LILAC CANOPIES, STAR-LIKE APPLES AND RAKIA: Liliya Aleksandrova translates Antina Zlatkova

by Liliya Aleksandrova

Antina Zlatkova was born in 1990 in Montana, Bulgaria. She currently lives in Vienna, Austria. Her first collection of poems, Кораби от хартия (Paper ships) was published in Bulgaria in 2010. Her second poetry collection, the bilingual Fremde Geographien/Чужди географии (Foreign geographies), was published in Austria in 2014 by edition exil.

I came to this project with the notion that translating poetry, for someone who is not a poet and has skills limited to the close reading of narrative, would be a challenge, and that the process would be primarily frustrating. In this confrontation with inner voices claiming incompetence, lack of experience and therefore credibility, there was just one thing that inexorably pushed me to translate Antina Zlatkova’s poems: my belief in the many lives of words.

Zlatkova’s poems are filled with imagery: “fliederbaldachine[n]” (“lilac canopies”) and “sterne[n] wie äpfel” (“apple-like stars”); there are also creaking beds, stalls, discarded apple cores. They evoke more than just vivid pictures, unfolding sceneries splattered with the hues of imagination. They peddle smells and tastes that encourage full immersion in the text, as well as in the legends of one’s own experience. It could be that, because I come from the same country, the same town, the same school class and the same sensibility (full disclosure: the poet is a close friend), I share something with the wellspring of these wor(l)ds. But as a translator, I wanted the “apple-like stars” to have the same effect they had on me, on the eye and the taste buds as the mind thinks of the juice of the fruit “growing heavy” and how it permeates, in a different consistency but carrying the same aroma, each starry core in the celestial tapestry.

Another aspect that is obvious and warrants comment is Zlatkova’s approach to the writing of bilingual poems. The German is by no means a literal translation of the Bulgarian. The verses, for that matter, do not always correspond. It could equally be that the Bulgarian is a retelling of a story first crafted in German. Or that both versions are expressions of the same thought, one that has found a home in different words. These images, slightly amended at times, accompanied with the verb arrangement of two distinct languages, created for me, as a reader, two different stories. The tellers of tales may have reasons to snip at their vocabulary, to metamorphose fig groves into pear trees and quince trees, but the readers usually have access to the end result only. It is the beauty of what the recipients of stories do with them, in the privacy of the imagination that was highlighted for me as I compared these slightly different takes.

This was intensified by my own language learning experience. A native speaker of Bulgarian, I started learning English at a very young age. Some years later, I began intensive German classes at school, later studied Spanish and French, and I am currently self-learning Italian. For the past six years, I have been living in the UK (with a one year interlude in France, and regular excursions to Berlin). In the process of shifting between languages, I had prioritised above all the skill to have the ready availability of vocabulary, without the need to think of it in a single language first  – that is, I have tried to amend my initial thoughts, and through this, I do not doubt it, I have changed my way(s) of thinking. In my secret fiction writing (which I only do in English, incidentally), I try to mix things I have learned from other languages – the combinatory power of the German noun, the mellifluousness of French words – by incorporating them into word play in English. My original intentions may not be immediately accessible to all readers, but I aim for strangeness, for the discrepancy between expectation and surprise of Iser’s ‘The Reader’s Process,’ in the hopes that I unveil unknown thoughts in other people.

In the poems, with the juxtaposition of Bulgarian and German, with thoughts spoken by the same person albeit with altering details, the language structure and its possibilities really came into focus for me. Initially, when I examined my propensity for literalness, I thought it was my uncertainty, my unwillingness to interfere with the poetic license of the author. But it was not that, not really. It was rather the desire to preserve the strangeness of an acquired language, just like it lingers for all those people who learn to think, to speak, to survive and to love in languages different from those they had previously thought, spoken, survived in, loved in. It is the novelty of having a verb right at the very end of a sentence, and spending a breath waiting for its emergence to throw light on everything before it. The only thing I sought to keep was a sense of rhythm, which may only be audible to my inexperienced ear. As a non-native speaker of English, I have often had to defend my choice of purposeful word play, even though it is the only language in which I feel capable of spinning the tales that my own taste is somewhat content with. Subjective ease should not be that relevant here, of course, but its pinnacle pressing against the linguistic ceiling of “non-native” also makes me understand the feeling of having shelter in foreign words and at the same time, never truly feeling the master of any one language. So when these people of Zlatkova’s poems speak, in German and in Bulgarian, I hear them in English as if they’re just learning it, as if they’re looking for yet another home to test out.

