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50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— VĂ­ctor Rodríguez Núñez

W. N. Herbert, from A Balkan Exchange


In the autumn of 2004, myself, British-Jordanian novelist Fadia Faqir, and fellow poet Mark Robinson, were invited by the British Council to work with six writers and two musicians on a series of performances around Sofia. This trip was set up and co-ordinated by Leah Davcheva, who was to become our tireless supporter, co-instigator of this book, and dear friend.

I had first visited Bulgaria as an adolescent on a day trip to the ancient seaport of Varna, an excursion from a Romanian package holiday. Bulgaria seemed very alien compared to the generic tourist beaches we were bussed away from: filled with the giant empty heroics of Communist statuary, it was at once poorer, forbidding and more intriguing, its Roman remains hinting at whole swathes of unknown history. When I returned thirty years later, I arrived in a different country in more than one sense.

My awareness of its complicated history had deepened: between the two poles of Rome and Moscow I was now able to string the successive resurgences and tragic collapses of the Byzantines and the early Orthodox kingdoms, the struggles with the Tatars and the Turks, the pivotal role of communist partisans in the Second World War, and that whole effort to maintain the identity of a small country continually being swamped then abandoned by machinating empires. But of its people and its poetry I knew almost nothing.

Sofia felt like a city subtly dislocated by its history: positioned in the would-be middle of a greater Bulgaria that had never materialised, its Soviet-style blocks of flats and wannabe European boulevards vied with more recently-arrived advertising hoardings and showy glass-fronted businesses. Façades were shabby, the statuary looked tired, and the grand buildings — Nevski Cathedral, the university with its earthquake-proof foyer, the Opera House that couldn't afford costumes — all seemed slightly too big for their settings.

As we drove from the airport I found myself immediately, instinctively, translating the Cyrillic of slogans, adverts and road signs in an attempt to make something familiar. Then I saw a black-clad art student turning her back on the very imposing Levski football stadium to draw what appeared to be a giant submachine-gun as it rose over some shopping booths and straggly autumn trees. This turned out to be a typical Eastern bloc war memorial in the city's central park, but the image came back to me as I met and began to work with Sofia's writers and realised they too were re-imagining their country in the wake of momentous change. We had all arrived in a shared moment of afterwards.

That first trip was a blast of new faces and new experiences — Plamen Doynov's wry greeting to the black marketeers at Sitnyakovo Market before we began barking through megaphones; a strange synth-driven ambient performance in the cavernous foyer of the university; Toma Markov doing a rap in the high security wing of Sofia Prison that had all the prisoners stomping and clapping to the beat; the beer-fuelled final gig at a night club where the band, Bluba Lu, decided to wig out and improvise their backings to our carefully-prepared work. But throughout it I kept trying to assemble a collage of all the fragments of lines that we could get our fellow writers to translate. I remember being struck by a line from one poet who performed under the name 'VBV': 'I love you, my girl, my habit and border.'

I did a reading in a bookshop with two poets, Georgi Gospodinov and Nadya Radulova, an established and a rising star in the literary hierarchy, and the three of us were determined we had to do some translations of each other's work. We ended the event by reading out stanzas in each other's languages — their Scots was much better than my Bulgarian. Mark, Fadia and I all agreed the quality of the work we were catching in tiny glimpses was exceptional, and that a translation project seemed a natural next step. Georgi and Nadya were keen to publish translations of our work into Bulgarian. But the economics made such a project seem unlikely.

What we were all agreed on was that the link had to continue, and sure enough, the following spring I headed back to Sofia, this time travelling with Andy Croft, to deliver a course on teaching creative writing techniques. We had noticed that the standard tools of the creative exercise and discursive workshop we were so used to in Britain simply didn't exist in Bulgaria, and Leah Davcheva, again co-ordinating our visit, saw an opportunity to share skills. Andy and I worked with twelve writers, including Georgi, Nadya and (VBV's 'real' name) Vassil Vidinsky. Among the new faces this time was the laconic, witty Kristin Dimitrova. After long days working together, we would spent the evenings discussing politics and poetry in both our countries, and, of course, still scheming as to how we could put together a translation project.

At the end of this week, Leah took Andy and I on a trip to Gara Thompson, the small railway station in the mountains around Sofia named after Frank Thompson, the brother of the historian E.P. Thompson, who had fought and died with the partisans during the Second World War. As we stood in the shambles of an almost derelict mining town to read his plaque, then drove around the steep cliff-faces and descending curtains of limestone, where generations of rebels had ambushed the Turks, and finally climbed a small hill outside the village of Litakovo to the common grave where Thompson was buried after being shot by the fascists, I could see that Andy, like myself, was bonding with this stubborn, distinctive, lovely place.

Mark Robinson, meanwhile, had travelled separately to the old university town of Plovdiv for a conference involving writers and arts administrators from across the Balkans, and came back equally determined that some further contact had to be made. At this point we began talking to Claire Malcolm, Director of the North East's writers' agency, New Writing North, and she and Leah put together a project to bring four writers over to Newcastle for a week to embark on a book of translations.

At the back of both Mark's head and mine was the method used by the old European Translation Network, which we had taken part in at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Ireland. The then Director of Poetry Ireland, Theo Dorgan, had assembled a team of poets to translate poets from all over Europe. Visiting poets would arrive in pairs, accompanied by translators and literals, and two complete books would be produced over a week of intensive workshops. Could we attempt something similar?

Reluctantly we realised that prose would be too complicated to include, and settled for a pairing of four British and four Bulgarian poets — Georgi, Nadya, Vassil and Kristin were all able to come and, between them, had good to brilliant English. Leah suggested Boris Deliradev both to accompany them and do the literals, and we suggested Linda France as the fourth British writer. There was just one fly in the chilled yoghurt soup: I didn't want just to do a book of translations.

It seemed to me that this project was as much about an encounter between people and places as it was about an encounter with texts. It was about the collisions and interactions of cultures, not just the friendships formed but the shifts in our historical imaginations. I thought that if this was to be a properly engaged and engaging aesthetic document it had to find a way of encapsulating all these levels of experience.

So I suggested that the translations and the culture should be approached through the creative sensibilities of the translators — and that this should be a reciprocal arrangement. So the British poets should include their own poems about visiting Bulgaria — not as touristic notes, but as maps of the type of engagement found in the translations, as intros, filters and shadows. And, equally, there should not be one book, but two: one in English, and another attempting the same task in Bulgarian.

One consequence of this was that the Bulgarian poets weren't simply taking part in a translation project, they were beginning a relationship with this country, particularly our home territories of Hexham, Newcastle and Middlesbrough: the North East. Another consequence was that Linda, having met and worked with Georgi, Nadya, Kristin and Vassil, then had to visit them in Sofia, an experience she writes about elsewhere in this book.

Our work method for the translations was simple. We booked two adjacent rooms in Newcastle University's School of English. Linda and I paired up, as did Mark and Andy. Since Nadya and Kristin had the better English, they paired up with Georgi and Vassil respectively. Then we worked, poem by poem, through a body of work Boris had prepared in roughs. We swapped translatees (or they swapped translators) every day or so, with Boris moving between the groups as needed. Then, when we had rough first drafts, we came together and worked as a single unit to produce more polished drafts that were as idiomatic as each poet or each poem demanded. Then, finally, work was posted on a blog for comments, adjustments, and, crucially, so that it could just mature. The result is the book you hold.