“And yet it is a precondition of the practice of translation that the translator wanders. The translator wanders between languages, cultures, texts, bodies of knowledge. The essential nomadism of the translator’s condition demands a creative restlessness that drives the translator’s curiosity and enhances their ability. . . . [I]mplicit in the act of translation itself is a movement, a rejection of fixity, the embrace of a world outside the familiar, the already known, the acceptable.”
Michael Cronin, Translation in the Digital Age
Translation is a gnarly business. Even more so when you’re doing it the wrong way around.
In Bulgarian, which I translate from, translating into a language that’s not your native tongue is colloquially known as obraten prevod, which literally means “reverse translation.” As an adjective, obraten carries the negative connotation of something abnormal or backward, something that goes against the grain, or something that simply isn’t right. As a noun, obraten is used as a derogatory slur for a queer person. By contrast, translating from a foreign language into Bulgarian is known as prav prevod. As if the dictionary definition of the word—prav means straight, direct, correct, even upstanding—weren’t enough to drive the point across, when used as a modifier for prevod, it also creates an alliteration that’s pleasing to the ear, so that even the ease with which the two words roll off the tongue seems to suggest that this is not just the proper, but also the only natural direction in which translation should take place.
The notion that there’s only one correct direction for translation to occur isn’t limited to Bulgaria; it’s prevalent and largely taken for granted in the world of translation practice and theory as a whole. 1 For example, one of the requirements listed as part of the open call of the Literary translation scheme funded by the European Union’s Creative Europe Program states that, “The target language [sic] must be the mother tongue of the translator.” This rule is apparently so self-evident that no additional explanations or justifications are provided. Known as L2 translation, non-native translation, bilingual translation, or inverted translation—although “the terminology is still in flux”—the practice of translating from one’s “native” language into a “non-native” one, as widespread as it may be, is often, according to literary translator Marta Dziurosz, “treated as whimsical at best, and gross incompetence at worst.” 2 The London-based English-Polish-English literary translator Marta Dziurosz discusses these and other aspects of the practice of translating from one’s “native” language into a “non-native” one in her text “On L2 (‘non-native’) translation,” which was originally published by The Linguist magazine, issue 56, 1, February/March 2017. Although slightly more polite, less poetic, and rather pseudo-scientific sounding, the Mother Tongue Principle (also known as the Native Speaker Principle) also boils down to the same thing: that translators should—and can—only work from a “foreign” language into their “mother tongue.”3This seems to be confirmed by what, at least at first sight, appears to be happening in the practical field: virtually all well-known—if they are known at all, since translators are also notoriously anonymous and invisible—translators of canonical works of world literature into English are native English speakers. As an example, Franz Kafka was first brought into English by the Scottish couple Edwin and Willa Muir, while his more recent translator Mark Harman was born and grew up in Dublin and immigrated to the States, where he now lives, teaches, and translates.
On a cursory level, this expectation is, of course, not that outrageous. It makes sense that, while understanding one language requires certain knowledge and proficiency, translating that language (usually called the “source” language) into another one demands much higher levels of fluency and mastery of that other (often called “receiving” or “target”) language. 4 Interestingly (and rather disturbingly), the emphasis on the mastery of the target language often comes at the expense of the requirement for competency in the source language. It is not rare for native-speaker translators, especially those working from “small” into “big” languages, to get away with knowing their source language only superficially; in a practice I find quite problematic, some translators, especially when translating poetry, don’t know the source language at all and rely entirely on “informants” (native speakers of the source language) who provide a literal translation and often do not get any credit for their labor. The problem, however, is that these expectations are rooted in certain—rather misguided—assumptions. One such assumption is that monolingualism, rather than bilingualism or even multilingualism, is the norm, when countless individuals and communities make it obvious that this isn’t true. Another assumption is the conflation of language ownership and national identity, when—again—numerous examples prove that a neat overlap between the two doesn’t always exist. A third assumption is the understanding of language as a single, absolute, monolithic, static, immovable, and discreet entity—as in, there’s just one English, one French, one Portuguese, or one Bulgarian. This obviously isn’t true of any language, and especially not of English—though technically they might all be considered “mother tongues,” the English of someone from New Orleans will be very different from that of someone from New York, someone from New Mexico, or someone from Nova Scotia, and even more so than that of a person from New Zealand, a person from New Delhi, or a person from New South Wales. 