And it was not just the rhythm that was counter-intuitive at times. The intimate knowledge of the world from which the poet takes her scenes made me want to translate “scharf” as “hot” in ‘trifonovo’ with its association with what the men in the poem are drinking – knowing the type of tavern in a Bulgarian village, it is most definitely rakia, a spirit drink of above 50 degrees. For the same reason, “ställе” became “sheep stalls” (informed by my personal experience in my grandmother’s village), before I actually spoke to the poet about this, who explained that in Trifonovo (her grandfather’s village), it is actually goats that are the prevailing animal. These are the types of peculiarities that make translation so fascinating, despite the accompanying confidence rollercoasters. The unassuming journey from “ställe” to “sheep stalls” to “goat stalls” suddenly becomes a search for the hidden pulse of a poem.

I have chosen just one of the offered poems to illustrate how the same story acquires a different meaning in my own interpretation: ‘Goran’, which is also my personal favourite.

In both versions, “home is no tree”, but in the German, “es lässt sich bewegen” (“you can move it”, or literally “it can be moved”). Home itself is static and yet is also subject to the control of someone or something. Zyumbyula says this and Goran believes it. For him, home is in her words, and when they move it, he will follow. The children that were never born should have grown up in “fig groves”, that dominion of Southern sun, the place of dreams that could have existed but does not. Language is like a plant — Zyumbyula knows this, and so in her words, home may be found again in the foreign cadences of German. She herself is both “home and garden” to Goran, so when she talks after her death, even if it is in his dreams, her speech is immediate, as if the dream is always now: it is “here” that another homeland exists. Home can be controlled, it is true, you can move it. But when “heim” is in the words of another, when it is the unrelenting love for someone who is gone, then home, when the dream ends, is nothing more than roots aching for soil that is mute.

In the Bulgarian version, home moves itself. It is autonomous and not under the control of outside forces. If you want to have a home, you need to follow it as it saunters off, implacable. Pear trees and quince trees, in this context, are the food bearers, abandoned not by the people who planted them, but by that home that sprouted legs and led its inhabitants away. “[E]зик” can be translated as either tongue or language, but I thought tongue more appropriate, picturing an organ that needs to adapt to the novelty of umlauts and the rolling of the “r”’s, to come to terms with that sudden decision of home to change address. Zyumbyula always found soil, but now that she is gone, her words are only echoes in a dream recounted during waking hours. She is “there”, Goran is “here”. They were both displaced once, but another home has now claimed Zyumbyula away. Belonging loses permanence, nothing is stable, and there is no point in believing in a home when nothing good comes out of this. Goran’s aching is only a story here, but who is to say remembered dreams hurt any less.

To me, both versions tell melancholy stories of loss and homelessness, of trying to adapt to life with all of its challenges and random displacements. And discovering these different tales is my lesson in empathy, in paying attention to the nuanced feelings of invented others. It is an attempt to learn how to do the same in that other life, the one of day-to-day chores, the one that always seems to prefer a single, decided account of things.


unter fliederbaldachinen
und sternen wie äpfel
hatte sheherazade
einem könig
märchen erzählt
von osten
eilte nun immer die sonne
bis unter den schwer werdenden früchten
den grauen star
in den augen
meine oma
den kindern im viertel

von sheherazade erzählte
jetzt wartet der mond
auf die geschichten
in meinem körper
zwischen fliederwänden
und apfelresten
sorgfältig gepflanzt und gegossen

doch im westen
sind die nächte
nie reif geworden


под люлякови балдахини
и звезди като ябълки
разказвала приказки
на някакъв цар
а на изток слънцето
винаги бързало

баба ми
под натежалата ябълка
и пердето в очите си
разказваше приказки
на децата в квартала
а звездите
търпеливо я чакаха

сега сред люлякови стени
и огризки от ябълки
аз събирам приказки
на кого да разказвам
ако нощите на запад
не узряват


das heim ist kein baum
es lässt sich bewegen
sagte Zjumbjula
als wir das haus verließen
das mein vater baute
in dem unsere kinder
nie geboren
inmitten der feigengärten
aufwachsen sollten

die sprache ist wie eine pflanze
sie braucht zeit und liebe
sagte Zjumbjula später
als wir zusammen
in einem knarrenden bett
auf floramotiven
deutsch lernten

für mich war Zjumbjula
gleich heim und garten
tief in ihr habe ich
wurzeln gefasst
sie hatte ihre eigenen allegorien
konnte immer boden finden
jetzt wachsen aus ihrem fleisch
auf einem friedhof in wien

ich träume oft von ihr
wie sie sagt
hier ist eine andere heimat
hier empfange man die gäste herzlich
mit wein und nelken


