Maria P. Vassileva translating Nadya Radulova

Translator Note

Nadya Radulova is the author of seven books of poetry. They all show their kinship in a very particular way: each book contains a poem from the previous collection. This gesture is part writerly superstition, part rational investment in the properties of form and continuity. Radulova’s language is so sharp, its emotional pitch aimed so high, that its careful structures—rhymes, echoes, parallels—go unnoticed. You don’t see the scaffolding underneath the tightrope walker, you can’t tell how many times the performance was rehearsed.

Radulova is also an award-winning translator of Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Raymond Carver, and J.M. Coetzee, among others. She believes that translations should not reveal their foreignness, that texts should easily settle into their new language. Her own work has allowed Bulgarian to adopt all of these writers as its own. When I worked on the poems from her latest collection, she told me I was free to do as I pleased, as long as I preserved the formal features of the poems. I loved the challenge of freedom at the cost of doing the (almost) impossible—compared to Bulgarian, English is rhyme-poor, and translators working to preserve sound play run the risk of losing the ease and subtlety of the original. It took many rehearsals, corrections, edits, and leaps, but here are the poems, now set in endless motion in two languages.

The Fourth Ditch

                                              after Dante, Eliot, Dylan Thomas

they refused to rent out their bodies to sleep,
or lend them briefly to an afternoon of dying
or to the longer lustful dying
in the field where stone pines cast
their calligraphic shadows and where
birds fly by and lizards slither—omens fall
of rain, disease, regret.

And all the living took up arms against death—

believing they could put a stop, with impunity,
to age and rot. Not by hands of priests or prophets                                                         
but by those which, terrified of how death
grows bigger, clip their nails, scrub their heels,
and each day excrete
pieces of their moribund insides, or mow
the long grass round their garden beds.

And all the living took up arms against death—

the typist comes back home; a little after five
the house-agent’s clerk arrives. Their stiff backs catch
the morsels of the setting sun, but they’re also quenched
in the tin can open on the table; then
comes the basin, the faucet, which
washes off the sticky muck, slowly
dripping when all is done and said…

And all the living took up arms against death—

what would future generations look like, born from fungus
at the bottom of the basin—not bigger
than a cuckoo’s egg, or the lichen on the skin,
the last and distant memory of vegetation; kids
of ferrous or non-ferrous metals, kids of copper,
miles of pliant copper, waiting to be smelted…
What would future generations look like instead?

And all the living took up arms against death—

while I stand on this side of the door and watch them
—neither man nor woman—my wrinkled dugs pour forth
not tears, but Styx and Thames. Twined snakes crawl out of me
and coil their wet braids round my burning voice
and bite and bite, but can’t get out. Waste lies the land
and broken is the object, gifted
with a breath.

And all the living took up arms against death.

Let Me Tell You About Maritsa

after Schubert and Dorfman

The thing that walks each morning
along the dike, among the early joggers,
is neither dream, nor shadow, but a memory
unstuck from me, returning
to that spot, right there, where goosebumps
gather, and childhood breathes
its last.

But let me tell you more about Maritsa.
I’m a tall man then, silent and hunched over,
in love with poetry and fishing,
I have a wife and kid, my parents live in town,
but I also have a shanty by the river,
so come and look, my hand a hook—
and yes they bite, they seem to bite,
but their eyes are nothing like the sun, and coral
is far redder than their lips’ red,
those damned goldfeathered fish,
harlot-eye and strumpet-tail,
let them die!

But let me tell you more about Maritsa.
I was an ordinary tortoise then,
an ancient epic hero,
meditating in the mud all day, but once
I caught the whiff of blood, the sky
was low among the rushes,
I saw arms and ankles, flash of bait,
the moon bellyflopped and mesmerized
Ich bin nicht wild the waves were rocking
Ich bin noch jung! Und rühre mich nicht an
And police searchlights cut the silence
into stripes and circles.

