‘To map the language I write in’: Jo Langdon Interviews Albena Todorova

By and | 1 November 2019

JL: We’ve maybe touched on this already, but I wanted to ask you: how is the prefix, ‘Bulgarian’, important to where you’re coming from as a writer?

AT: I think it is important for me to map the language I write in. Bulgarian is the only tool that I have and as of today, the difference between a poet and a Bulgarian poet for me is the difference between a musician and a violinist.

JL: The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation supports Bulgarian writers and Bulgarian literature, providing opportunities for Bulgarian writers and translators (as well as opportunities for English-language writers to travel to Bulgaria). What barriers and/or opportunities do you think there are for contemporary Bulgarian-language writers?

AT: Speaking from the ‘I’, I think that most barriers are in our heads and beliefs. If we believe that our experiences are valid enough to be shared with the world around us, then maybe we will be a bit braver looking for ways to bring them to more people outside Bulgaria.

In term of markets, I think that the biggest opportunities are in trying to reach our neighbours and countries we share past with – Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), former socialist block countries etc. In terms of storytelling, I think the opportunities are in trying to tell the stories of people we never spoke with or who would never read our stories.

JL: Are there examples in your own writing, of where you’ve pursued these kinds of opportunities?

AT: In my family there are people with addiction and mental health history – and at the same time mental health and addiction are taboo topics in the public space in Bulgaria. In several poems I tried to walk in their shoes, tried to tell some bits and pieces of their stories in a way that would hopefully speak to a wider audience.

Another thing I think about a lot is all the quarrels and conflicts we have in social media. And how those people who we argue with are someone’s daughter, father, friend. I am trying to understand who is that person who disagrees with me, see the world from their perspective and maybe write about it. I still believe that the common things we all have being mortal humans are still more important, and more impactful to us than the painful differences we so happily treasure.

JL: My sense of your practice and sensibility as a writer is that you always strive for inclusivity – that your work endeavors to speak ‘with’ and ‘to’, never ‘for’. Have you also had opportunities to platform other writers; to make (clear, and/or create) space?

AT: No, not yet but I would love to. Some of my friends are aspiring writers, so I am trying to support them as much as I can.

JL: Are there also opportunities, do you think, to engage readers who mightn’t usually read poetry, and who might be outside of academe or writing circles?

AT: I think the only way is to go where the readers are, both spaces physical and virtual, and speak with them in their language. I think as poets we have a big responsibility to share our sensitivity and our landscapes with the world, and it is our responsibility to find the best ways to do so.

The world is so focused on being productive, efficient and logical – I think this is one of the biggest issues of our time, and it is the cause for the environmental and social issues we are facing. I don’t say we should be unproductive, inefficient and illogical – I just believe that there are different ways to be in this world, and poetry is one of them, giving riddle answers to vague questions and still strangely keeping us afloat.

JL: What else draws you to poetry as a form?

AT: Brevity, immediacy and the possibility to leave things unsaid.

When I do not understand something, I feel like I need to explain it more and more. With poetry, I know I can just stop.

JL: What is it, do you think, that poetry ‘does’? With or to language, to the writer and reader, and in other ways maybe?

AT: Poetry is the place where perfection and imperfection meet. Poetry is gluing together things that do not belong together. It somehow contains things said and unsaid. Poetry can be controversial, provocative, unclear, and that brings a lot of comfort in a world of instant gratification and hard data. It might sound obsolete, but I think poetry reminds people of our own mortality and at the same time, it reminds us that we will never fully comprehend ourselves and this world.

And that maybe it is OK.

JL: You’re also a prose writer; how do you move between forms? Are poetry and prose fiction just working with the same substance – language – in different ways, do you think?

AT: Moving between forms is very hard. Poems ‘come’, prose is ‘written’; keeping the lightness of the language while telling a big story is extremely difficult. Another challenge is that in prose one works with characters when poetry mercifully can be character free (which does not mean voiceless or impersonal). Language and story interact in different ways. In poetry, the language can be the story. In prose, language enables the story but is somehow apart. Also, I have the feeling that contemporary prose is closer to movies and series than to poetry in the way it tells a story.

JL: What are the key considerations for you in translating a poem? Beyond language, which might convey things like meaning and mood, do you also consider visual elements like the shape of the poem on the page, its use of white space and so on?

AT: Language is the most important part. I prefer translations where poems do not need footnotes to be understood. I sometimes change meanings which brings a totally different mood. Also, I somehow feel the poem differently in every language (I translated my poems into Japanese for a magazine publication some time ago) and try to find the best way it ‘speaks’ in that language.

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