vague answer before managing to say something at least passably sensible about the growing interest in poetry written in non-standard English. On the way home, I relearn the workings of the Sofiote metro system.

Thursday 4 August

A quiet day at home. Big fat tomatoes. Translation. The woman at the corner shop teaches me the word for ‘blue’ so I can ask for the right kind of cigarettes.

Friday 5 August

Both plays I’m translating – ‘The Migration of Salmon’ by Svetlana Dicheva and ‘Mercy’ by Maya Kisyova – are about suicidal American poets: Sylvia Plath and Anne Sextion. It’s too hot to be a tourist. I knuckle down to work.

Saturday 6 August

More remains of Roman Serdika have been newly exposed. I stumble around them, taking photographs, before meeting the young poet Rosen Karamfilov at the Blue Lion just behind the National Theatre. Edited by Georgi Gospodinov, his new book’s just out – ‘Cerebral Poetry’ (Rosen has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair). I’ve been translating a few of the poems: some of them have a strange incantatory quality; others are stark and declarative. We wonder at the meaninglessness of ‘poetry wars’ and tiffs between factions of poets.

Sunday 7 August

Street festival Sofia Breathes takes place every Sunday in August and so today I wander round it with Emilia, a journalist called Ivet and the founder of Sofia’s English-speaking club Svetoslava, herself a translator and poet. It reminds me of Bristol’s Community Festival: lots of stalls selling handmade crafts and what seems to be the ‘big’ drink in Bulgaria this summer – cider. We end up eating ice-cream in a new Italian place on Shishman Street, not far from the English-language bookshop. Spend the evening with Mila Lambovska – a poet whose book I’m about to start translating. We wander through the expanse of Boris Gardens having a conversation about poetry in a mix-n-match lingo, half Bulgarian, half English. Mila gives me my first lesson in how to pronounce Bulgarian. As it’s Sunday night, Mila suggests we wander through town to the National Theatre where people come to dance the xora – the sometimes slow and hypnotic, sometimes frenetic national dance of Bulgaria – on Sunday evenings. I make the excuse that I really do have two left feet when it comes to dancing but watch Mila join the snaking line of dancers as they circle and weave across the square.

Monday 8 August

Brunch with the playwright/actress Maya Kisyova and the poet Petar Tchouhov. Maya tells me she’s pleased with the way my translation of her play ‘Mercy’ seems to be going and we discuss the ins and outs of writing biographical drama. Her flat is on the other side of the main boulevard that divides Lagera (my neighbourhood) and Hipodruma (hers) so we’re practically neighbours. There are posters from Maya’s past productions on the wall: one is for ‘Safety Pins’ (a multilingual, multimedia haiku-based show), another for ‘Shakespeare: the sonnets in seasons’ which is going to revive later in the year. Getting to meet Petar is a bonus. I’ve read some of his work in translation – he appears in Shearsman’s anthology ‘At The End Of The World’ and is probably one of the foremost haiku writers outside Japan. He’s also the editor of Iliyan Lyubomirov’s first collection. Iliyan’s a friend of mine and the first Bulgarian poet I translated (with the help of two Bulgarians in Canada). He’s become something of a cause celebre since his book defied critical hostility from more established poets and went on to sell more than 4,000 copies. Both he and Petar are now involved in a new creative arts academy in the National Palace of Culture. It’s a relief to be with people who don’t wince when I mention Iliyan’s name. The morning passes into lunchtime over coffee, salad, pastries and then beer. Not for the first time, I tell the story of how I ended up in Bulgaria (that long string of coincidences), while Petar recounts tales from the international poetry festival circuit and his trip to the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco to meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Tuesday 9 August

My first official public appearance as translator-in-residence: a talk which I’ve rather melodramatically called ‘Translation as a Subversive Art’. I came up with that in a bit of a hurry and most of my semi-improvised 90-minute talk consists of me trying to make sense of what I meant by it. There’s a good turn-out – including most of the people I’ve been introduced to so far and quite a few I haven’t – such as my fellow translator-in-residence, Ostap Slyvynsky, from Ukraine. By the end, I’ve convinced myself that translating Bulgarian poetry might be described as at least partially subversive because it tends to happen outside the mainstream publishing industry, it relies on individual contacts and ad hoc, often unfunded projects and – more importantly – it counters the prevailing image of the Balkans as ‘wild country, far, far away’. To round things off, I give out copies of my poem ‘Health Warning’ together with a Google Translate ‘crib’ and see if they can come up with a Bulgarian translation. The exercise throws up some interesting points: the ‘you’ in the English poem is non-gender specific, but that’s not possible in a gendered language like Bulgarian (at least not if you’re going to attach adjectives or participles to them) while a little buried reference to the hilly Bristol district of Totterdown in ‘tottered cobbles’ causes a bit of confusion – a reminder that even the simplest poems (‘Health Warning’ is a light-hearted retrospective warning to my wife that, when we got married, ‘there might be poetry ahead’) can cause unexpected problems for a translator.