5What I’m trying to do with this list is simply make a point, although these categories are quite meaningless in and of themselves and each of these places alone contains multitudes of different, albeit all “native,” Englishes. A fourth assumption is that an individual’s personal relationship to, and by extension mastery of, a particular language—be it their “native” tongue or a “foreign” one—is fixed, unchanging, one-directional, unambiguous, non-negotiable. Which of course it isn’t.6 This can be seen in the case of Kafka’s translators who were mentioned earlier and who, although supposedly native speakers of English, did not have an uncomplicated relationship to the language. In fact, Willa Muir grew up speaking Scots while Edwin Muir spoke Orcadian, and they always spoke Scots to each other privately, but adopted English in order to be accepted into the literary mainstream, and reportedly claimed that for them, it always remained an official, public language. Mark Harman, on the other hand, grew up speaking English but had an Austrian nanny and attended an Irish-language school, where all subjects—except for English—were taught in Gaeilge. His translations of Kafka are said to have an “Irish-English tonality,” and although he claims that this wasn’t his explicit aim, he acknowledges that it may have been inevitable, as his “ears grew up in Ireland.” These and other fascinating details can be found in Kafka Translated: How Translators have Shaped our Reading of Kafka by Michelle Woods.
My own experience with languages, specifically Bulgarian and English, confirms that the human relationship to language can be—and often is—unstable, fluid, and unfixed. I was born and (mostly) grew up in Bulgaria, and still speak Bulgarian to my parents and my entire family. But also—I moved to Kuwait when I was thirteen and had to learn English quickly and on the fly when I was enrolled in an American school, from which I graduated five years later; I went on to go college in Minnesota, then lived and worked in New York City for a year before moving to London for graduate school. 7 Things have been made even messier by the interference of other languages, too: I was required to take Russian in my Bulgarian elementary school, like all children who grew up in the Soviet Bloc, then studied French and Arabic as second languages (although, to me, they were technically third and fourth languages) at my American high school, then majored in German and took a few semesters of Spanish in college. So in fact, yes, Bulgarian is technically my mother tongue and—quite literally—my mother’s tongue. But at the same time, my formative years and much of my adulthood, including all of my higher education, most of my professional life, and the majority of my intimate and personal experiences have taken place in English, within largely English-language environments, and in the company of English speakers. 8 But even that, with interruptions: for example, the three-year stint, during which falling in love with a French physicist and the resulting move to the South of France made it necessary for me to learn and use a particular dialect of New Caledonian French on a daily basis.
As a result, I feel at home in the two languages. I inhabit both with equal comfort—and yet neither one feels completely like home. There certainly are things that I’m better at in Bulgarian, like knowing the names of animals, and things I’m equally bad at in both languages, like the names of plants and spices. But my capacity for intellectual thought and emotional expression, my writing, reading, and analytic abilities, my handling of complexity and nuance, and even my sense of humor, sarcasm, and comedic timing (assuming they exist at all) are actually, even if slightly, better developed in English. So it makes sense that, although Bulgarian is my native language, I’m not just better suited to, but also more capable of translating from it and into English, rather than the other way around.
And yet—some realities are simply non-negotiable. Although often prone to “unnatural” turns of phrase, my Bulgarian sounds “fluent,” while my English is, and forever will be, “accented.” So, in Bulgarian, I can (and often do) go around, offering “my two cents,” “adding insult to injury,” “barking up the wrong tree,” complaining about things “costing an arm and a leg,” “cutting corners,” feeling “under the weather,” or “waiting for the other shoe to drop,” and nobody even bats an eyelash. 9 While my spoken Bulgarian sounds fluent, my written one—if not exactly accented—does seem to give readers pause. Back when I contributed to a Bulgarian weekly as a journalist, I was often told that my articles “sound like translations.” Although I did write them in Bulgarian, I suppose some sort of translation process was probably taking place, even if just in passing and only inside my head, as I generally feel like I think more clearly and express myself better and more convincingly in English. In terms of actual translations, in the few instances where I’ve translated from English into Bulgarian, I’ve always found the process rather excruciating and quite unsatisfying—not just because I feel like my translations sound wooden, but also because I am so keenly aware that there are dozens, if not hundreds and even thousands of English-to-Bulgarian translators who would do a better job than me. A curious side effect of the Mother Tongue Principle, which I’ve personally benefitted from enormously, is the fact that while there are countless Bulgarians translating from English (people who’ve studied in English-language high schools, majored in English Literature or American Studies at Bulgarian universities, or have come to know English in some other way), there are less than a dozen translators from Bulgarian into English. Besides a pretty constant stream of work, which I can count on as a freelance translator, this has also had a reassuring effect on me, especially when I was first starting out. As much as I don’t like to admit it, my intimidation and reluctance to take on translations were tempered by the knowledge that my refusal to translate something might easily mean that it would not get translated at all. But as soon as I mention that I translate into English, regardless of whether I say it in English or Bulgarian, eyebrows fly up in astonishment, eyes narrow in suspicion.
