What was the last Bulgarian, or non-English language, book you read? Don't feel uncomfortable if you cannot answer. Only three percent of all books published annually in the United States are translations, and fiction accounts for less than one percent.
In 2007, two organisations were created to target and try to find solutions. American bestselling author Elizabeth Kostova, of The Historian fame, established a nonprofit organisation of the same name to support contemporary Bulgarian literature. Open Letter Books, at the University of Rochester's literary publishing house, created the Three Percent label to draw more attention to the the glaring lack of translated literature in the United States.
In the following years, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation joined forces with some of the best publishers of international literature to help books by Bulgarian writers gain more prominence among English speaking readers.
Since 2011, the Foundation has propelled five novels onto the international literary circuit: Thrown Into Nature by Milen Ruskov (Open Letter Books, 2011); Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva (Istros Books, 2012); 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev (Open Letter Books, 2013); A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov (Open Letter Books, 2013); and Everything Happens as It Does by Albena Stambolova (Open Letter Books, 2013).
In 2015, there will be two more translations: Party Headquarters by Georgi Tenev, (Open Letter Books) and Black Box by Alek Popov (Peter Owen Publishers).
In 2014, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Open Letter Books, together with Black Balloon publishers, organised a book tour in the United States to mark the launch of the US editions of Everything Happens as It Does, translated by Olga Nikolova (Open Letter Books, 2013), and Nine Rabbits, translated by Angela Rodel (Black Balloon, 2014). The tour took place in New York, Chicago, Rochester, Asheville, and Seattle, and attracted students, translation literature activists, readers and expats.
Everything Happens as It Does is the fourth Bulgarian book published by Open Letter Books and the first novel by a female Bulgarian writer published in the United States since the fall of Communism in 1989.
Nine Rabbits was the first Bulgarian book published in the UK with the support of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation within a similar translation scheme. Its Black Balloon edition is the novel's second reprinting in English.
Both novels have been praised highly.
"Zaharieva packs several genres into one including, but not limited to, pastoral idyll, sexual coming-of-age story, and feminist memoir. Ultimately, she presents life in all its messiness and possibility, vivid enough for the reader to almost taste," reads a review in Publishers Weekly.
"Thanks, then, to Open Letter Books for publishing Albena Stambolova. Her short, fable-like novel brings a whole new sensibility to the body of English translations from her nation's contemporary literature. While the men show some concern for what being a Bulgarian means, what Bulgaria as a nation means (or, in the case of Ruskov, what civilisation itself means), Stambolova tells sinuous tales that snake through the lives of her characters, leaving the reader feeling privy to those deeply personal moments in which life make perfect emotional sense – even as it makes no cerebral sense at all," wrote Steven Wingate for Fiction Writers Review.
Looking at the critics' reaction, the book tour attendance rates and audience feedback, the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation hopes that slowly but surely Bulgarian contemporary fiction is edging its way into the English-speaking world. The foundation is key to the process of increasing the number of translated books in the Anglosphere.
The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation not only promotes a small nation's literature, but brings diversity to the reading markets in both the UK and the United States.
According to the translation database of the Three Percent blog, 360 translated books were published in the United States in 2008. There was not a single Bulgarian title among them. In 2013, the number of translated books rose to 517, with three Bulgarian titles. All of them are supported by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation.
When the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation commenced in 2007, 27 percent of Americans had not read any books in the entire year. In 2014, this percentage decreased by 3 percent. This, combined with an increase in translated titles and their readers, makes a book with a print run of 5,000 copies a best-seller and is an agent of much-needed change. Not only in the United States is this a high print-run for international literature, but translated books also add value.
Translated authors have been adopted by quality publishers and educated, eager readers.
When hope, interest and perspective are there, support is needed – and you can help. Support contemporary Bulgarian writers and publishers who care about quality literature. It’s easy – just buy their books, read them and spread the word.
Open Letter Books and Black Balloon Publishing distribute their titles through Consortium Book Sales and Distribution and through digital channels, including their websites www.shop.blackballoonpublishing.com for Nine Rabbits and www.openletterbooks.org for Everything Happens as It Does.
You can read excerpts from Nine Rabbits and Everything Happens as It Does online in Vagabond. In addition, the EKF-sponsored website www.contemporarybulgarianwriters.com provides translated samples of many writers’ work.