Wednesday 10 August

Last night Emilia gave me a proof copy of Unknown Translations and instructed me to meet her with a corrected copy outside the National Library at noon today. The book is beautifully produced (complete with fly leaves and Marina’s drawing on the cover) and resembles those pocket-sized volumes that Gallimard used to produce in France. The only glaring error is that the English version of my name lacks an ‘l’ (Bulgarian doesn’t really do double letters). It seems rather strange to sitting outside the National Library with Emilia and the designer Ivz, going through these poems, looking for errant speech marks and the like, when the poems themselves started life as exercises – things I wrote to practise the Bulgarian language and suggested by the unusual combination of words that I might be learning on any one day. Now here they are in a book, with their English counterparts as parallel texts. Once Ivz has done the corrections, we’ll be set to launch in ten days or so.

Thursday 11 August

It’s Ostap’s turn to give a presentation at the Literature and Translation House. His is in Bulgarian and I stand at the back, pleasantly surprised at how much of it I can understand. Finally, I seem to be ‘tuning in’ to spoken Bulgarian. Afterwards I’m introduced to Georgi Gospodinov and we share Ukrainian rakiya with Ostap and Yana. I’ve been in touch with him via email after Emilia asked me to translate one of his poems, ‘God of Berlin’, and we have a mutual friend in W.N. Herbert – another poet who’s worked in Bulgaria and was editor of Arc’s 2004 anthology A Balkan Exchange. Just before I came to Sofia, I read Georgi’s extraordinary novel The Physics of Sorrow and his translations of the Bulgarian ‘proletarian poet’ Nikola Vaptsarov. He’s a key figure in contemporary Bulgarian – and indeed world – literature whose work has the depth and scope of Nobel laureates like Orhan Pamuk and Nobel contenders like Ismail Kadare. He is also more than happy to listen to my rambling tales involving previous encounters with rakiya and have his picture taken with a visiting poet wearing a horribly lurid orange rucksack.

Friday 12 August

Planning for the launch of Unknown Translation: Emilia, Vasilena and I meet at the Blue Lion. Vasilena and I are to co-present the launch – which seems entirely fitting as she is the one who asked that fateful question – ‘Have you ever been to Bulgaria?’ – at the University of Portsmouth three years before. We decide that, despite my excruciating accent, I should read at least one of the poems in the book in Bulgarian. Emilia and Vasilena set about correcting my errant pronunciation and marking where the stresses lie in the Bulgarian text. I promise that I will practise every day until I get it right.

Saturday 13 August

A day of translation, working in my impromptu kitchen-office at the flat. More big red tomatoes. Quite a few of the people I’ve met are down at the coast. In the UK, Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast is routinely presented as a hell-hole – the ‘new Magaluf’ where 18-30-year-olds get plastered and have unsafe sex. That’s only in certain resorts – ones overrun with Brits who, when challenged about their projectile vomiting and genital infections, somehow manage to blame the Bulgarians for selling alcohol too cheaply (cf. all those so-say ‘documentaries’ about Sunny Beach). Yes, booze is cheap here and you won’t get arrested for drinking on the streets, but downtown Sofia (and the resorts on the coast that British package tours haven’t yet destroyed) is a paradise of calm on a Saturday night compared with what’s probably going on in central Bristol right now. I buy a bottle of beer from the cornershop on Gurko and sit outside the National Theatre with the rest of the peripatetic Saturday night crowd.

Sunday 14 August

If you’d told me, ten years ago, that I would be spending Sunday 14 August talking to an English-speaking club in a Sofia suburb and then sitting on the Soviet Army monument, listening to Vasilena read the Bulgarian poems from Unknown Translations, I would have told you that you were insane. But that’s how the day passed. In the morning, I ate croissants and drank English tea in the company of welcoming, engaging and endlessly intrigued Bulgarian Anglophiles and in the afternoon I wandered through the latest edition of Sofia Breathes with Vasilena before we clambered up the monument to the Soviet Army and she read those poems, wondering which ones she should read at the launch. It’s the first time I’ve heard all but one of the Bulgarian poems read aloud. We wonder at the chances of all this and I recall my answer to a question at the English-speaking club that morning. ‘You’re a bit older than us,’ someone had said. ‘So what is your advice to us?’ Not being used to requests for wisdom, I blurted out: ‘Just go with it. Be open.’ That evening in Portsmouth, after all, I could have responded to Vasilena’s question with something like ‘Bulgaria? Nope. Never been there. And probably won’t, to be honest.’ Thankfully, I didn’t.



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