But let me tell you more about Maritsa.
I am in tenth grade then, nothing
that would merit grief or verse… The moment comes,
I pick the day and time, and I attack
that quiet fisher-poet in the back with hoops and hooks,
I whet my first words, my first
rhymes against the stone of his tin tongue,
and then I sever every dangling participle
from his incoherent prattle and
I swallow every yell with triumph,
I scrape this day down to its bones.
I am the cello, the river is my quartet.

The girl’s alive, the poet’s dead!


What do we do with something
that has come in the middle, or at the very end, without
asking us; has entered without an invitation,
straight from the street, muddy and starved,
some old nothing, wrapped in newspaper,
jumping right into our most tender sheets,
clean chimneys, tall bright hearts.

What do we do with something, which has come,
the way a wet cough comes with fall,
slides down, cuts the ethereal body in two,
trembles in the vein of the voice and I spend
the rest of my days watching
as your brilliant heels walk across
the sky while you’re asleep.

But what do we do with the thing,
a hardened and colder something, not quite dead,
but a thing dug up from the land of the dead,
which gets stuck between lips and lips,
belly and belly, breath and breath,
and all of this happens simultaneously,
and simultaneously to us.

Can we love this guest, this other, this third,
who never was among us when we discovered
loving. And what is this thing that
has come, and what is loving itself, and if
the thing that has come is in loving,
then what do we do with the love that
has come, or is already gone.

Suddenly, two days before the end,

Mary began to weep. No one in the house
suspected that forty eight
hours of salt
would be more than enough
to eat through the hardwood floor below us, so

put an end to it. Old men told
tales in tongues; words fell
like twigs into the fire and stoked it, the mothers and fathers
cleaned the soot, coughed, and at the same time the boys
played outside, passing
a rubber ball and
the salty rain
fell, and

the waters of this world broke, and
another world wasn’t coming, and

the feet of the last ones dug up
the soggy anthills, trampled
the chicory, and cracks opened up
underneath two cubits wide, and
you could hear trumpets, and
it was a time to—

then I saw
how she—
my Mary—
spun herself around her own wet hair and
pulled herself up into the sky,
a pillar of smoke from my throat,
out of my stomach—rose twisted
around her wet hair and
look, she’s gone now, I can’t feel her, she’s gone—

I tell the woman in the bed next to mine
who’s eating crackers and watching 24 hours kitchen—and

now the weeping stops, and now the rain stops,

and the earth is once again
without form and void, a blind hollow of
mole tunnels and
sand and ashes and
dust upon dust upon—
end upon end upon—

So who exactly created this whole thing and why?

The woman in the next bed is sleeping.
I pull the remote out of her hand,
change the channel.

The Open Window

When soft morning light enters the room
and turns into a cat, the cat into a rose,
the rose into a small, barely noticeable
wound above the ankle, when
no one notices the wound and it closes up unnoticed,
when after months or even
after many happy years—
you put on woolen winter socks and admire
your legs, and read their delicate old-fashioned
road maps of varicose and arthritis—
you notice the barely noticeable scar
and run your fingers over it, but no,
it’s impossible to put your finger
in this wound, this little woundlet,
and you don’t even remember it, who, how, where—
the scar is your only chance
to relive that unremembered-memorable
to blossom, bristle, and stick your tail up,
to be the author of this wound-rose-cat,
and let something in the story snap, something bind,
something else take flight—you
jumping out the window
and returning into the light.

Nadya Radulova

Nadya Radulova is a writer, editor, and literary translator. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is a part-time lecturer at the Translator/Editor MA program at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. Her academic interests are related to the field of Anglo-American modernism, gender studies, and literary adaptation. Radulova has written five books of poetry: Tongue-Tied Name; Albas; Cotton, Glass, and Electricity; Bandoenon, and When They Fall Asleep. Her poems and short stories have been translated into English, Russian, Turkish, Czech, Croatian, Polish, German, and Greek, among others. 

Maria P. Vassileva

Maria P. Vassileva is a graduate student in the Slavic department at Harvard. Her translations of contemporary Bulgarian poetry have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation and Absinthe Magazine; a chapbook of poems by Nadia Radulova which she co-translated with Dimiter Kenarov is forthcoming in The Next Review pamphlet series. She has published two books of poetry.