5Q Interview: Ekaterina Petrova, Translation MFA Alumni

September 3, 2019

The Writing University conducts a series of interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the various University of Iowa writing programs. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.

Born in Sofia, Bulgaria, Ekaterina Petrova is a translator from the Bulgarian and a nonfiction writer. She is an MFA alumni of Literary Translation at the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship. She also helps edit Exchanges, the literary translation journal run by current students at the program. Ekaterina holds a BA in International Studies and German Studies from Macalester College and an MSc in European Politics from the London School of Economics. Her translations and writing have appeared in various Bulgarian and English-language publications, including EuropeNow, Ninth Letter, Drunken Boat, B O D Y, Vagabond, Dnevnik, Capital Light, Balkan Travellers, and One Week in Sofia. Her first book-length translation, the novel Come to Me by the Bulgarian author Bogdan Rusev, is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive Press.

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1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for your time at the University of Iowa?

During my second year in Iowa, I’ve been working almost exclusively on my thesis project—a translation of a rather hefty excerpt from the novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow by the Bulgarian author Iana Boukova, which has been both quite thrilling and a little daunting. Although the narrative takes place around the Balkans during the nineteenth century, the novel is not a historical one, but a contemporary, wonderfully complex, and surprisingly lush book about reading, writing, translating, and storytelling. I’ve absolutely loved working on it and I’m so grateful for all the time, space, support, and courage I’ve received while in the program. Without them, I probably wouldn’t have dared to take on the project.

2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

Ideally, when I sit down to translate, I prefer to do it over long uninterrupted stretches of time, rather than in short bouts between other activities, so I try to dedicate at least two or three full days a week to working without any distractions, including classes, meetings, or even reading. This has been pretty good for my translation practice but probably less so for my social life or the regularity of my dietary habits. Because I get easily distracted, I also prefer to work from home, rather than the library or a coffee shop, which seems somewhat unusual in Iowa City.

3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

I just finished reading Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, masterfully translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, who graduated from the Literary Translation program in Iowa. Although the two books are very different in many ways, I did also find some fascinating parallels between Flights and Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow.

In general, I’m not sure that there’s really that much of a distinction between reading for research and reading for pleasure for me. During my time in the program, I was usually reading a mix of literary and theoretical texts either assigned as part of or related to my classes, and most of them were enjoyable in one way or another—either “purely” as literature and/or as avenues for reflecting on reading, writing, and translation.

But perhaps my greatest pleasure over these past two years has come from regularly reading and engaging with the work of the other translators in the translation workshops, whose talent and generosity have been such an inspiration to me. I’m so grateful to them for giving me a glimpse into their translation processes and allowing me to learn about different languages and literary traditions.

4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and/or your work?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the assumption that translators should—and, in fact, can—only translate from a “foreign” language into their “mother” tongue. As a translator from Bulgarian, which is technically my “native” language, into English, which I learned later in life, I’m interested in examining this assumption. I think that our relationship to language is so much more complex that the binary of “native” vs. “foreign” would suggest. In my case, for instance, there are things that I think about and am better at talking or writing about in English and others in Bulgarian. I’m also growing increasingly interested in (both reading and producing) bilingual and multilingual texts.

5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

That’s a bit of a complicated question for me. I was born and grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, but started traveling at a very young age because of my parents. I went to an American high school in Kuwait, then to college in Minnesota, but also studied abroad in Berlin, Northern Ireland, and Cuba during this time. After college, I spent a year living and working in New York, then moved to London for grad school. In the decade or so before coming to Iowa, although I was mostly based in Sofia, I also traveled around a lot and spent a couple of years living in the south of France. Returning to the Midwest after such a long time has in many ways felt like a kind of homecoming—I was surprised by the Petite Madeleine Effect that certain (long-forgotten) sounds, sights, and smells here in Iowa City had on me.

For practical purposes and because my whole family lives there, I still consider Sofia as my home, although by now there are people and things I love in so many other places that they also feel like home to me. The discomfort of not entirely having a home anywhere seems like a small price to pay for feeling at home in so many different places.

One of my favorite things about Sofia is that it’s a relatively big city that still feels quite cozy. I like that it’s eclectic and always changing, that it’s still a little gritty and chaotic, and quite laissez-faire. At the same time, these characteristics can also make it quite maddening to live there, so I also enjoy the fact that Sofia is just a quick flight and drive away from so many other places on the Balkans and the rest of Europe.

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Thank you Ekaterina!