Immigrant Song: “My Brother’s Suitcase: Stories About the Road,” Translated from Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova

By Izidora Angel

No matter where you go, you always carry your loneliness with you, even that unconscious black loneliness that bubbles up beneath the youthful optimism.

Zoya Marincheva, “Meridians and Demons” (from My Brother’s Suitcase)

That Bulgarian even exists to translate from is a kind of miracle. Despite the country’s rich history dating back to 681 AD, for 500 years, until 1878, Bulgarians were under Ottoman rule, which wreaked havoc on their identity, culture and language. Somehow, through sheer force of will, Bulgarians and the Bulgarian tongue survived.

But the language is still in danger. For all its export of Bulgarians out into the world (two and a half million), the export of Bulgarian literature into the English-speaking world lags staggeringly behind. Instead, far too many English words are imported in, grotesquely bent and folded into conjugations never intended for them. The hemorrhaging of Bulgarians from Bulgaria means less and less people are learning the language, speaking it or writing it. It means one day Bulgarian may go extinct.

For this reason, every novel, every story, every sentence translated from Bulgarian to English is a small miracle. And there have been only a handful, maybe a dozen or two, small miracles to date, pretty much all existing thanks to Open Letter Books in New York and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation, as well as the precious few translators who do the crucial, underfunded, back-breaking work of transforming the Bulgarian language into English.

So if one gets the sense that the only way to go is up, that’s probably because it is most certainly so.

And yet, despite the statistical despair one feels when one inventories the number of, say, novels written by Bulgarian women writers to have ever been translated into English (count them on one hand), this isn’t an adequate reflection of what it is to love Bulgaria and to love the Bulgarian tongue. What it is to try to translate the complex language made up of nearly forty moods and tenses that gives it an unparalleled history, richness, and melancholy.

My Brother’s Suitcase, newly translated from Bulgarian into English by award-winning translator Ekaterina Petrova, is a collection of twenty-two stories “about the road” and they take place somewhere between one’s birthplace and that other place, the one we exist in, the one that evades definition. The book stands as one of a trilogy of anthologies, Fathers Never Go Away, essays on losing our dads, also recently translated into English by Ekaterina Petrova, and Stories from the 90s, yet to be translated.

All three were collected, edited and published by Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva, a respected English-to-Bulgarian translator in her own right and the founder of ICU publishing, an independent literary press based in Bulgaria. For this collection, Nevena unequivocally sets the tone at the onset: “No, this book will not be melodramatic. Nobody will be shedding tears over the emigrant’s uneasy fate. Instead, we’ll talk about the Road and about what we all bring with us when we decide to leave, whether on a one-way journey, or with many back-and-forths.”

Nevena very intentionally set out to collect the thoughts, lives and experiences not just of writers, or Bulgarians or immigrants or emigrants, because she wanted “diversity, colors, an explosion of tastes.” She adds, “What I didn’t expect was that, all differences considered, these texts would communicate so fluently with one another and that each would provide a sort of delicate sequel to the one before it.”

The stories and essays are written by professional writers (Georgi Gospodinov, Kapka Kassabova, Dimitar Kambourov, Neva Micheva, among others) and unprofessional ones (a financier, a mime, a photographer, to name some) but where the language may not be expertly crafted, it is the story that carries us along. As promised, not all the authors are Bulgarian and in perhaps what is a fitting analogue to Bulgaria’s destiny as an ancient crossroads of civilizations between the east and west, it also features authors who are Indian, Iranian, Vietnamese, and Venezuelan.

The thing that holds them all together is that elusive search for a place to call home, of belonging, of loss, of identity, of language as a means to bridge all that.

Some stories are that true, awful, bitterly funny immigrant experience we Bulgarians are painfully familiar with. The one where you are forced to leave 75 percent of yourself at the border. Others are permeated with sadness and regret. And others yet declare their love for the oldest country in Europe while holding her accountable.

