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

By and | 1 November 2019

JL: In her Paris Review essay ‘Translation as an Arithmetic of Loss’, the author Ingrid Rojas Contreras describes finding, in the act of translation, ‘a quiet space between languages … where language is doubled, and also erased.’ Does this uncanny or defamiliarising effect resonate with your experience of translating – and of reading other works in translation, maybe?

AT: The act of translation in itself is a pause, I agree with that. The original text is not valid anymore, the translated one is not there yet. This pause can be both deeply comforting and extremely disturbing. I learned to take my time when translating poetry, to wait for the right word, or line, to stay in the discomfort while the new text is on its way. It is a very different effort from writing and a very tense one at times.

JL: How is it different to work with other translators, as well as/instead of translating your own poetry?

AT: Working with other translators is a very interesting experience – one reads her texts as for the first time. There is a saying that the translator’s reading is the most thorough one. Seeing the outcome of someone else’s careful, thoughtful work with the poems I write makes me feel very humble. Still, working on my own gives me the freedom to be an author.

JL: You’re foremost a Bulgarian-language writer, but, as noted, you’re also fluent in English and Japanese. What do you think a multilingual writer brings to poetry – even prior to the process of translation?

AT: I think the best we could bring is playfulness. Language can be a playground, it is one of the easiest, fastest and cheapest ways to learn and stay healthy, including by forming new neural connections in our brains, so if we can inspire readers or fellow writers or translators to play with our words, or with the world, that sounds like a fair contribution to me. Poetry, like play, like translation does not have right or wrong answers – it is an infinite approximation (I forgot who said this but someone must have) and the more tools to approximate towards ‘what one wants to say’, the merrier.

JL: Your first book of poems, stihotvoreniya (poems), was a self-published collection, and went on to win an award at the prestigious Ivan Nikolov Awards in 2014. What drove your decision to self-publish, and how has this first collection, and its recognition through this prize, propelled your career?

AT: The decision to publish stihotvoreniya (poems) on my own was a purely pragmatic one – I had to leave for Germany and start a new career there, and I knew that if I didn’t publish that draft in January 2014, it would never happen. The award definitely made me feel more confident about sharing my work. It helped me connect with readers and fellow poets in ways that otherwise would not have been possible.

JL: Have the possibilities for connection changed since then, do you think, with social media as a platform, for example?

AT: I think they have, yes. For instance, Amanda Palmer is a great example of an artist capable to leverage social media platforms in order to connect with readers/listeners and create a community. On the other hand, being a talented poet or writer has nothing to do with being great at social media – I find those being two completely different skill sets. Recently I was very surprised to see that one of the jewel makers I follow on Instagram puts a photo of the back of a brooch every now and then when she has no new work to share. I found this fascinating – for all of us who share our work online, considering the trillions of posts inundating the world wide web daily, as an artist it is crucial to find a comfortable pace and format. Otherwise, we simply burn out.

JL: Are there particular authors and texts have been most influential to you? And, though you’ve offered some names already, I wonder if there are Bulgarian writers whose work you could recommend to readers of Cordite Poetry Review? Through the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation I was first introduced to writers like yourself and the other Bulgarian-language fellows, but also authors like Georgi Tenev and Kapka Kassabova.

AT: I am very grateful to all translators, publishers and readers who are interested in difficult to access literary scenes, like the Bulgarian one.

I was deeply influenced by my contemporary Bulgarian poets – Georgi Gospodinov (who is better known for his prose I believe), Galina Nikolova, Tsocho Boyadzhiev, Maria Virhov. In terms of recommendations – Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, especially her recent poems, Kristin Dimitrova, Zdravka Evtimova. Elizabeth Kostova Foundation has put together a very handy website, where people can find a bit more about contemporary Bulgarian writers and read some of their work translated.

JL: Your poems always feel wonderfully immediate and inclusive, inviting the reader into their spaces, and achieving striking tonal shifts, moving gracefully between pathos and humour, and both incisive and imbued with warmth. How important is it for you that your poetry be accessible without being prosaic – without losing or sacrificing the strangeness or other qualities that set it apart from prose?

AT: I think of my poems as of photographs. The world is so vast and inexplicable. If the poems can bring across those qualities in a way that does not denigrate neither the reader, nor the world, then I consider my job done.

JL: I see that photographic quality, and a vivid compression particularly in poems like ‘What was, is no longer’, with its images of ‘cherry mountains in the little shops in the old neighbourhood’, and of linden trees – which immediately evoke Sofia for me. How important is place (as inhabited, and experiential – as space?) to your writing?

AT: Spaces are terribly important! I think my memory is made up primarily of spaces. I think imagining spaces is a great way to travel and share experiences beyond literature, beyond poetry.

JL: You’ve introduced me to the Bulgarian expression/way of asking ‘Какво е на душата ти’: ‘what’s on your soul?’ So, as a closing question I’d like to ask, what’s on your soul?

AT: Oh, it is so sweet of you to remember this! I have an ongoing conversation with myself on whether I should keep my day job or whether I should quit and spend some time writing – that has been on my soul for a while now. I also think a lot about what poetry can do to help us to be a bit kinder and more forgiving to each other and ourselves. Not in big matters but just in small, mundane things.

This entry was posted in INTERVIEWS and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Related work:

Comments are closed.