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Translating Boryana Neykova’s “Time to Pack”

By Irina Ivanova

Irina Ivanova’s translation of Boryana Neykova’s poem, “Time to Pack,” appears in the March 2017 issue: From the Edges of Europe: New Bulgarian Literature.

My translation of Boryana Neykova’s “Time to Pack” was inspired by a class assignment to find and translate poems from Bulgarian into English. At the time, the task wasn’t simply daunting—it seemed doomed to failure. A firm believer in Roman Jakobson’s claim that “poetry by definition is untranslatable,” I had successfully abstained from any attempts to translate poems before this. But I couldn’t use Jakobson as an excuse in this time, so I decided that my best course would be to find a poem that I understood and somehow related to. I thought that if the text managed to evoke empathy in me as a reader, I would at least know what emotional impact my translation should have on readers of English. That’s what I was thinking while rummaging in bookstores and online looking for a poem. And that’s why I chose the poem “Time to Pack” by Boryana Neykova.

“Time to Pack” is part of Nekyova’s debut collection of poetry, Where There Was Briefly a Dog, which explores through the trivialities of everyday life the themes of love and loss. Neykova’s works follow the trend in contemporary Bulgarian poetry: they are written in blank verse with punctuation and capitalization largely missing. “Time to Pack” perfectly illustrates the mood of the collection. It is sad without being gloomy. Reading it feels like turning the pages of an album of Polaroid pictures. The poems evoke memories that take the reader back to places that feel like home.

My major task was to convey these emotions in English. How do you do that when it is impossible to preserve the word order or the alliteration? Given that English is not my mother tongue, how was I to make sure that my choice of wording was the right one? When translating prose into English, I usually spend most of the time checking the number of Google results for certain collocations. But Google hits do not convert automatically into emotional impact.

The translation of “Time to Pack” exemplifies some of these issues. It is a short poem (only ten lines), and every word and its exact position matters Though I tried to stay as close as possible to the original, I don’t feel that my translation reads as smoothly because it is more wordy: sixty-five rather than fifty-two words, or an increase of twenty-five percent. This difference results mainly from the larger number of pronouns and articles needed in English. These extra words affect the rhythm; the enjambments do not produce the same stylistic effect as they do in Bulgarian and they make the translation somewhat clumsy in a way that the original is not. The alliteration is also omitted. For example:

BG куфарът не трябва да е твърде тежък vs.  EN the suitcase must not be too heavy
BG но една стена от мръсна стая               vs.  EN but one wall from a dirty room

Despite these stylistic faults, I hope the translation has captured the mood of the original and its main idea: what we pack in a suitcase is ultimately our memories. And I, in my capacity as a translator, can pack the experience gained, as well as Eco’s rather soothing observation that, after all, “translation is the art of failure.”

Published Mar 22, 2017   Copyright 2017 Irina Ivanova

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