Nataliya Deleva’s Four Minutes is a profound, heart-breaking meditation on the notions of home and homelessness, with their myriad manifestations and implications in our contemporary world. An orphanage in post-communist Bulgaria provides the physical and psychological coordinates of the narrator’s existence and of the book’s loose narrative frame. Called simply and anonymously “the Home,” this institution is a space of recurring violence where identity, will, and individuality are systematically erased. Only the desperate need—and hope—for affection, for a real home, sustains the children through the routine of daily horrors.
Translated from Bulgarian by Izidora Angel, Four Minutes is the fruit of the passionate collaboration of author and translator who have created a home in English for Deleva’s novel. Published in 2018 in Bulgaria as Nevidimi (Invisibles), the book illuminates the lives of the ostracized, institutionalized, or else violated, abandoned, orphaned, or disabled others to whose suffering we often remain blind. It does so by integrating into Leah’s narrative about the Home several short, self-contained vignettes about marginalized figures.
Both author and translator were born and raised in Bulgaria, but they both live—and write from—abroad. Deleva lives in London, Angel in Chicago. Deleva’s novel Arrival, written in English and forthcoming in early 2022, explores the traumas of immigration, domestic abuse, and various forms of displacement. Besides Four Minutes, Angel, one of only a few translators from Bulgarian, has translated Hristo Karastoyanov’s novel The Same Night Awaits Us All and is currently at work on Yordanka Beleva’s collection of stories Keder.
As a Bulgarian myself, I am in awe of their accomplishments, of their ability to write so compellingly in a language they didn’t grow up speaking. Four Minutes is an intense, riveting text that in Angel’s translation finds the ever-elusive balance between local and universal, foreign and familiar. (Read an excerpt at Words Without Borders.)
I once called Nataliya Deleva “the Bulgarian Jhumpa Lahiri,” referring to Deleva’s writerly virtuosity in her adopted language and to Lahiri’s adopted Italian, but now I think it was an understatement. Eager to learn more about Deleva’s and Angel’s journeys as (exophonic) writers, translators, and linguistic and cultural nomads, I conducted this interview over email this summer.
Stiliana Milkova, editor, Reading in Translation
SM: Izidora, can you tell me about growing up in Bulgaria, learning English, and embarking on the path of a writer or translator?
Izidora Angel: English is my favorite of my languages, and it came in after Bulgarian, my mother tongue, and Russian, which was mandatory. I was only eight when I began my love affair with English. I took private lessons from an older, matronly teacher called Fani who resided in Sofia’s city center, in an aristocratic apartment with the highest ceilings you’ve seen. I went twice a week for years. So when I emigrated from Bulgaria to Chicago when I was 12, English was already living and breathing inside me. In the first years of being in America and having left everything behind — my father, my relatives, my friends, my social context — writing is what kept me grounded. I wrote numerous letters, almost daily, and received numerous letters, almost daily, from my friends back home. Translation, which didn’t come for me until many years after I’d been published as a travel writer and food and literary critic in English, became a way to heal the trauma of immigration. The literary journey of translation mimicked the physical one and I found some sort of comfort in the pain of carrying words over, as though I could somehow bring the world I left behind.
SM: Nataliya, how did you come up with the idea and creative impulse behind Nevidimi or Four Minutes in Izidora’s English translation?
Nataliya Deleva: Before settling in the UK back in 2004, in Bulgaria I went through a stint at a PR agency and also worked as a journalist in a few national media. As a reporter, I mainly covered social issues such as poverty, social system changes, re-integration of prisoners, etc. These have always been topics of interest to me. Children living in care and also leaving the care system and facing an independent life in a society still not ready to accept and support them, became the focus of the main narrative. Leah, the main protagonist, endures almost unimaginable daily horrors in the orphanage she’s been left in as a baby. Once she is out of the Care home, the novel examines her struggle to both integrate into society while also identifying as a gay woman. She confronts her trauma of her childhood by going back to the orphanage as a volunteer and deciding to adopt a little girl, Dara. Bureaucracy and stigma against gay women and single parents create a chain of obstacles. There are no biographical elements in this story (or any parts of the book for that matter); however, I feel strongly connected to the otherness she experiences. It’s not only a story I wanted to tell, but one, perhaps naively, I wanted to change.
In that sense, I see Four Minutes as a natural transformation of my writing practice from journalism to fiction, exploring the same burning topics that have been my driving force. I like to think that fiction, in a paradoxical way, can influence change in a very powerful way – sometimes even more powerful than the real facts and figures in the media.
SM: How and why did the title change from the Bulgarian Nevidimi to Four Minutes?
ND: An interesting question. We played with the English title for quite some time, collating ideas and leaving them to mature like an old vino. If we were to translate the Bulgarian title directly, it would have sounded something like “Invisibles” or “Overlooked.” In Bulgarian it works well and provides a glimpse into the idea of living on the margins of society without carrying negative connotations on a linguistic level. However, both Izidora and I felt that “Overlooked” is negatively charged and “Invisibles” doesn’t carry the intriguing element a novel title should bring to the surface, literally.
