Maria Doneva, translator of ‘Dobry’:
‘Read the novel with a kind eye and an open heart!’

NEF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ publishes an American classic with Bulgarian roots

Interview: Magdalena Gigova

Photograph: Tatyana Chohadzhieva

The ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund publishes, for the first time in Bulgarian, ‘Dobry’, the novel for children and adolescents hitherto unknown in our country. It was a total bestseller in the US, breaking sales records in 1934. So far, the book has been reprinted 12 times, acquiring the status of an American classic.


‘The novel has already been translated into Bulgarian by the poet Maria Doneva and will go to the printer’s any moment now,’ the Fund’s Executive Director, Slava Ivanova, announced. And so, we turned to the translator to reveal the joys and difficulties in her workflow.


Ms Doneva, before you approached the translation of the novel Dobry, had you heard about it or about Atanas Katchamakoff?

I first heard about this book when I received it for translation. I searched for information and read what could be found on Bulgarian sites about Atanas Katchamakoff. Then, as the work progressed, my interest deepened. Many questions arose and I needed to understand different elements in the content of the book and the style of the author, so I enquired about her biography, her other books.

I formed my own idea of how the paths of the Bulgarian sculptor and the American writer crossed; I built some kind of theory of my own. I don’t know whether it was true to reality, but I relied on it when I had to decide on certain scenes and expressions. I read scores of comments in Goodreads written by American readers, and they were both useful and entertaining. I also read features on the architecture of the Revival, and plied my friends with questions about agricultural, craft and folkloric topics.

Translation is actually learning. That is why I like it even more.


Did you encounter challenges while translating? After all, the book was written in the 1930s.

The action of the novel takes place in the late 19th—early 20th centuries, in a small Bulgarian village, while the book itself was written by an American writer around 1930. I had to decide whether the authentic language of the book was the language of Bulgarian peasants or that of the writer.

According to some sources, the story was influenced by the events that a Bulgarian, a farmhand on the ranch belonging to Monica Shannon’s father, told her, as well as by Atanas Katchamakoff’s memories. I thought about it: she certainly did not know Bulgarian; and how well did they know English, to the extent at that of being able to convey to her the entire reality of their homeland, with its folkloric peculiarities, with the realities of everyday life?

So, should I have striven for my idea of the vernacular in Lyaskovets 120 years ago, or of the language and means of expression of a twentieth-century writer? Adding the fact that the readers of my translation will be contemporary Bulgarian children, I decided: not to look for dialectal and obsolete words, but to translate the book in the calm, broad, modern expression of the author.

She herself came across quite a number of difficulties while recreating childhood memories in the Bulgarian village. This is obvious even just from the fact that most of the names of characters were written the way she heard them; for example, Haidouk Sider is presented in the novel as Hadutzi-dare.

Another feature that I found difficult was that the text included folk songs and prayers and, although it’s said they were authentic, they are not. It is not characteristic of Bulgarian and gypsy songs to rhyme, while the songs that Monica Shannon quotes are in metrical form and with rhyming. I had either to go on a folkloric expedition and, based on some propounded clues, try and track out exactly which song served as the basis of what the characters were singing… or compose a rhyming translation myself. I chose the latter, and it was one of the most entertaining episodes for me.

In general, ‘Dobry’ is neither a scientific historical text nor an ethnographic one. This is a novel, which, for over 90 years, countless readers have read as it was written. I thought of looking for a consultant from the Museum of History and us writing a million footnotes, but then I decided that it was more important to be loyal and devoted to the author and the book, to reach its Bulgarian readers in the most accurate and flawlessly faithful form.

I want to tell the readers: Get ready for surprises and read the novel with a kind eye and an open heart! Enjoy it, without splitting hairs over details!


Did Monica Shannon’s text surprise you in any way? The action takes place in a Bulgarian village, at the beginning of the last century.

Life in Dobry’s village fits in to nature with its beauty and seasonal changes, with traditions and customs. Monica Shannon conveys the spirit of the feasts, or at least her perception of them. Children and adults live in perfect harmony. Bulgarians, gypsies and Pomaks work and celebrate together. Domestic animals are loved and cared for. Masterliness in every craft is looked upon as something infinitely valuable and worthy of admiration. Beauty and love are felt in each detail of everyday life, in every natural sight or event in the town or village. The joy and pleasure of labour, and the pride in a job well done are felt on every page.

The novel recreates a world full of difficulties, but also of harmony. Affection, respect, dignity, love, friendship, warm banter and the joy of beauty, those are the sentiments that the reader will feel while following Dobry’s story.


How has the author recreated elements of the way of life of that time in English, and what approach did you choose: to use somewhat forgotten words such as ‘wisp’ or ‘sickle’, or to explain the typical agricultural activities and objects?

As I learned from her biography, Monica Shannon was well acquainted with work on the farm: her father was a farmer and she lived on a ranch before moving to the big city. In the US, and in our country, both back then, and now, a wisp is a wisp, and a sickle is a sickle. If today’s children do not know what that is—wonderful, there’s their chance to learn! That’s why we read: to learn things we didn’t know before, and also the names that these things are called.

It was much more difficult for the author to translate ‘Surva, surva year’ [Prosperous New Year], for example. It was so hard that she didn’t translate it, but left it written in Latin, as she had heard it. The entire village repeats ‘Surva, surva, survaknetca godina!’. Now what? There, we have discovered nothing new with the ‘shlyokavitsa’ [leetspeak]; moreover, a famous and award-winning American writer wrote the Bulgarian words in this way long before today’s children.


What do you think makes the novel exciting even today?

Some of the most beautiful pages in the novel are the tales and legends that Dobry’s grandfather tells. About Black Arab and Haidouk Sider, about the creation of the world, about the earth and the sky… Dobry himself picks up his grandfather’s tone and language and very soon begins to tell tales that he composed, including in them motifs from his life, from old myths and even biblical characters and stories. The pleasant, slow, picturesque speech, the listening with undivided attention and respect, their pleasure in communication, are felt—and I hope that they are not forgotten and lost.

Dobry and his family, his girlfriend Neda, the gypsies and their bear, the whole village headed by Mayor Michaelacky, are all charming and bright characters who are interesting to read about.

The main theme in the novel is about talent and vocation. Dobry had wanted to paint since he was very young, although this activity seemed irresponsible, in his mother’s opinion. The lasting desire to develop his talent, the perseverance with which the boy proves himself and manages to overcome all difficulties along the way—these are all timeless themes. Everyone strives to discover his vocation and his place in the sun, both now and back then.

That is why I think the book is curious, not just because an American woman wrote about a Bulgarian boy, and we didn’t know. The book has its undoubted literary merits.


Do you already have impressions (or assumptions) as to how young Bulgarian readers will perceive it?

We’ll see when the book appears in print, shan’t we!

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