Even if I could erase the accent, the cold, clingy, nonnegotiable facts of my name, my place of birth, and my nationality are enough to make all these intricacies, complicated relationships, and my own particular biographical details vanish into thin air. The mere, usually unavoidable, mention of these facts, either together or separately, often seems sufficient to bring into question not just the quality of my translations and the validity of my approaches or decisions, but also my legitimacy as a translator of Bulgarian into English as a whole. Even in friendly and well-meaning scenarios, I’ve often had to rationalize it; in less benevolent ones, I’ve had to actively defend it.
Although this text is not a translation, at least not strictly speaking, 10There is of course the argument, which I somewhat agree with, that every act of writing is a translation. I’m pretty certain that if the name in the byline were Katherine Peterson, readers might pause at the title, but would then much more willingly go along and accept that the jarring snag in the phrase is intentional. But being authored by Ekaterina Petrova automatically opens the text up to a different kind of scrutiny—the danger now appears that the reader might assume the snag is a mistake and the author doesn’t know that, according to the rules of proper English grammar, ‘neither’ always has to be followed by ‘nor’ and never by an ‘and.’ While Ekaterina’s constant switching, as seen here and elsewhere, between academic and colloquial registers, formal and casual modes might be construed as proof that she doesn’t have a good grasp on the rules and subtleties of the English language, Katherine might be permitted such abrupt shifts as a way of making a point or even just for the sake of experimentation.11 Another case in point: A translator I don’t know personally recently shared the following experience in a Facebook group dedicated to literary translation: She submitted two translated excerpts of the same book to an American editor—one under her own, very much “foreign-sounding” name, and another under “a generic English-sounding name.” The text sent under the made-up name “received virtually unreserved praise, for everything from vivid use of metaphor to flawless style. The one [she] sent under [her] own name, done at the same time, using the exact same style and type of metaphors and whatnot, also received positive feedback – with the caveat that ‘sometimes it is a little obvious that the translator is not a native speaker; certain words and turns of phrase stand out as not entirely natural.’”
The same exact moves that might be hailed as revolutionary, experimental, or quirky in original writing are often read as clunky or lacking in fluency when they appear in translations. While writers (in any language) are generally encouraged, even expected, to challenge and experiment with language and its conventions, translators (in any direction) run the constant risk that their efforts to reproduce the original’s linguistic experiments might be interpreted as a sign of ineptitude. This is doubly true for “non-native” translators. Not rarely, out of fear they might be accused of incompetence, this leads non-native translators to smoothen, normalize, and domesticate their translations, even when the original might be deliberately jarring, strange, or foreign.
Much of the time, though, the mention of my name, place of birth, and nationality is enough to raise eyebrows on its own, without the need to even take into account the quality of my translations or my particular approaches, experimental or not. The idea that Ekaterina Petrova, born in Sofia, Bulgaria, translates from—rather than into—Bulgarian seems to cause a knee-jerk kind of unease, puzzlement, a desire to somehow reconcile this seeming challenge to the natural order of things, and even, in the case of well-meaning people, attempts to defend my legitimacy while still maintaining the status quo.