In the glistening, self-deprecating, and laugh-out-loud funny “The Little Golden Bell” by Vladislav Hristov, he’s the PhD immigrant whose education is now comically superfluous, just barely good enough to earn him a futile leaves-sweeping job in the parking lot of a wealthy lawyer’s estate in Austria. “The days went by, I kept sweeping the parking lot and receiving my hundred euros each evening, as though each time it were the same banknote, which I had lost and Herr García was courteously giving back to me.” The eponymous golden bell is for Marcella the cat, an Abyssinian — a rare, 10,000-euro breed that roams the lush gardens next door — and whose full-time minder has mounted the tracking device on her exquisite neck via a silk ribbon, since hers is the sort of breed that, perhaps fittingly, doesn’t meow. I won’t spoil her fate, you really ought to read the story for yourself.

In “Exportations,” Dimitar Kambourov’s somewhat unnecessarily sprawling essay, he charts similar fish-out-of-water territory though not before a good amount of self-mythologizing, proselytizing and name-dropping, something perhaps quite characteristic of intellectuals of a certain age in general and Bulgarian men in particular. For one reason or another, though plenty of opportunities call for it, the humor is kept largely at bay. He’s the Bulgarian public intellectual, who, despite or perhaps because of a “vow of poverty” and the “ambiguous luck” of the green card lottery, lands in New York. There, he must come to terms with the hard fact that for a man of words who is well known and regarded in Bulgaria, he will never be able to write in English. Not only that, the only writing he’ll be doing will take place on the NYC subway as he balances a laptop on his knees between appointments selling life insurance. “The irony is that it was abroad that I was compelled to activate some primal and primitive levels of my national belonging, in order to make myself marketable,” he writes with bitter resignation in Ekaterina’s magnanimous translation.

Most of the stories, though not all, were translated into English by Ekaterina, who also contributed an essay. Her style of translation expertly envelops the stories, at once caring, thoughtful, and hopeful, shepherding the prose as she transforms it, and perhaps, in the cases where the essayist isn’t a professional writer, she is more concerned with moving the story along effectively than she is with preserving a style and syntax that may not be there.

Some of the texts were originally written in English, including those by Kapka Kassabova, Pierre J. Mejlak, Rana Dasgupta, Dimiter Kenarov, and Babak Salari. There is also Gioia Guerzoni’s essay, originally in Italian, and which Ekaterina translated into English from Neva Micheva’s Bulgarian translation. This creates a kaleidoscopic mosaic of texts which have traveled back and forth so many times that they have embedded and compounded in their DNA the very fabric of their authors and translators several times over.

Ekaterina is one of only a handful of translators who can — and wants to, and does — translate from Bulgarian to English. Outside of these two languages, she is also familiar with Arabic, French, and German. In early 2021, she was awarded the Pen/Heim Translation Grant for her in-progress translation of Iana Boukova’s masterpiece Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow. In the grant’s twenty-year history, it was only the second time a Bulgarian work has been distinguished. The fact that Ekaterina has now won two separate writing residencies, including the prestigious ART OMI Translation Lab in upstate New York headed by the writer and journalist DW Gibson, and has been honored with a Pen/Heim for her work on the novel which has not yet found a publisher, is as infuriating as it is unsurprising. It calls to mind the well-known and now somehow romanticized fact that Olga Tokarczuk’s translator, Jennifer Croft, spent 9 years looking for a publisher for Flights. Surely, more than ever, we can appreciate the urgent necessity for diversification and minority linguistic representation, and serve our world literary heritage better.

Translating Suitcase required Ekaterina to “keep switching from author to author… just as I was getting used to what someone was doing and getting in sync with their writing, I’d finish the story and I’d have to move on to the next one, with its own set of features, priorities, and particularities, and I’d have to learn how to translate it from scratch.”

One major concern for her was that “all the English translations would end up sounding ‘like me.’” (They do not.)

Then there are the essays of a different type of migration — the comfortable kind, the one where one is afforded the space and time and financial support to do what one actually does for a living. These are Kapka Kassabova’s and Georgi Gospodinov’s and Ekaterina’s essays.