In the book I mention a social experiment carried out by Amnesty International Poland, depicting the idea that it takes four minutes to look someone in the eyes to accept them. In the video showing the experiment, people from different cultural backgrounds sit opposite each other in a room, not speaking, just observing each other’s faces. The viewers follow them in their four-minute journey of overcoming the initial uncomfortable moment and easing into each other’s silent company.
In a similar way, in the book there are nine standalone stories entwined into the main narrative, each one about “invisible” people marginalized by the society they live in, which could be read in a few minutes. So, we added “Four Minutes” to the list of titles and naturally, it became our favorite one. It also sounded more hopeful as if saying, there’s a hope to change things if you show an interest in those who might seem different from you; it doesn’t take much to get to know their story and understand it.
SM: Izidora, what was it like translating Four Minutes in English? This is what translation jargon calls “reverse translation” for you – that is, you translate out of your mother tongue into English. What was your approach to translating the text? Did you consult with Nataliya?
IA: While I very much appreciate the fact most translators don’t work from their mother tongue, English is my strongest language (I’ve spent 25 of my 40 years in America and England), so for me it isn’t a case of translating into my second language. It’s more that Bulgarian is so embedded into my genetic makeup that it is hard work shedding it – as I inevitably have to – when I’m translating.
I dove into Nataliya’s text and there were some sections that were incredibly difficult to transform, for grammatical reasons, for stylistic reasons, and for reasons having to do with the fact that the subject matter could paralyze me. I wrote in detail about the pain of entering this text in an essay I called Consider the Agony of the Translator. The beginning of this project coincided with the end of another and the transition was exceptionally difficult. I now realize, of course, that everything that feels impossible will take you someplace new.
Nataliya was very much involved in the process from day one. Because of how we both envisioned this project and the strategy for putting it out into the world, we were simultaneously working on translating it, promoting it, excerpting it, building a site for it, and finding a publisher for it. It was an intensely collaborative process.
SM: Homelessness and the yearning for a physical, affective, and spiritual home are key to Four Minutes. What – and where – is home for you?
ND: A wonderful question! Home for me is not defined by physical or political borders but it rather brings in the feeling of having a safe place. The vehicle for this feeling could be people – my family and friends – or situations, such as reading a strong and thought-provoking book which makes me feel it’s written for me only, or having an inspiring conversation which makes me realize a truth about myself. Sometimes, it could be visiting my grandparents’ house in a Bulgarian village which feels like visiting my most precious childhood memories, and other times it could be just a scent, like the smell of linden trees which always reminds me of my rebellious teenage years.
IA: There is a certain, I think, inveterate rootlessness to the immigrant, and I suffer from it. I can’t stay in one place too long, traveling is like breathing to me. I’ve lived in three different countries, and I consider all of them home in a different way. At the same time, while the painful yearning for home, for motherhood, for daughterhood that Nataliya writes so strikingly about isn’t my reality, exactly, the fact that my father was never able to join us in America and the longing for that aspect of home and family is what probably drew me to the project on a subconscious level. I was of course incredibly lucky that my mother came to America with me and my younger sister, and I now know the profound joy of having three daughters of my own. But having, worrying for, an ailing parent across an ocean for 25 years is kind of like having your heart squeezed on an hourly basis.
SM: What does writing in English mean to each of you?
ND: It’s funny you’re asking this question, as this book I wrote originally in Bulgarian. However, my second novel Arrival (forthcoming in the UK from The Indigo Press in 2022) is written in English. There is something about the linguistic relevance to the place where the story is taking place which defined my choice in both cases.
When I attempted to write Arrival in Bulgarian, the fragments which explore life in Bulgaria came easily, but I struggled a lot with the rest of novel – all the chapters depicting an immigrant life abroad, motherhood, and choice. When six months later I tried writing it in English, things felt so much easier and so much more natural. It seemed to me that the choice of language in which I write for me is defined clearly by how I relate the topics I explore to my life in London and back in Bulgaria. Motherhood (and the personal choice of becoming a mother vs societal expectations and inflicted gender roles) is something I’ve been thinking about and experiencing in recent years, so the choice of writing about it in English seems obvious.
IA: I write to remember. I write to forget. I write to intrigue, to seduce, to hurt, to cut down to size, to entertain, to move, to make someone laugh. I write because I am looking for something and I can’t find it. And English is the only language I can truly do all that in.
SM: An Italian woman writer I’ve been reading recently, Nadia Terranova, writes in her children’s book Il segreto (The Secret) that “Women can create a magic circle if they join forces.” I have found collaborating and creating together with other women a powerful and empowering experience. Four Minutes also in a way locates magic (love, hope, healing, salvation) in the relationships between women: Leah and Naya, Leah and Dara. How do you see this “joining of forces” and the potential to create magic? What does it mean to you as women, writers, translators?