While pursuing my MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa, I was lucky enough to be invited to read at Iowa City’s iconic Prairie Lights bookstore alongside two writers, one from Argentina and one from Romania, who were visiting for three months as part of the university’s International Writing Program. As the promotional poster for the event was being prepared, which was to feature our headshots, names, countries of origin, and short bios, I was asked whether it would be ok for my country ID to read “Bulgaria/USA,” as a way to signal that I was more “local” than the visiting writers. After some back-and-forth, in which I explained that being double-billed felt weird and seemed misleading and that I preferred my country ID to read, simply, “Bulgaria,” Nataša Ďurovičová, who was organizing the reading and had kindly invited me to take part, finally responded, “Sure! Bulgaria it is.”12 Nataša Ďurovičová herself is a brilliant, impressive multilingual speaker, translator, and editor, fluent in at least three unrelated languages and knowledgeable in quite a few more. Although we haven’t always seen eye to eye when it comes to the practice of non-native speakers translating into their second language, she has always been very encouraging and supportive of my translation endeavors.
Bulgaria it always is, and there’s no escaping it. But things over (t)here, on the other side of the divide and on my “source” language’s home turf, aren’t that different either. Many people I’ve interacted with professionally, including Bulgarian writers who’ve approached me about translating their work, have voiced their qualms and found it difficult to conceal their suspicions of my legitimacy as a translator. The suspicion is often a double one: on the one hand, there’s a mistrust in my ability, as a Bulgarian, to translate into English, and on the other, there are doubts about my qualifications to translate Bulgarian literature without having studied Bulgarian Language, Literature and/or Philology at Sofia University. 13I usually respond to such reservations by pointing out that if I’d studied Bulgarian Literature and Philology at Sofia University, I wouldn’t be able to translate into English. At the same time and rather frustratingly, as already mentioned, it is not rare for translators whose native language is English to be automatically exempt from such expectations—just by virtue of being British or American—so that even a cursory knowledge of Bulgarian sometimes seems enough to qualify them to translate from it.
A couple of years ago, I was talking to the director of an organization whose main aim is the translation, promotion, and popularization of Bulgarian literature into English. The director herself had commissioned me to do dozens of translations from Bulgarian into English over the years, so I was pretty certain she had faith in my ability and legitimacy as a translator. “We have a new Angela Rodel, have you heard?” she asked me casually during our chat. A Minnesota-native who came to Bulgaria on a Fulbright in the mid-nineties, fell in love with Bulgarian folk music and the Bulgarian language, and eventually married a Bulgarian man and settled down in the country permanently, Angela Rodel is the most renowned and prolific translator of Bulgarian literature into English. Chances are, if you pick up any Bulgarian book that’s come out in English over the past fifteen years, it was translated by her. 14 Angela Rodel was also largely the reason I got into translation in the first place and has always been generous and supportive of me. She has been instrumental to me as a mentor, especially in the early years of my translation endeavors (when she not only sent me a steady flow of jobs, but also worked closely with me as an editor while I struggled through the conundrums and challenges of a beginner translator). I now have the privilege of co-teaching a translation class with her at Sofia University. The fact that, besides her, there are only a handful of literary translators working from Bulgarian into English has meant both that there is enough work (although of varying literary quality) for anyone who wants it and feels up to it, and that it has been comparatively easy to build a reputation and establish one’s self professionally as a translator. 15 According to my own rough estimate, the currently active literary translators from Bulgarian into English are around a dozen. Interestingly enough, the native speakers make up around a third of the whole group. This is also a good place to point out that “small” languages like Bulgarian, because of the lack of native English speakers who are willing and able to translate from them, are very much reliant on non-native speakers for the translation and promotion of their literatures. Because there is relatively little competition, I’ve been able to focus on doing my work and doing it well, without really comparing myself to other translators. Partly because of my own investment in and commitment to the job, but also admittedly because of the lack of competition, I feel that my work as a translator has steadily grown both in quality and in quantity, to the point where I’ve carved a niche for myself and might have a claim to being, if not exactly a prominent, then at least somewhat of a known translator into English. Until that conversation, it had never occurred to me to compare myself to Angela in any way, except as an inspiration. And yet, the comment irritated me a little, and I couldn’t help but ask, “I thought I was ‘the new Angela Rodel?’” “Oh, you could never be the new Angela Rodel,” the director said with a tone that seemed to suggest I was missing something very obvious. In response to my quizzical look, she responded: “Because you’re not American,” and then proceeded to explain that while Angela was a Bulgarianist, I could never be one—since I was, in fact, a Bulgarian. 16 When I did eventually get to meet “the new Angela Rodel” in question, she turned out to be a very qualified and thoughtful translator, who really does seem to be on the path to prominence in the field. And while she is indeed a Bulgarianist and has a much more rigorous theoretical knowledge of the language than I do, during our meeting she also admitted to me—as other translators who are non-native speakers of their source language have also done—that she sometimes worries about missing or misunderstanding something in the Bulgarian texts she translates.