Bulgarian-born Kassabova’s essay, “Ruin Blues,” was written by the author in English and then translated into Bulgarian. She writes of the “exiles, emigres, immigrants and internal immigrants,” — she is one of them — having run away from Bulgaria with her family in the 90s (in the early 90s you did not emigrate; you ran) and settling first in New Zealand and later in Scotland, which, strangely, felt like home because of “the mountains and the ruins.” Her essay here finds her back in Bulgaria, on a hunt for ruins, “Thracian ruins are welcome, Ottoman ruins are not,” as a sort of archaeologist of her own past and an excavator of Bulgaria’s.

Gospodinov’s “Notes from the Monastery” is, like him, somehow effortlessly brilliant, a tiling of gentle, evocative vignettes written from a Swiss gilded cage, where solitude morphs into cows and mountain tops and musings as he twirls Italian olive pits around his tongue and toys around with foreignness and belonging with his pen. It’s the phantom country Abroad that is always the myth, the nothing that is all, and I almost wish Ekaterina had left Abroad as the original Chujbina — the buzzy compound of syllables that remains forever an exotic source of infatuation, aspirational and out of reach.

Ekaterina herself was educated almost entirely in the country Abroad, including spending two years at the famous University of Iowa getting an MFA in literary translation on a full scholarship. Her essay too charts the idea of home and of belonging — are we attached to people or things or places or even something a lot less concrete, like simply the journey to another place?  

And then there is the odd essay which puts everything else into perspective. It is not a literary pinnacle, but in examining the struggle for physical survival as much as a spiritual one, Babak Salari, a photographer who has documented the poorest parts of Bulgaria, writes of growing up in early 1980s Iran, when houses were broken into and ransacked by authorities and barely-of-age children were sentenced to death by Islamic courts. Such recollections simply don’t need literary pirouettes. “I wanted to live and be free,” he writes, “I had a desire to survive and not to die.” And he did.

For those who were born elsewhere but have somehow ended up in Bulgaria like Vietnamese-Bulgarian An Pham, who may speak perfect Bulgarian but look nothing like one, they often experience the sort of casual, everyday racism that so many Bulgarians have clung onto even as so much of the country is moving forward in all other ways: artistically, culturally, politically. Pham writes, “I know how annoying it can be to have to answer again and again where you’re from, what you’re doing here, how come you speak the language so well, and do you Vietnamese people really eat dog meat?!”

The collection is called My Brother’s Suitcase as a dedication to the publisher’s brother, who left Bulgaria for France many years ago and whose presence she sorely misses. Suitcases are, of course, easy metaphors for all that we leave behind and all that we lug with us. “The suitcase is light… even if it is heavy with departures and returns and tells the fate of an entire nation, it is light,” blurbs Kassabova on the book’s back cover.

Perhaps its physical portability is, in fact, easy, it’s just never been that easy for Bulgarian-born books to get their passports. And it is for this reason that Bulgarian to English translators must be incubated, nourished, nurtured and protected, like the endangered species they are.

My Brother’s Suitcase. Stories About the Road. Edited by Nevena Dishlieva-Krysteva. Translated by Ekaterina Petrova. ICU, 2020.

Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer and translator. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Chicago Reader, Project Plume, and others; she has been profiled in Electric Literature, Chicago Tribune, and Asymptote Journal. Izidora’s debut novel in translation, Hristo Karastoyanov’s The Same Night Awaits Us All (Open Letter, 2018), was an English PEN grant recipient. Her follow-up, Nataliya Deleva’s Four Minutes, is forthcoming from Open Letter in August 2021 with the support of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.In May 2021, Izidora received a Rona Jaffe Foundation scholarship to the Bread Loaf Translators’ Workshop Series for her work on Yordanka Beleva’s short story collection, Keder. Izidora lives in Chicago where she co-founded the Third Coast Translators Collective.

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