ND: It’s a beautiful quote. On reflection, the female force in my writing generally is quite palpable. One can say that Four Minutes is a book about the way women behave in a society dominated by men, but also about determination and resilience. There’s an invisible thread that connects the female characters as you mention, and I’d say the strongest one is between Leah and the mother she never had. Leah herself compares it to an umbilical cord that connects them through life and gives her the power to keep going, despite the hurdles she endures. The dreamed-up mother, the imaginary life with her, the long list of the never-existed family celebrations, Christmas meals, birthday gifts and ordinary childhood memories which Leah collects into a made-up treasure chest – this for me is the power this female protagonist brings with her and the magic it creates. And the hope she gives to the little girl, Dara, that she tries to adopt, as though transforming for her the imaginary life with a mother into a real one.
On a personal level, I like collaborating with different people but found it incredibly rewarding to work with a female translator. Izidora has a similar sensibility when it comes to Bulgarian (and broadly, Eastern-European and post-communist)- related narratives, and she obviously brings in her lived experience as a mother who can relate to the themes and can translate (literally and figuratively) the lyrical language and the empathy which the novel is brimming with, without being overly sentimental.
IA: I can’t help but think of Women Who Run with the Wolves, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés. She writes: The doors to the world of the wild are few but precious. If you have a deep scar, that is a door, if you have an old, old story, that is a door. I feel that Nataliya and I are women who run with the wolves, opening the doors to our past, to our scars and creating new life out of them.
It also can’t be overstated that this will be only the fourth book ever to have been written by a woman in Bulgarian and translated by a woman into English. So happy WIT month, indeed.
SM: Nataliya, Four Minutes reminded me of some of Georgi Gospodinov’s writing—the mixing of genres, the including of documentary materials, the shifting of perspectives, the vignettes of marginalized figures. But your writing is more succinct, more concentrated and hence more emotionally saturated. What were some of your (male) literary models or teachers? How does Arrival compare in terms of narrative structure and language to Four Minutes?
ND: I’m glad that you’ve seen similarities with Georgi Gospodinov’s writing as he’s been a massive inspiration for me, especially while writing Four Minutes. In fact, he was judging a competition for an unpublished novel I entered, my manuscript was shortlisted and, although it didn’t win at the time, he offered to help me edit it and then offered it to another publisher. I was flattered and happy and I consider myself very lucky – surely the fact that my writing was influenced by his has played a role. I look up to him, but you know what’s more interesting, I never define his writing as “male,” Bulgarian, etc. – these labels could be more restrictive than empowering. He is a writer, a great writer who appeals to international audience, full stop. In that respect, I also cannot define my writing as “female” or other. Naturally, I do explore themes that as a woman I might have delved into from experience (such as motherhood in Arrival) but we all write from experience regardless how strong or vague the relationship between the narrative and our personal stories is. I don’t mean including biographical elements but our subjective view of the world and our very personal experiences. I can’t remember who wrote recently that even sci-fi-genre books stem from the writer’s personal experiences, and I agree – it cannot be any other way.
In terms of style, I also don’t believe that hybrid forms, fragmentation, or experimentation are a more natural writing territory for male writers. Take Dubravka Ugresić who has also been a huge influence on my writing over the years (I recently talked about it at an event hosted by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation). Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive is another example – both in terms of bringing in non-fiction elements and fragmented form.
Arrival follows closely my drive to experiment with form and narrative, but the topics I explore are different from those in Four Minutes. The writes who influenced me while writing it were women writers – Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk, Carmen Maria Machado, Jacqueline Rose, Lacy M. Johnson, Catherine Cho and Sophie Mackintosh were amongst them.
As a fun fact though, Leah, the main protagonist in Four Minutes, briefly appears in Arrival and offers a glimpse into hers and Dara’s story beyond the narrative frame in Four Minutes.
SM: Izidora, who are your mentors, teachers or role models (if any) as a translator?
IA: I am in awe of every translator in the Third Coast Translators Collective for their transformational impact on language, culture, and the publishing world at large. I am also endlessly moved and haunted by the writing of the great American writers M.F.K. Fisher and Joan Didion, and I’ve recently been absolutely obsessed with the writer Rachel Kushner and her razor-sharp collection of essays, The Hard Crowd.
SM: What is next professionally, creatively, for each of you?
ND: Everything is possible. As I mentioned before, I like to explore and not to feel confined by form, linguistic or narrative restrictions, or the more traditional understanding of how a literary novel should look like. At present, I’m developing my writing practice in a new and exciting direction, exploring both fiction and non-fiction avenues.
IA: I just shot a mini documentary about my work as a writer and translator with the Chicago director James Kozar and something quite unexpected happened while we were shooting. This central character suddenly emerged – my old English dictionary that I’d left with my dad at some point 15 years ago. I found it again after he died and it was heavily underlined and annotated with copious notes that were at once tragic, moving, funny, and heartbreaking. Just words and their meanings, right? It was like stumbling onto a landmine and a treasure chest all at once. So Jim had to stop and ask me point blank at one point, “Well, when are you going to write about that?” So I might have no choice but to face my own complex history next.
SM: Thank you! And успех, good luck!
You can read an excerpt from Four Minutes at Words Without Borders.