But despite certain annoyances of the kind that these anecdotes illustrate, and for all its miseries, translation, even in the reverse direction, also has its joys, if not exactly its splendors. They’re more elusive, less tangible or obvious, and thus harder to elucidate than the miseries, but I’ll try anyway.
On a practical level, besides the reliably constant stream of work, which I already mentioned, and which might be a particular side effect of translating from a “small” language,17 I’m only using the term “small” here as a way to make my point quickly, although that label is of course highly problematic. The idea of “small” and “big” languages is another regular source of irritation for me, although it’ll have to be put aside and addressed in a different essay. translating from my “native tongue” gives me a sense of comfort and assurance that I often take for granted, but which shouldn’t be underestimated. I didn’t really think much about it until I began the Literary Translation program in Iowa, where I was able to have conversations about it with the other translators, the vast majority of whom were Americans translating from their second language into English (although this, too, is shifting 18As the program itself has grown, so has the number of translators in it who translate from their native language. This is entirely thanks to the efforts of the program’s director, Aron Aji, who has made space for me and others like me in the program, generously calling us bilingual, rather than non-native, translators. He himself translates—to great renown—from his native Turkish, which is technically his second language, into English, which is his third. ). Although they all have “excellent proficiency” in their source language, 19 This, according to the official program description, is the first requirement of candidates, but “bi-lingual and multi-lingual applicants as well as those with a strong and active heritage language,” and “international students who possess near-native proficiency in English” are also encouraged to apply. which they have studied for many years and have usually spent time in the country/ies where it is spoken, many of them confessed they regularly worried about missing, overlooking, or misunderstanding something in the original. This is clearly something that can happen to anyone, something none of us is immune to, 20While working on a translation recently, I translated one phrase as “a humidity that showed no mercy to the hair.” I was surprised by this description, as it seemed really not in the style of the author and at odds with the book as a whole, whose concerns seemed to me much more poetic and elevated than the frizziness caused by humidity. It was only after many, many readings that I finally realized I was one letter off and the phrase, in fact, was “a humidity that showed no mercy to the bones” (косите (kosite) = the hair, костите (kostite) = the bones). but it is generally not something I really worry about. My relationship to Bulgarian as my “native language” means that I’m pretty confident in having a solid grasp of it as the language from which I translate, even if I sometimes might feel insecure and make mistakes when I have to speak or write it myself. My own constant source of nagging paranoia, by contrast—and despite all my proclamations of having a solid grasp of my target language—is that I won’t get the English quite right: that a wrong preposition, a missing (in)definite article, an uncalled-for gerund, an out-of-order word order, or a phrase with the right denotative meaning but an inappropriate connotative usage 21 My favorite example of this are the phrases “butt dial” and “booty call,” which are formed by two pairs of words that share the exact same denotative meaning but have very different connotative usages. might “give me away.” But whether we admit it or not, we all have blind spots—it’s just that for some of us, they might be mostly in the source language, and for others, mostly in the target one. As a way to calm down, counteract my occasional sense of impostor syndrome,22In her text mentioned earlier, Marta Dziurosz points out that some bilingual translators consider this “impostor syndrome” to be an asset, as it makes them second-guess and deeply analyze their linguistic choices. and avoid getting paralyzed, I tell myself that I might actually be in a more favorable position than my native-speaker peers. This is because, even when I mess up, the kinds of mistakes that I’m likely to make will almost certainly get caught and corrected by the Anglophone editors of my translations. By contrast, mistakes resulting from failing to understand something in the original are much more difficult to catch, especially when that original is in a “small” language that is usually completely inaccessible to the English or American editors of the translation.
