Idiomatic Agony and Collective Vision: Izidora Angel on Bringing International Literature to the Forefront

I want to convince all publishers that putting the translator’s name on the cover of the book is the right thing to do . . .

Chicago-based Izidora Angel is one amongst only a handful of translators working to bring Bulgarian literature to English-language readers. Her experiences as an emerging translator working in an under-represented language prompted Angel to seek the support and knowledge of her peers, and what began as an informal workshop with fellow translators Lucina Schell and Jason Grunebaum has evolved into an international network of literary translators who seek to share resources and mentor each other, in addition to bringing literature in translation to a wider audience. Third Coast Translators Collective co-founder Angel spoke with Asymptote about forming the collective, the importance of community, activism, and her best translation practices.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey, August 2019

Sarah Timmer Harvey (STH): Can you tell me about Third Coast Translators Collective and how it came to be?

Izidora Angel (IA): When I joined the group in early 2016, it wasn’t yet the Third Coast Translators Collective (TCTC), it was still more or less an informal group gathering of Chicago-land translators started by Lucina Schell, who translates from the Spanish, and Jason Grunebaum, who translates from the Hindi. But people kept wanting to join, and we all had this great chemistry, so we thought, why not make it official? Have a proper name, a mission and vision, a website, a digital presence, readings. Now there’s over thirty of us; it feels like a powerful entity.

STH: Why is being part of a collective important to you?

IA: Community is essential, regardless of what it might be that is bringing you together. Humans are social animals, and we need that connection for life. As translators, especially if we are translating from at-risk or vulnerable languages like I am, belonging to a group like this is integral for collaboration, workshopping, and knowledge sharing. Including minority languages like Bulgarian helps to shape the mission of a group like TCTC in a really important way.

STH: One of the aims of the collective is to “bring international literature to the mainstream.” How do you seek to do this?

IA: I’m not sure if it’s because we are at the tail end of Women in Translation Month—which has gained what feels like an enormous sense of visibility and traction—that I think we may be at an inflection point. International literature is being discussed in more mainstream outlets and with more interest in the U.S. than ever before. We need this. I hate preaching to the choir. Nothing good comes out of creating echo chambers. I don’t need to convince female translators who are in the trenches with me that we need to bring more women’s work from underrepresented languages into English. I want to persuade the New York Times Book Review to commission translators to review novels in translation if they want their readers to understand the full story, the way the Times Literary Supplement commissions translators; I want to convince all publishers that putting the translator’s name—the legitimate co-author of the novel, by the way—on the cover of the book is the right thing to do, and isn’t going to scare readers.

A few weeks ago, I reached out to Ann Friedman, a writer and a feminist I massively admire, to tell her about Women in Translation Month and how we—women writers and translators—are finding feminist power in unexpected places. Friedman then gave the cause—which was started by Meytal Radzinski—crazy generous space in her weekly newsletter, including the entire paragraph I sent her, along with my name, something she really didn’t have to do. My point is, we can’t exist in some sort of vacuum with translation; we have to build bridges, we have to be innovative in how we talk about the issues, we have to make people care.

STH: Why do you translate?

IA: I translate from the Bulgarian because so very few others do, and we need the representation, we need linguistic diversity. I certainly didn’t go to school for it. I have an MBA, not an MFA, making me slightly unpredictable, which makes people nervous. I just think it gives me a unique point of view. I do consider myself a writer and a critic first, and translator second.

STH: What is the best piece of advice you’ve received from another translator?

IA: There are two. The first was from my great friend and one of the most talented translators working today, Amaia Gabantxo, who works from the Basque. She said to me: don’t use adverbs, use the present continuous tense sparingly. The second piece of advice I inferred: I would do this exercise that involved taking pages from a Bulgarian novel that was translated by Angela Rodel into English, for example Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva or The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov. I would do a blind translation of the pages and then compare them to hers. She taught me, without knowing, that a translation has to take a leap of faith, to be optimistic and hopeful in how it interprets the writer’s intent.

