Reading and Translation: An Interview with Vladimir Poleganov
Writing fiction in relation to reality, IT, artificial intelligence, migration and other social issues, were some of the topics of the most recent New Literature from Europe Festival, which took place in Manhattan on November 27-29, 2018 and in the organizers’ own words returned to the city for three days of conversations, panel discussions and readings. This 14th installment of the festival brought together leading and emerging voices from 14 different European countries with some of today’s foremost authors, editors, and translators.
The Bulgarian author, Vladimir Poleganov, struck me as someone whose work has consistently delved into most of the above mentioned focal topics with a special sensitivity to the environment, the animal world and the Anthropocene. He effectively splits his time between writing, translating and teaching. His appearance in New York was squeezed between the Sun Yat-Sen University Writers Residency in China and the Worlding SF conference in Austria.
Primarily intrigued by Poleganov’s taste for the weird and the fantastical and his talent to disguise social commentary as science fiction, at the final day of the Festival, I caught up with him to talk about how reading, translating, teaching, and modern challenges effect his own writing life.
—Melanie Evans for EuropeNow
EuropeNow How is reading connected to writing for you?
Vladimir Poleganov I am first a reader and then a writer. Not only because reading precedes writing and makes it possible, but also because I am interested as a writer in the ways human beings succeed or fail to read and understand the enormous text that is the thing we call ”reality.” I see writing as a specific form of reading, a sort of creative decoding. Writers, just like translators, have to be careful and deep readers.
EuropeNow Speaking of translating—I noticed you’re not translating your own work. Why is that? How is translating connected to writing? What intrigued you first?
Vladimir Poleganov Translating oneself is a daunting task. I don’t think I could ever translate a piece I have written without actually rewriting it beyond the small revisions and adaptations all translated texts inevitably go through. I think it’s easier to try writing something new in another language you know than to attempt translating something you’ve already written in your mother tongue. Of course, that’s the way I feel about that matter now. Things might change in the future since it’s also a question of having enough self-confidence and being able to confront and overcome certain anxieties.
As for the connection between translating and writing, it’s almost the same as the one between reading and writing. Translation—good translation, that is—is reading at glacial speed and writing in sync with a voice that isn’t yours but is nevertheless coming from you. As a writer, I have freedom and then responsibility (for what I write about and the way I write about it). As a translator, I am first responsible for that other voice and everything it is saying. Freedom comes second.
What hit me first? Writing, without a doubt. Then, years after I had finished my first short story, I made my first steps as a translator. But I’ve been reading and learning from translated fiction for as long as I can remember.
EuropeNow Although your writing is fictional and mostly in the science fiction realm, it is not detached from some current affairs and challenges. You often touch upon themes such as environment, memory, and identity, to name a few. Historically, science fiction has this potential to depict the reality of the future, why isn’t it so popular nowadays?
Vladimir Poleganov I like Samuel R. Delany’s idea that science fiction deals with the present and not the future. It shows us a significantly distorted present, reveals an estranged face of the familiar, and in doing so helps us understand something about ourselves (as readers, human beings, thinking beings). Good science fiction is always about something current. Best science fiction is about something current that is still invisible to a large extent to most people. This takes us back to the first question, because science fiction writers are not so much clairvoyants as they are careful readers.
Speculative fiction, for me, is the best medium for exploring themes of memory and identity. People often say that the future is an imaginary place, but so is the past—it’s a constructed country, an invention of memory. Identity is also something invented but also confined by memory. And memories are eerie (in the sense of the word as defined by Mark Fisher) things—they are signs of something missing and not present, yet they are a sort of presence. Identity, on the other hand, is something weird (again, I am following Mark Fisher’s definition)—it’s a combination of many things, many of which are strange, invisible, hidden, frightening. Speculative fiction—as a way of writing the strange, the invisible, and the impossible—seems to be best equipped for such explorations.
I don’t know why science fiction proper is not that popular, at least in Bulgaria, nowadays. Maybe because the world is becoming stranger and stranger. It’s hard to keep up with the future—it’s always already happened.
EuropeNow I feel that the boundaries of fiction as a free space for writers’ imagination to explode and create is shrinking. More and more, fiction doesn’t provide a shelter or alibi for its creators, it is often approached by its readers as nonfiction. Writers and artists in general are held responsible for their fictional characters and plots. In the US, for example, advocates of international literature, attempting to gain traction for translated fiction, employ as a selling point the ability of international literature to introduce American readers to other cultures, which also represents this pressure to bounce back to reality.
