Learning English the Workshopping Way [Bulgarian Lit IV]
And to close out the second series of Three Percent posts in two days, I thought I’d write something short about Zdravka Evtimova’s fellowship here in Rochester, which ended last week. As I mentioned back some time ago, Zdravka won the first annual Contest for Bulgarian Translators sponsored by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and the America for Bulgaria Foundation. Thanks to these foundations, we were able to host Zdravka in Rochester for three weeks, giving her a chance to learn about the American publishing industry and time to work on her translation project.
I may be putting words in Zdravka’s mouth, but one of the most beneficial activities of her stay was having a chance to workshop her translation of Boyan Biolchev’s “The End of a Bird” with some of the translation studies students at the University of Rochester.
Just to give a bit of background, every semester the Open Letter interns (usually around 6) have to take a one-hour a week Intro to Literary Publishing “class” in which we talk about various aspects of book publishing, its future, literature in translation, marketing, etc., etc. It’s a lot of fun to teach, and I think (hope?) the students enjoy it and get a lot out of it. It’s pretty much a crash course in publishing, an attempt to fill in all the blanks that they don’t get from their normal intern activities, such as writing reader’s reports, doing sample translations, designing marketing plans, writing catalog copy, et cetera.
This semester was the first time I tried workshopping the intern’s sample translations in class, and thanks to the great success of this, I think I’m going to incorporate it into all future semesters. The process we used was to read the translation aloud, pausing anytime something seemed out wack, or needed clarification, or seemed like the translator was forced to make an interesting choice (like dealing with Italian dialects, or describing parts of an antiquated train). It’s a lot of fun, and a bit brutal, since all the various “warts” are exposed when you read so slowly and so critically with a group of very bright people.
This also frequently led to numerous linguistic jokes and off-the-wall suggestions, which is both fun and would leave me personally feeling like I had lost control of the English language . . . But to be completely frank, it really is through this sort of editing/workshopping process that one learns how English can really function and what the possibilities are in translation. It’s incredibly informative, even if all the student translators are a bit embarrassed by the wide-ranging critiques of their work. (Although it should be written that they shouldn’t be embarrassed—they all did a marvelous job, and I think this process helped with all future translations.)
Anyway, Zdravka’s translations of Boyan Biolchev were what won her the Translation Fellowship, so she workshopped the story “The End of the Bird” on two separate occasions. It’s worth noting that a) Zdravka’s first language is Bulgarian and b) even though we went through this twice, there’s probably more work that can be done. But to give you a sense of more classic Bulgarian lit, and what Zdravka’s working on, her translation of the short story is posted below.
In terms of Biolchev, here’s the bio Zdravka wrote up about him:
Born in 1942 in Sofia, Boyan Biolchev is one of Bulgaria’s most interesting and original fiction writers. His novels and novellas have been translated into many languages, and in 2007 he won won the VIC Literary Prize for his novel Varoe’s Amazon. He’s also the author of several successful screenplays and is the former director of the University of Sofia.
And here’s “The End of the Bird”:
In early autumn, hunters often passed by my little house that I had built not far from the sea. Sometimes they carried quails and wood pigeons tied to their wide leather belts, most often however they came back with nothing. Then they talked about the good luck they used to have, or they swore that on the following day they would catch all wild animals in the forest.
They were among the few living things that disturbed the peace and quiet of the tired summer.
The only creatures that I saw moving about were the flocks of crows. They showed no burning enthusiasm as they darted across the yellow grass picking at things only they noticed. When they got sick of the bleached grass, they perched on the picket fence and appeared lost in thought as if they lived in a dark short story by Elin Pelin.
The crow is a despicable animal, I thought. It makes sense to kill a quail or a wood pigeon, yes, those are worth cooking. At a certain point I remembered that hunters were highly praised for the crows they’d shot. To prove their achievements, they carried only the crow’s legs. The remaining parts of the body had no value whatsoever and I asked myself if there was a living being in the world that worthless.
In those years, no one talked about environmentalism, and no one worried to ask what was so harmful about the crow. Why did the hunters lavish praise on each other for the crows’ legs they had cut?
So far so good. On the day I had in mind, two hunters happened by my house. It was evident they had trudged through the hills near the sea and were on their way back empty handed. A thought crossed my mind: at such moments a senseless thirst for compensation races through the blood of the hunter. I had seen boar hunters who having had no luck throughout the day shot at a young birch with their powerful guns until they shattered its trunk. Their eyes shone with wild frenzy, then after a while they withdrew, their steps weighed down by shame. I knew no matter what they’d tell tales about the non-existent boar that had dodged their bullets, and they wouldn’t mention the young birch they had destroyed.
The two hunters stopped in the middle of the clearing. The taller guy raised his gun and fired. One of the birds that had perched on the picket fence fell to the ground with a thud. Its wings flapped in the dust of my yard.
The hunters started for the village satisfied their last shot was a success. I had asked children why they launched stones at sparrows with their slingshots. And they had told me, “We want to see if we can hit them!” I had done the same thing myself. The seemingly senseless murder had not been my goal, but it was the result. Or was that true?
I approached the picket fence and I found the bird lying perfectly immobile. A thick droplet of blood shone on its back; that was the spot where the slug had passed. I turned the crow over. An identical drop of blood gleamed on its breast. At that moment I noticed the bird was looking at me. Its eyes resembled grains of black caviar. It was the first time in my life that I looked at a crow up close; these birds were very cautious and always flew away as I approached them. One can throw out a dead bird easily, I said to myself. This one however was staring at me as if it wanted to know what I intended to do. I reached out and tried to touch its wing with my forefinger. At that moment the crow suddenly turned around, flapped its wings and flew away as if the hunter’s slug had never hit it. In the few seconds I bent over it, the bird had mustered its strength. It was flying madly and powerfully. It soared and shot up high above the sea shore, then suddenly took a sharp turn to the tall trees in the village.
It flew on for several minutes and grew small, turning into a black dot, then the black dot started falling, gently at first, and after a while vertically, heavily until it hit the ground. That was far away from me and I didn’t hear the dull thud of the dead body in the dead grass. Its flapping wings had drained the crow.
The bird had met its death flying.
I thought to myself, yes, the crow maybe was the most unwanted and abject bird, but nature has given it strength to die with dignity. Maybe there was some purpose to it that our imperfect human senses could not register. Maybe there was a meaning that our rational mind was incapable of describing.