STH: Are there particular elements of the Bulgarian language that you find particularly challenging but important to reflect in your translations?

IA: There’s the idiomatic agony, the vocabulary agony, and the grammatical agony. Basically, the agony of the translator never ends. But you’d be surprised at how many idioms you can actually carry over, or how many you can bring over that don’t yet exist in English, and then feel amazingly smart for having access to these deep, “secret” reserves. Then there is the ostensibly innocuous, tiny, little word, like uj, which can mean ‘as if’ or ‘allegedly’ or ‘professedly’ or ‘ostensibly’, and in any case has no equally tiny and effective parallel. The rhythm gets broken, and I really hate that. My relentless goal is always to serve the music and the meaning, as Nabokov instructed all of us translators do, and to carry the intent, as Borges taught.

STH: Your debut full-length translation was The Same Night Awaits Us All by multi-award-winning Bulgarian writer, Hristo Karastoyanov. During your work on the novel, you and Karastoyanov had the opportunity to work side by side at an ART OMI residency. How was this experience for you? What did you learn from each other?

IA: I remember seeing you at the reading organized for us during that residency at CUNY! Do you remember Karastoyanov’s ill-advised but also pretty hilarious joke that we both almost got murdered for? (Me, because I had to translate it for the audience.) “Translation is like a woman, if she’s beautiful, she’s not faithful; if she’s faithful, she’s not beautiful.”

Anyway, creative residencies for writers are life-changers, and that’s not an exaggeration. I had already met Karastoyanov when he came to New York, but he had never been to America, which he had dreamed about as a young writer. He got to see it, we got to work, then he spent Thanksgiving with his grandson in New York City. That was incredibly special. As for me, I got to meet some literary and translation heavyweights, which was both paralyzing and exhilarating. I also made lifelong friends.

STH: Your latest project is a translation of Nataliya Deleva’s Four Minutes. Can you tell me about the novel and what drew you to it?

IA: I’m a retired food critic, in that I did it for a time, but don’t anymore. Still, food remains for me the totality of everything, just as MFK Fisher, as a writer, is also everything to me. Nataliya uses food—Bulgarian food—brilliantly to convey ecstasy and misery, love and hopelessness, salvation, and heartbreak. It’s not a story about food; it’s a story about a girl who grows up in an orphanage, with other stand-alone stories that pleat into it. But what is life, if not the summary of all the things we have and have not eaten?

STH: Are you approaching Deleva’s work in the same way that you did Karastoyanov’s novel?

IA: There are similarities for sure, but I know I have a confidence with what I’m doing this time around that I probably didn’t have before. I’m taking some leaps of faith with the translation, and because Nataliya speaks and writes English, she can give feedback on them, while that really wasn’t a possibility with Karastoyanov’s novel. In terms of getting the word out about the novel, we have a website, have just published our first English-language excerpt, and we got invited to ALTA42 to read from the book. We’re seeing that people are already responding to it, which is very exciting!

Image credit: Sofia Thornycroft

Izidora Angel is a Bulgarian-born writer, translator, and creative director living in Chicago. She has written essays and critiques for the Chicago Reader, Publishing Perspectives, EuropeNow Journal, Three Percent, and more, and has been interviewed about her writing by the Chicago Tribune, Drunken Boat (Anomaly), and Project Plume. Her debut novel in translation, The Same Night Awaits Us All (Open Letter, 2018) was the recipient of an English PEN grant, an ART OMI fellowship, and was shortlisted for the Peroto Literary Awards (2019). She is at work on her second novel in translation, Four Minutes. Izidora is a co-founder of the Chicago-based Third Coast Translators Collective. Find her on Instagram @izidora_angel and on Twitter @izidora.

Sarah Timmer Harvey is a writer and translator currently based in New York. She holds an MFA in writing and translation from Columbia University and, most recently, her work has appeared in Asymptote, Modern Poetry in Translation, Gulf Coast Journal, and Cagibi Literary Journal.


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