Translating History in Bulgarian Fiction: Angela Rodel at Yale

Megan O'Donnell

Balkan choral music set the stage for literary translator Angela Rodel (SM ’96) to discuss Bulgarian fiction. The Yale Slavic Chorus filled the Alice Cinema with bright, melodic harmonies sung in Bulgarian, and Rodel, a former member of the chorus, joined the Yale College singers in a musical homecoming.

Recalling the moment in 1992 when she first encountered Balkan music at a recruitment meeting for the chorus, Rodel said, “I cried this morning when I was rehearsing the song because that was the first Balkan song I ever heard. I heard Bulgarian music as sung by the Yale Slavic Chorus and it totally changed my life.”

Rodel has since translated nine Bulgarian novels in the US and UK. Her translation of Georgi Gospodinov’s Physics of Sorrow won the 2016 AATSEEL Prize for Literary Translation, while her translation of his novel Time Shelter was featured on The New Yorker’s list of Best Books of 2022 and won the 2023 International Booker Prize.

Rodel explored the challenges of translating history in Bulgarian fiction, focusing on her recent translations of Time Shelter and Vera Mutafchieva’s 1968 historical novel The Case of Cem. From Gospodinov’s absurdist portrayal of a dangerous collective nostalgia to Mutafchieva’s sly historical humor, Rodel dissected the linguistic and contextual challenges inherent in translating for non-Bulgarian audiences. Both novels, with their unorthodox representations of history, presented a formidable task for the translator.

Rodel presented the strategies that allow her to preserve the linguistic and cultural nuances that give these novels their ironic narrative punch without overwhelming her readers. Non-Bulgarian readers, as Rodel pointed out, face not only a temporal but also a lexical distance, requiring a delicate balance to preserve the essence of the original.

During the Q&A session, Rodel explained how she chooses novels to translate. She spoke of resonance, that sonic and corporeal connection where a Bulgarian novel reverberates within her allowing her to “hear” an English version echo in her mind. If she cannot hear the English as she reads the Bulgarian original, she acknowledges that she’s probably not the right one for the job, no matter how much she might love the work.

It’s this resonance that guides her choices as a translator—and, in turn, it’s this resonance that allows her readers to access a literature, a culture, and a history that would otherwise be beyond their linguistic reach. In her opening remarks, Carla Baricz, Sterling Library, touched on why it matters that translators build such bridges: “More than ever, it is important that works like Mutafchieva’s make their way into English because they counter narratives that treat Bulgarian, and Eastern European literature more generally, as somehow exotic.”

Megan O’Donnell, Ph.D., is the associate communications officer for the Whitney Humanities Center.