site.btaAngela Rodel: The American Who Wins Prizes for Bulgaria
At a ceremony at London's Sky Garden on May 23, after the chair of the panel of judges announced the winning title, a couple took to the stage to collect their International Booker Prize 2023.
The two shared equally the accolades (and GBP 50,000 in prize money) as the translator and author of Time Shelter. It was only fair: without Angela Rodel's brilliant English rendition, Georgi Gospodinov's novel - the first ever Bulgarian work to be considered for this major international literary honour - would not have made it to the thirteen-strong longlist and six-book shortlist (selected from 134 entries), let alone snatch the trophy.
The prize-winning English version will moreover have a 'multiplier effect'. Boosted by the award, the number of languages into which the novel is expected to be translated will skyrocket to an estimated 70-plus from 17 so far (Italian, French, English, Dutch, Swedish, Chinese, Arabic, Danish, German, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Czech, Polish, Romanian, Croatian and Russian).
Asked what it feels like to translate Gospodinov, she answered in a Darik Radio interview: "difficult but very pleasant". Rodel is lucky to have been "a long-time part of the team behind Time Shelter", as she put it in a Bulgarian National Radio interview. The original and the translation evolved side by side, and the author, who speaks English, readily helped the translator cope with the country-specific, region-specific and period-specific terms and references so that they would not be lost on the English-speaking reader without text-cluttering footnotes. "Our close collaboration has always been delightful and intellectually inspiring; despite his rather intimidating erudition, Georgi is also unusually empathetic and generous with his time and knowledge," Angela told the Booker Prizes website. She was also able to consult Gospodinov's translators into other languages about ways of solving a "particularly tricky turn of phase". Last but not least, she benefited from seven or eight years' experience working together with the writer, having translated his previous novel, many short stories, essays, plays, and even an opera libretto, so she had developed a knack for handling his language and texts. Having done a 50-page excerpt in 2019, she took about six months to complete the whole 85,000-word book.
Time Shelter by the Gospodinov-Rodel tandem (or "duet", as Angela prefers to call it) is shortlisted for another international award: the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Literature Prize 2023. The winning author and translator will be announced at the EBRD's headquarters in London on June 15.
Fascinated with Language
Rodel traces the "awakening of the nascent translator" in her back to 1992, her freshman year in Yale, where she studied linguistics and Russian (she earned a B.A. in Linguistics from Yale and an M.A. from UCLA). It was then that she realized she "loved exploring the inner workings of language, comparing and contrasting constructions".
The American is one of the most prolific translators of Bulgarian literature working today. She started with poems and short stories by her friends. Then came the books: nine novels and two short story collections published in Bulgaria, the UK and the US, a play performed in New York City (Ivan Dimitrov's The Eyes of Others in 2012), and poetry and prose translations that appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies.
Before Booker, her translation of another Gospodinov book, The Physics of Sorrow, was her most awarded work. "Angela Rodel has enriched world literature," the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL) wrote, explaining why it bestowed its 2016 Award for Best Literary Translation into English on this particular novel which she brought to the English-speaking world "with great literary sensitivity". In 2016, The Physics of Sorrow was nominated for the three most prestigious translation awards in the US: the PEN Translation Prize (dubbed "the Academy Award of Translation" by The New York Times), the National Translation Award of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), and the Best Translated Book Award of the University of Rochester's Three Percent database for international literature. Back home, the English version of the same novel won the National Book Center's 2015 Peroto Prize for best translation from Bulgarian.
In Rodel's bibliography, Ivaylo Petrov's The Wolf Hunt stands out, in her own words, as "hands-down the best classic Bulgarian novel".
Two more books in her translation are ready for release in the US and UK, respectively: Vera Mutafchieva's celebrated historical novel The Case of Cem, and a set of four dystopian novellas by the victim of the infamous 1978 "Bulgarian Umbrella" murder, dissident writer Georgi Markov. The Markov book won the 2019 PEN Translates Award in the UK.
The translator's current project, Viktoria Beshliiska's popular novels Clay and Heart, couples her fondness for Bulgarian folklore with her affection for Bulgarian literature.
Angela Rodel has been teaching a translation class at Sofia University since 2014.