The “splendor” also extends to less practical and more creative considerations. I’ve realized that every translation is inherently imperfect,23The claim that translation should only happen from a foreign language into a native tongue also rests on the assumption that there’s such a thing as a perfect translation. Which of course there isn’t. Translation always causes deformation—it is inherently a deformation. No matter how many drafts, edits, rewrites, workshops, etc. a translation goes through, it’ll always be “flawed”—an imperfect copy of the original that either remains too close to it and thus sounds foreign or becomes too fluent and thus moves too far away from it. unless it is thought of as an artistic act. Ever since I stopped being so concerned with having to defend my legitimacy as a native speaker of Bulgarian who translates into English, I found that this new and liberating understanding of translation has allowed me to interrogate the languages in and out of which I work, as well to as to think about my own projects and endeavors in fresh and inspiring ways. My particular relationship to each language gives me the freedom to make certain types of decisions that might not be available to translators working in the direction established as the proper one. I find both languages wondrous, but don’t think of either of them as sacred. I feel equally at home in each language but also equally estranged from both, they both belong to me but neither does so entirely, so it is possible for me to detach from the constraints imposed by complete loyalty to either one language or the other.
I’ll say it again—translation is a gnarly business. For that reason, those in the business—both as practitioners and theorists—love couching the act of translation in metaphors.24 It seems to me that no other artistic endeavor is talked about in metaphors to such an extent—writing is usually simply writing, painting is painting, composing and performing music are just that. Perhaps not surprisingly—and surely enabled by its very nature as a movement between two distinct entities, as something that replaces one thing with another—these metaphors are almost always based on some idea of duality: “rucksacks” getting taken off one back and strapped onto another (Friedrich Schleiermacher, as translated by Susan Bernofsky); the skin of a fruit sloughing off, so that its content might be newly enveloped in “a royal robe with ample folds” (Walter Benjamin, as translated by Steven Rendall); a soul getting wrenched from one body and then implanted into a new one (somebody at a translation conference panel); etc, etc.25Translation theory is also a great source of phrases that would make great band names. Just a few examples from my ever-growing list: Les Belles Inflidèles (D’Ablancourt), An Utterly Foolish Undertaking (Schleirmacher), Unlovely In-Between Realm (Schleirmacher), The Vulgar Error of Fidus Interpres (Sir John Denham), Flub-dub and “Action” (Ezra Pound), Pleasure-Love-Leisure-Dove (Nabokov), Métier and Morals, Negation of Entropy (Steiner), Comparing the Incomparable (Ricoeur).
While they might be useful in illuminating the act of translation and its stakes, both for translators and for readers,26I find it paradoxical while the act of translation is as old and as “natural” as language itself, it is still widely thought of as a totally mysterious endeavor or not really thought of at all, as if texts just spring up in new languages on their own or through some kind of magic. most of the metaphors I’ve come across seem uninspired, too simplistic, irritating, or overly melodramatic. I don’t really like them because they often imply a hierarchy, in which the original tends to be viewed as a superior artistic creation, which the translated text, considered a pale and inferior imitation, could never live up to. Translation is often also talked about in funereal terms—as a loss, mourning, betrayal,27There is, of course, that infamous coinage “Translator, traitor.” Originally in Italian as Traduttore, traditore, it was first applied to the French by irate Italians who felt that French-language translations of Dante betrayed the beauty or the accuracy of the work. anguish, appropriation, and even violence. I don’t mean to suggest that translation is always a jaunty walk in the park, but it certainly has its moments of delight, celebration, satisfaction, generosity, and contentment, too.28Or, in the words of Eileen Brennan translating Paul Ricœur, one of the most renowned translation theoreticians: “small delights.” Although he does preface this with the phrase “great difficulties.”
One metaphor that I do like is that of translation as an act of hospitality. It appeals to me, as a perpetual—to use Michael Cronin’s term—“wanderer,” having spent so much of my life being a guest—not just in “languages, cultures, texts, bodies of knowledge,” but also, on a more mundane level, while traveling to “foreign” countries, visiting friends, and sleeping on their couches. The comparison of translation to hospitality also seems fitting to me because it successfully captures the simultaneous delight and discomfort of translation, which exist side by side—while both hosting and being a guest are enormously exciting, pleasurable, and enriching experiences, they can also, often at the same time, cause exhaustion, unease, and distress by forcing us—both as hosts and as guests—to take others into consideration, to break with our established ways of doing things, to deal with our loss of personal space, to respect another’s interests/desires while not completely throwing away our own, to make compromises, to remain kind while being frustrated, to show (as a host) or to appreciate (as a guest) the local sights, smells, sounds, and flavors. Thinking of translation as hospitality also opens up the possibility of—in Cronin’s words—“a movement, a rejection of fixity, the embrace of a world outside the familiar, the already known, the acceptable,” of switching roles and positions, of changing directions. One can be a host at one point, and a guest at another, and sometimes even be a host while simultaneously being a guest. For instance, when my American friend Sarah came to visit me in Iowa City from Chicago, I was her host while at the same time, technically, being a guest in her country.
