Georgi Gospodinov interview: ‘I felt something had gone awry in the clockworks of time'
The winner of the International Booker Prize 2023, author Georgi Gospodinov about talks the inspiration behind Time Shelter in an exclusive interview
The translator of Time Shelter, the winner of the International Booker Prize 2023, talks about exploring the inner workings of language – and how disco came to Eastern Europe later than the West
Read interviews with all of the International Booker Prize 2023 authors and translators here.
How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023 - an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win - and what would winning the prize mean to you?
It feels like a dream – one I am afraid I might wake up from! Since I am a musician, I will use a musical metaphor: translation has long been seen as ‘second fiddle’ to writing, with translators providing a harmonic backdrop for the true virtuosos. When we do our jobs well, our ‘accompaniment’ is not even noticeable to the audience, swept away by the book’s main melody. But the International Booker Prize brings this harmony to the forefront, emphasising that all translation is a duet whose true beauty would not be possible without both voices or both melodies coming together. Winning the prize would also put a spotlight on Bulgarian literature, which has long felt as if it is relegated to ‘second fiddle’ on the world literature stage. Even making the long list has been an incredible honour: I am proud to be part of this ‘stepping out into centre-stage’.
How long did it take to translate the book, and what does your working process look like? Do you read the book multiple times first? Do you translate it in the order it’s written?
I actually began translating the book before I had the chance to read it, for the simple reason that it had not been finished yet! Given the success of Georgi’s previous novel, The Physics of Sorrow, numerous people, especially colleagues from his Cullman Center fellowship, but also his agent and others, were very eager to get a peek at his new work-in-progress – thus in the fall of 2019 I translated a 50-page excerpt of what would later become the opening of Time Shelter, which was finally published in Bulgarian in the infamous spring of 2020. Once the full Bulgarian final draft was ready, I dove in and translated the whole book in about six months.
Under more usual circumstances, I generally read a novel at least once before starting to translate it and work on the book in order, from start to finish. But given the excitement around Time Shelter, Georgi needed a few of the key scenes, for example ‘Extras for Revolutions’, before I was done with the whole novel, so I skipped around more than I normally would.
What was the experience of working with Georgi like? How closely did you work together? Was it a very collaborative process? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges?
Georgi and I have been working together for quite a few years – I translated his previous novel as well as many short stories, essays, plays, even a space opera libretto (!). 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. Georgi cut his writerly teeth as a poet, so he is very interested in the craft of translation and loves to get into the weeds of rhythm and sound. Thankfully he is always up for a lunch or a coffee so we can really drill down into the passages I’m struggling with. He also has introduced me to his other translators into French, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Croatian and other languages when they’ve come through Sofia, so I also can turn to Georgi’s extended network of translators to see how they’ve solved a particularly tricky turn of phrase.
Perhaps one humorous moment when working on this book was in the discussion of various eras – I was confused as to why he characterised the ‘80s as the decade of disco, since I, as a child born in the early ‘70s, have distinct memories of dancing in my parents’ basement to Saturday Night Fever in that decade. We realised that the mismatch was due to the fact that Western music trends broke through the Iron Curtain with a bit of a lag, so indeed the ‘80s really were the disco era in the Eastern Bloc. So we found a way to finesse this in the text by adding in a qualifier: ‘You always say that the ’80s are the decade that produced mostly boredom and disco in the East.’
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment – one of the first novels in translation I ever read – blew my angsty teen mind
Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?
Georgi’s previous writing was perhaps the best inspiration – so many of his books are metatextual, they reference one another and expand on earlier themes, thus I felt I needed to make translation decisions that would resonate with his full body of work. As for other writers, I found Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights inspiring, as she, too, writes in a fragmentary, non-linear way (I was not surprised to find out she and Georgi have been friends for years, having met on the literary festival circuit). I also took courage from Jennifer Croft’s brilliant translation of the novel, which flows beautifully without taming or domesticating what makes the novel unique.
What was your path to becoming a translator of literary fiction? What would you say to someone who is considering such a career for themselves?
I started out as a comp lit major at Yale as an undergrad, working with Russian and German, but then switched to linguistics, as I realised I loved exploring the inner workings of language, comparing and contrasting constructions – perhaps that was the nascent translator in me awakening. At the time I had no idea that being a literary translator was even a possible career path. But when I found myself in Bulgaria, married to a poet, and surrounded by lots of writers in our social circle, suddenly all that linguistic curiosity paid off: I started trying my hand at translating a poem here, a story there, since there were very few native speakers of English in Bulgaria at the time with a fluent grasp of the language. Only then did I realise it was something I loved to do and could actually make a living with – so for eight years I was exclusively a freelance translator, primarily of contemporary literature.
I am happy to report that now there is a new generation of savvy and largely bi-lingual Bulgarian to English translators, some of whom I have had the great pleasure to teach and mentor. My advice would be to find a way to protect their artistic energy – freelance translating can be exhausting, the burnout of translating all day, every day can dampen what should be an exhilarating experience. Most translators teach at universities or, as in my case, have arts-related day jobs that allow us to only translate works we truly love, so that we come to every text with an energy that is palpable in our final translations.
Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?
As noted above, there unfortunately seems to be a chauvinistic belief in the English-speaking world that translations are ‘second fiddle’, somehow less-than or less desirable than original works in English, relegated to the ‘translated fiction’ or ‘foreign movies’ section (although luckily I think this is changing). A major international prize like the International Booker challenges this shortsighted Anglo-centric assumption and demonstrates that we have a moral responsibility to hear voices from beyond our own comfort zone, to recognise that the lived experiences of people whose language is not English holds just as much insight into the human condition as our own literature does.
If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why?
Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment blew my angsty teen mind – it was one of the first novels in translation I ever read (although I didn’t really register this fact at the time). Dostoevsky inspired me to start studying Russian, which led to Slavic linguistics, which eventually led me to Bulgarian… I reread it regularly every five years or so (in different translations, my Russian is too rusty for the original at this point) and can happily report that I have yet to be disenchanted.
Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, which I first read in English and then reread shortly thereafter in German, was the first work to give me a taste of translation’s magical energy, showing the way a translation recreates an atmosphere, capturing the shades and hues of the language and a world.
More generally, my all-time favorite writer is the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies – I can only hope my translations might someday approach in some small way his witty and brilliant use of English. It turns out he was shortlisted for the Booker in 1986… inspiring company to aspire to!