"Through her translation work, she has done more than anyone to convey to English speakers the inverted structures, clunky rhymes, and other playful idiosyncrasies of modern Bulgarian and acquaint the West with the realities of life in twenty-first-century Bulgaria," Krum Karadakov of the America for Bulgaria Foundation wrote in 2019.
The Bulgarian Connection
Back in high school in her native Milwaukee, Angela was fascinated by the peculiar design of the Cyrillic script on a Language Arts bulletin board (eventually, she would learn that the letters were originally Bulgarian and not Russian). At Yale in 1992, she discovered Bulgaria through its folk music, being smitten by Philip Koutev's haunting choral arrangements of Bulgarian folk songs in a recording of Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares. The attraction proved irresistible, and in 1995, on a detour from an exchange student stint in St Petersburg, Angela made her first trip to Bulgaria to hear some of her favourite performers live at the Koprivshtitsa Folk Festival. Then, for seven years, she divided her time between America and Bulgaria - until 2004, when she came to stay.
In 2014, she was granted Bulgarian citizenship for her translation work and contribution to Bulgarian culture.
Rodel says she needed about half a year to switch from Russian to Bulgarian when she came to Sofia in 1996. After a 20-year immersion in the language, she is now a fluent speaker of near-flawless, Sofia-inflected Bulgarian.
In her Booker Prize acceptance speech, Angela acknowledged her second husband, Viktor Todorov (who teaches Arabic at Sofia University), and her daughter, Kerana, as her "living dictionaries". "Nothing like a 14-year-old bilingual kid to keep me very humble about how well I speak Bulgarian," the prize winner said.
Admitting that her second home country "is not always an easy place to inhabit", she said that nevertheless she had "truly found a shelter there - a mind-shelter, a heart-shelter, a soul-shelter."
Apart from a professional translator, Angela Rodel is also an accomplished musician. She sings and plays the tamboura, keyboards and synth. In 2004 she completed an M.A. in Ethnomusicology at UCLA. In Bulgaria, she has been part of two successful music projects: the ethno-rock band Gologan (active in 2004-2014), together with her first husband, poet and kaval player Ivan Hristov, and the experimental synth pop band Splendor and Misery (since 2015), alongside Viktor Todorov (vocals and synth). She says that a musical ear is essential for her self-imposed mission to help Bulgarian writers find their "sound" in English, rendering the melody and rhythm of the source language and not just the form and content.
Angela has appeared in two Bulgarian feature films directed by Georgi Djulgerov, The Goat (2009) and Buffer Zone (2014), as well as in American movies shot in Bulgaria.
Since March 2015, Rodel has been Executive Director of the Bulgarian-American Commission for Educational Exchange (popularly known as the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission), which supports the work of young scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. The appointment couldn't be more appropriate: as a Fulbright Student Researcher, she studied Bulgarian language and literature at Sofia University in 1996, and received a Fulbright-Hays fellowship in 2004 to study Bulgarian folk music at Plovdiv's Academy of Music, Dance and Visual Arts.
"A regular on the cultural and social scene in Bulgaria, she has also done her bit to put a human face to Bulgarians' idea of America and Americans," Karadakov observed.
In a 2020 research paper, Angela Rodel discussed eight different roles that she found a translator of Bulgarian literature into English needs to take on: as a factotum, a scout for publishers, a grant writer, an editor of the original, a collaborator with/consultant of the author, a literary agent, a marketer, and a cultural ambassador. With eleven translated books published and two in the pipeline, and six translation grants and fellowships awarded, the American Bulgarian excels in all of these roles.
Milen Ruskov, Thrown into Nature (2011)
Virginia Zaharieva, Nine Rabbits (2012)
Angel Igov, Short Tale of Shame (2013)
Zachary Karabashliev, 18% Gray (2013)
Alexander Shpatov, #LiveFromSofia (2014) (short stories)
Georgi Tenev, Party Headquarters (2015)
Georgi Gospodinov, The Physics of Sorrow (2015)
Georgi Tenev, Holy Light (2016) (short stories)
Ivaylo Petrov, The Wolf Hunt (2017)
Valery Stefanov, Love Stories from the Babylonian Library (2018)
Georgi Gospodinov, Time Shelter (2022)
Vera Mutafchieva, The Case of Cem (due January 2024)
Georgi Markov, The Portrait of My Double: And Other Dystopian Novellas (due February 2025)