The English language has been nothing but a welcoming, accommodating, gracious, generous, flexible, and life-changing host to me. It has given me a sense of belonging, a place to lay my head (or is it “a place to hang my hat?”), if not exactly a home, while at the same time providing me with a space to freely roam around and live out my “creative restlessness.” (When I try to think about what my life would’ve been without it, I can’t even imagine a wildly different scenario, but just draw a complete blank.) In return, I try to inhabit it as a considerate guest. I aim to give back, to contribute to it, and enrich it, while still respecting its quirks, boundaries, and conventions, or, when I need to challenge them, doing so with kindness and thoughtfulness, and while bearing gifts and telling stories in exchange. In an unexpected way, this has also allowed me to become, if not exactly a host, then at least a participant in the creation of a hospitable and welcoming English-language home for Bulgarian literature.
As an ending, rather than offering a conclusion, I’ll go back to the beginning:
* The Anglophone reader, I’m constantly and tirelessly told by editors, holds footnotes and endnotes in contempt, and we, as translators, should under no circumstances use them as explanatory paratext in our translations, lest we remind the reader that she is in fact reading a translation, thus breaking the spell we are supposed to be casting, in which we pretend that the translation has magically sprung up as a perfect copy of the original, only in a different language, which then allows the reader to pretend she is not reading a translation. The preferred method for handling instances where a translation might require an additional explanation is the so-called “stealth gloss,” which involves furtively inserting the clarification within the actual text, as if it were there all along.
But I like footnotes and endnotes, both in translated and untranslated texts, because of their capacity to illuminate, enrich, and engage with the main body of the text, because they make it possible for me, as the author, to digress, and because of the potential they afford to highlight the fact that multiple, diverse, and often conflicting voices can and often do exist within a single text, while at the same time allowing the reader to choose if, how, and when to engage with them. In translations, I find footnotes and endnotes much more honest than stealth glosses. Even though this essay is not strictly speaking a translation, I have decided to use them extensively.
This endnote, then, is about the essay’s subtitle. I first heard the phrase “splendor and misery” a few years ago, when the musician, ethnomusicologist, Director of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission, and the most prominent literary translator from Bulgarian into English, Angela Rodel, whom I mention in this essay, founded her new electronic indie rock band and called it Splendor and Misery. When I congratulated her on coming up with such a catchy band name, she told me she’d actually borrowed it from the essay “Misery and Splendor of Translation,” which the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset first published in 1937 as “Miseria y esplendor de la traduccion,” and which has subsequently become seminal reading in Translation Theory.
Imagine my surprise (and delight!), then, when I spotted the phrase “the splendours and miseries of the streets” in Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting,” which was written in 1927. A quick Google search reveals that the Swiss-born French Art Nouveau painter Théophile Alexandre Steinlen has a print called “Misère et splendeur,” dating from 1908. I guess I could go on digging in search of the phrase’s original coiner for a while, but I suspect there wouldn’t be much point in that—that is, besides the points that I’ve already tried to make in this essay, which might or might not be about everything being a translation, nothing being truly an original, directions and positions constantly switching, and things getting messy, which could be disquieting, but also possibly beautiful, etc.
Ekaterina Petrova is a literary translator from the Bulgarian and a bilingual nonfiction writer. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship and helped edit the Exchanges Journal of Literary Translation. Currently based in Sofia, Bulgaria, she has also spent time living, studying, and/or working in Kuwait, St. Paul, New York, London, Berlin, Cuba, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and the south of France. Her literary translations and nonfiction writing have appeared in various Bulgarian and English-language publications, including Words Without Borders, European Literature Network, Drunken Boat, EuropeNow, and B O D Y. Her translation of Bogdan Rusev’s novel Come to Me was published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2019. She is currently working on the translation of Iana Boukova’s novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow and the nonfiction anthologies My Brother’s Suitcase and Our Fathers Are Never Gone.