Organised by the British-Bulgarian Society at the Bulgarian Embassy, ‘Mission Balkans!’, a title playing on Alek Popov’s book Mission London, was a talk with Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, founder of Istros Books, about her experiences publishing literature from the Balkans for a British audience. Interspersed with readings from some books she’s published – Hansen’s Children, Lying Rabbits and Mission London – Curtis-Kojakovic answered questions ranging from her initiative to start Istros to issues of translation and political correctness.
The extracts were well chosen, emphasising Bulgarian stories, hidden beneath the umbrella term ‘Balkan Literature’: Ognjen Spahic’s Hansen’s Children, written from the viewpoint of inmates in a Sanatorium for Leprosy in late 1980s Bulgaria, introduced us to the beginning of the end of communism in the country. Lying Rabbits told of a girl who, hiding from the grandmother who beat her with nettles, observes how a nun is taken away by an officer from the Fatherland Front- who also happens to be her grandmother’s lover. The book provides cooking recipes too, not least for rabbit, woven into the story. Finally, Mission London is set in the Bulgarian Embassy in Kensington – which, being the venue for tonight’s talk, gave a frisson to the proceedings: it’s a tale chronicling the stressful working life of an ambassador, who’s made a deal with a shady PR company to please his bosses at home. Each of them very different – yet all funny, engaging and innovative – the books showed just what the English reader had been missing out on.
The conversation about the publishing process itself raised several issues regarding the translation and promotion of foreign language books in the English-speaking world. For example, Curtis-Kojakovic emphasised the originality of the writers from these regions, based on the fact most of them had to subsidise their writing with ‘normal’ jobs. As such, she argued, they could be freer in their expression: they don’t need to write to please. While linking their originality to the fact they still work elsewhere seems questionable, this apparent creative freedom is an issue Curtis-Kojakovic counters by focusing on authors already successful in their country – like Andrej Nikolaidis, whose novel Till Kingdom Come was published in August 2015. By choosing authors who already have a strong voice, Istros simply provides a platform to bring their writing to a bigger audience.
The potentially controversial description of Balkan writers as ‘exotic’ must be acknowledged too as a marketing strategy, and perhaps a necessary one given the severe lack of Balkan literature on the English market. Funding from agencies like English PEN and the Arts Council enables Istros to continue publishing independently, and, Curtis-Kojakovic says, ‘to counteract the negative stereotypes that appear in the mass media here’ with literature. However, one might argue that Istros is in all likelihood preaching to the converted, and that their books – though of course on sale to everyone – are most likely to be snapped up by someone who’s travelled a bit, speaks other languages and already has something of an international perspective.
Translation was highlighted by Curtis-Kojakovic as one of the most difficult challenges in publishing Balkan literature. In the Balkans, she says, language tends to be very direct, and a British audience may not take provocative jokes or swearwords too well, so not only have dialects had to find their English equivalents, but occasionally expressions have to be ‘softened.’ Does this mean that the reader only reads a filtered version of the original? And isn’t this in conflict with Istros’s declared aim of introducing Balkan literature in all its sometimes spikily authentic originality?
Clearly, a translation is never the same as reading a novel in its original language. Yet, Curtis-Kojakovic is adamant that Istros books lose as little as possible of their original form in translation. This is no easy task, but the emphasis she places on finding good translators and maintaining a close working relationship with the authors helps give the English reader something that still contains a lot of the Balkans, yet is comprehensible to the everyday reader…
Overall, Curtis-Kojakovic’s approach to publishing was presented as rigorous and calculating out of necessity, something which highlights the difficulty of publishing foreign language books on the English market. As such, Istros is doing very well, and by sticking to her area of expertise – South Eastern Europe – Curtis-Kojakovic has undoubtedly established herself in this niche market. While the extracts read were rather short, they were good examples of what the publisher has to offer: exciting and new literature without exception. Questions can be asked about marketing the books as ‘other’ and those issues of translation, but Istros is certainly doing its bit to expand the English book market with new contexts: and to shine a rare light on a corner of Europe which has, in the last quarter century, been through unfathomable ups and downs.