Interview with Angela Rodel: on ‘The Case of Cem’ and her translation into English

At a literary gathering organised by NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ on 28 March 2024 in the Prof. Vasil Gerov Hall to mark the 95th anniversary of the birth of Academician Vera Mutafchieva, Angela Rodel, winner of the International Booker Prize, presented her English translation of Mutafchieva’s novel, ‘The Case of Cem’.


Angela Rodel answered questions specifically for Untold Stories:


Ms Rodel, would you tell us how and when you first decided to turn your attention to Bulgaria and, in particular, to Bulgarian literature? When did you first visit our country?

In 1992, when I was a freshman at Yale University, I joined the Yale Slavic Chorus, as I had always enjoyed singing and was studying Russian language and literature. They first meeting, they played us recordings of “Le Mystere des voix bulgares” and I was blown away! I had never known women’s voices could sound like that! I feel in love with Bulgarian folk music and won a scholarship to come to Bulgaria in the summer of 1995 to go to the big folk festival Koprivshtitsa. That short taste of Bulgaria inspired me to apply for a Fulbright so I could come back for an entire year; so during 1996-1997 I studied Bulgarian language at Sofia University and folk singing with private teachers.


Which was the first novel by Vera Mutafchieva you read, and why did you choose to translate ‘The Cem Case’ into English?

When I was first getting interested in translating Bulgarian literature back in 2005 or so, I asked my then-husband Ivan Hristov what the best novels from the classical Bulgarian canon were. He thought for a moment and said “The Case of Cem.” So I found it and read it and was astonished by how contemporary and even avant-garde it sounded; however, I soon realized it was very difficult to get US publishers interested in classic novels so I reluctantly gave up on the dream of publishing it. Then I got very luck – Buzz Poole, a publisher I had worked with on Virginia Zaharieva’s Nine Rabbit maybe ten years ago now works with a Croatian partner, who read Cem in Croatian and thought, “Oh, this is a great book, and there’s no English translation.” He was talking to Buzz, who reached out to me and said, “Do you know this book?” And I’m like, “Of course I know this book.”  So it was a rare occasion when a publisher came to me asking to translate a book and not me going to a publisher trying to get them interested.


Were there any specific challenges you faced in translating the novel?

Vera Mutafchieva was an Ottomanist, so clearly she had a vast knowledge of Ottoman culture and language and just throws the reader into it; from the first page, there are many Turkish-isms. Bulgaria has borrowed a lot of Turkish-isms, but even then she uses a lot of Turkish-isms that aren’t part of the Bulgarian language. I think she does that deliberately to give you a sense that you’re in this foreign context. English has borrowed a few Turkish-isms, for example grand vizier, pasha, and khan, which was helpful, but nothing like Bulgarian. I wanted to keep the sense of foreignism or that sense of a very specific place that she creates with the Turkish borrowings, but also not scare away the English reader on the first page by peppering it with borrowings.


You are a kind of ambassador of Bulgarian mores to the world—what does that mean to you?

A deep feeling of satisfaction and gratitude – Bulgarian culture has given me so much, enriched my life so greatly. I am glad that I can pay this forward in some way and introduce other non-Bulgarians to this rich tradition.


How do you decide which book to translate? What is it that attracts you to a certain book?

If I read something and hear how I think the voice should sound in English, then I know I could be a possible translator for the work. There are many lovely works of Bulgarian literature that would be wonderful to translate, but I have no idea how they should sound in English – so I am not the right translator for them! It doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthy piece of literature. I just think that you have to be on a certain wavelength with the book and the author in order to do them justice.



You have been translating Bulgarian literature for some 20 years. Do you translate American literature into Bulgarian?

Never! Because every Bulgarian would be faster and better at translating from English into Bulgarian. On the whole, the general feeling is that a translator should always work out of a foreign language into their mother tongue (although this is changing somewhat now).


Ms Rodel, you translated Georgi Gospodinov’s ‘Time Shelter’, the book that won the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Literary Prize for Bulgarian Novel of the Year in 2021. Did that award influence your choice of a novel for translation?

Всъщност не. Ние с Георги работим заедно  повече от 10 години и съм превела и предишния му роман „Физика на тъгата“.


You have interests in several areas. Which is more important to you: translating books; music and singing; or acting in cinema?

Of course, translation is most important to me now, but I actually see all these things as connected and mutually complimentary – a good translator needs to have an ear for the “music” of a language, thus my experience as a singer helps me in translation as well. Similarly, acting is all about getting into different roles, speaking with different voices, which again is a lot of what I do as a translator, trying to get into the head or viewpoint of various characters.


In an interview for Bulgarian National Television, you said that borders between countries and people do not matter. What was the first thing that drew you close to Bulgaria?

Music. My soul simply resonates to that sound, for reasons I cannot explain.


Will there be a place for a translator in the life of future generations? What do you think of automatic translation platforms? Are they capable of conveying the essence and depth of expression of an author?

AI translation is just another tool among many (dictionaries, Google, etc), but I think that human, non-artificial intelligence will always have a role to play, at least in literary translation, since we are translating not just words but cultural contexts, emotions and experiences, something which AI has no way of understanding (for now, at least).


Are you currently working on translation of another Bulgarian book and, if so, which one?

А collection of stories by Georgi Gospodinov.


How has Bulgaria changed you?

To not rush so much and to enjoy the soul-nourishing things.




Questions posed by Theodora Bankovska

27 March 2024

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