домът не е дърво
мести се
каза Зюмбюла
когато напуснахме
строената от баща ми къща
в която трябваше
сред круши и дюли
да растат децата ни

езикът е като растение
иска обич и време
казваше после Зюмбюла
докато учехме сгушени немски
в един скърцащ креват
с табла
на флорални мотиви

на мене
Зюмбюла ми беше
дом и градина
дълбоко в нея бях пуснал
корени и години

тя имаше свои си сравнения
намираше винаги почва
сега от плътта й никнат
цветята на виенските гробища

сънувам я често да казва
там било друга родина
където посрещат всекиго
с вино и карамфили


die jugend ist längst schon versunken
in den kehlen der männer
beim wirten
die erinnerungen
und die landschaft
der himmel schaut sich
gebeugt auf die füße
der dorffriedhof
ruht sich aus
an der hüfte des hügels

oben die ställe
unten die schenke
gegenüber die schule
und auf diesen schrägen
fünfhundert metern
schnauft auch gott
jeden tag
wie die tiere


младостта е отдавна залязла
в гърлата на мъжете
във кръчмата
с календарни пейзажи
жълти и мътни

тук небето си гледа в краката
селското гробище
седи по средата на хълма

долу кръчмата
горе кошарите
едно безпредметно училище
и по това тристаметрово
пъхти цял живот
и господ
като животните



beneath lilac canopies
beneath apple-like stars
for one king
had spun fairy stories
from the east
the sun always hurried
til under the fruit growing heavy
under the grey plume of her cataract eyes
my grandma
for the neighbourhood children
spun stories of sheherazade
now the moon is waiting and waiting
on the tales
inside my body
between walls that are lilac
and remainders of apples
carefully planted and watered

but in the west
the nights
never ripened
not once


beneath lilac canopies
beneath apple-like stars
had spun fairy stories
to some king
while in the east
the sun was always in haste

my grandma
beneath the heavy-grown apple
beneath the veil in her eyes
spun fairy stories
for the neighbourhood children
and the stars
patiently waited on her

now amongst walls that are lilac
amongst apple core bites
i collect fairy tales
who can i tell
if the nights of this west
fail to ripen


home is no tree
you can move it
Zyumbyula said
as we were leaving the house
the one my father built
where our children
our never born children
in between fig groves
should have grown up

language resembles a plant
it needs time and love
Zyumbyula said later
as we – together
in one creaking bed
with floral motifs
studied German

to me Zyumbyula was
both home and garden
deeply within her
i took my roots
she had her own allegories
could always find ground
now her flesh grows
of a Viennese graveyard
the flowers

i often dream of her
how she says
here is another homeland
here guests are gladly welcomed
with wine and carnations


home is no tree
it moves itself
Zyumbyula said
as we were leaving
the house my father built
where in between
pear trees and quince trees
should have grown up our children
unborn children

the tongue resembles a plant
it needs loving and time
Zyumbyula said later
as we in a cuddle learned German
in a creaking bed
its board
had floral motifs

Zyumbyula was my
home and my garden
within her depth
i had taken roots with the years

she had her private comparisons
always found soil
now her flesh sprouts
the cemetery blooms of Vienna

i often dream of her saying
there it’s another homeland
where they greet everyone
with wine and carnations


youth set ages ago
in the throats of the men
at the publican’s
the memories
and the landscape
the bent sky looks
at its feet
the village cemetery
catches its breath
on the hips of the hills

above the goat stalls
below the tavern
across the school
and on these sloping
five hundred metres
god even pants
each and every day
like the animals


youth’s set a long time ago
in the throats of the men
in the tavern
with calendar scenes
yellow and cloudy

here the sky watches its feet
from its hump
the village cemetery
rests in the midst of the hill

below the tavern
above the goat stalls
is one school without subjects or objects
and on these three hundred metres of
pants a whole lifetime
even god
like the animals


One response to “LILAC CANOPIES, STAR-LIKE APPLES AND RAKIA: Liliya Aleksandrova translates Antina Zlatkova”

  1. […] a few years ago, when I translated Antina’s poems for The Glasgow Review of Books, I had not given a title to the piece, so they chose three images, […]

Leave a Reply


The Glasgow Review of Books (ISSN 2053-0560) is a review journal publishing short and long reviews, review essays and interviews, as well as translations, fiction, poetry, and visual art. We are interested in all forms of cultural practice and seek to incorporate more marginal, peripheral or neglected forms into our debates and discussions. We aim to foster discussion of work from small and specialised publishers and practitioners, and to maintain a focus on issues in and about translation. The review has a determinedly international approach, but is also a proud resident of Glasgow.

Find us on: