On June 4th the Free Word Centre in Farringdon held a translation pitch, where translators pitched works of foreign literature that they would like to translate into English, and samples of the works were read out. One thing particularly striking about the event was how far the Bulgarian work, the novel Ruin by Vladimir Zarev, stood out from the others. Whilst most of the works pitched were reasonably popular in their own countries, Zarev’s novel, pitched by Angela Rodel, was a seminal Bulgarian work, from an author described by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation in Sofia as ‘Bulgaria’s leading contemporary writer of fiction’. It follows an aging academic who loses everything he loves to forces weaker, but more worldly, than himself, such as losing his wife to a younger misogynist; in his decline the reader can also picture the fall of the Soviet Union. The plot switches between this main character and an entirely different story, and it soon becomes clear that this other story is being written by the main character himself, when elements of his own life appear in the story. Ruin is a bestseller in Germany, is being made into a film and, according to Rodel, has been named as one of the most significant works about the fall of the Soviet Union.
It therefore seems pretty weird that this novel hasn’t yet been translated into English. It’s unclear why this is the case. One potential explanation could be Bulgarian novels’ comparative lack of heritage compared to other European countries, since poetry has traditionally been the main focus of Bulgarian literature. Therefore, Bulgaria has a wealth of well-known poets. For example, the works of the 18th-century Bulgarian poet Hristofor Zhefarovich were at the forefront of the South Slavic Revival, whilst more modern Bulgarian poets have played a great role in Bulgarian life. For example, the late Valeri Petrov was a hugely popular Bulgarian poet who also worked in the Grand National Assembly and was editor-in-chief of a satirical newspaper. Petrov also worked as a translator, and the director of the school linked to the Bulgarian embassy described Petrov’s feat as a great national service, as his translation were the first truly idiomatic Bulgarian translations of Shakespeare, so the wider Bulgarian public was able to appreciate the beauty of Shakespeare’s language beyond clunky literal translations. Petrov is a great example of the importance of poetry in Bulgarian life, and perhaps demonstrates the lesser importance of novels.
Another reason why Ruin hasn’t yet been translated into English could be the effects of the Soviet era on Bulgarian literature. The arts were run by the state administration, and were viewed as solely a means to educate. Therefore, some writers, such as Dimitar Dimov, were forced to revise their novels to make them more communist, while other writers that opposed the state, like Dimitar Talev, were exiled to the provinces. Perhaps due to the small size of Bulgaria, this control and censorship of the arts was in general more effective than in larger totalitarian states. This censorship meant that the relatively new tradition of Bulgarian novels was unable to gain momentum and obtain as much success overseas.
So what’s the future of Bulgarian literature in the UK? To begin with, we need remove any stigmas attached to foreign literature. Ruin is a bestseller in Germany and there is a wealth of literature written in other languages that we may never get to experience. However, organisations like the Elizabeth Kostova foundation and the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in London are working to promote Bulgarian literature in the UK, and Rodel did win the translation pitch, so Ruin could still be a bestseller in the UK too.