It seems to me that science fiction as a genre still provides this freedom that fiction used to provide. To what extend does the choice of genre help you overcome some of these new trends and limits?
Vladimir Poleganov Science fiction actually can introduce foreign readers to the present realities of a country. Yoss’s novels are a good example. A Planet for Rent is as much about humanity’s future as it is about Cuba’s present. Or any nation in the grip of commercially and/or ideologically colonizing forces. Another form of speculative fiction—the Latin American magic realism—also does that. But I agree that for the past couple of years, readers and probably publishers and critics have been showing more interest in stories that present something in a realistic or autobiographical manner. It’s a global tendency, I think. It doesn’t mean that it’s not producing fantasies—of course it is. Memory and desire—the foundations of every autobiographical writing—create beasts that are always fantastic. Maybe there is need for something that resembles reality as closely as possible. But the thing is, this is pure nostalgia. Understandable, legible, ”normal,” and visible reality seems no longer possible. If it comes in forms that are understandable and easy to digest, it’s most probably fake.
EuropeNow If we assume that you’re writing refers to reality, aren’t you afraid that the choice of this specific genre might leave you misunderstood?
Vladimir Poleganov Misunderstanding can be productive. I—both as a reader and a writer—like confusion. It’s almost always revelatory. If you think that every piece of “fantastika” is strictly escapist and action-oriented, reading a work by Stanislaw Lem or Philip K. Dick or Michael Cisco can open doors to a world that is as challenging as it is beautiful. Every reader should move in direction of such worlds, it’s the only way to keep your readerly senses sharp and working.
EuropeNow Recently, you attended different writing programs on two different continents. Can you talk about the benefits they bring for you as a writer? How they are enriching your writing life?
Vladimir Poleganov Writing residencies are these utopian places where everyone understands you and your fears and anxieties, and you can walk around with a notebook and pen in hand without looking suspicious. They are great for cultural exchange—nothing, I think, can beat them in that regard. You meet lots of people and realize that the world is quite small, but also—that it’s a place big enough for all kinds of voices. That’s a good thing to know.
EuropeNow You’re set to teach creative writing in 2019—More and more writers state that the main benefit of creative writings programs comes from the peer readings and the professional contacts during this programs, sometimes for life. What are your thoughts on this?
Vladimir Poleganov I agree with that. I see creative writing courses as courses in careful reading. No one can teach talent, no one can learn talent. But experience is something you can share.
EuropeNow How is your training in clinical psychology affecting your writing, if at all?
Vladimir Poleganov It has helped me realize that the so-called psychological realism is as great a fiction as science fiction or fantasy. We don’t know much about ourselves and our place in this world, in this universe, and we must always keep in mind that everything we know is uncertain and a result of a series of conventions.
EuropeNow Since Aristotle, humans have been perceived as social animals. The “language gene” is perhaps what differentiates us from other creatures capable of communication by using paralanguage, for example. How do you look at recent scientific experiments to translate animals’ speech using brain imaging and AI?
Vladimir Poleganov It is an important field of research, I think. I am, of course, not a scientist, so my point of view is that of an artist, which a somewhat utopian point of view is. But translating animal languages sounds very close to what fantastic literature does—it’s a literature that is constantly looking for ways to express the inexpressible, to give voice to the non-human, to change our ideas of what consciousness is.
EuropeNow What other art disciplines are important to you?
Vladimir Poleganov The visual arts, especially painting, filmmaking, and architecture. And of course music. When I was writing my novel, Erik Satie was as much an influence as was Oscar Niemeyer.
EuropeNow Can you talk about your literary influences?
Vladimir Poleganov My literary influences are countless. First and foremost, Samuel R. Delany. But also Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Witold Gombrowicz, Jose Donoso, Mircea Cartarescu, Bruno Schulz, Angela Carter, Joanna Russ, Kathy Acker, Max Blecher, Michael Cisco, Hilda Hilst, the Bulgarian Diabolists, Vladimir Polianov and Svetoslav Minkov… there are too many.
Vladimir Poleganov (b. 1979) is a Bulgarian fiction writer, translator and screenwriter, whose speculative and transgressive fiction explores issues of memory and identity, the environment and the Anthropocene. He won the Helikon Award for his debut novel and the second prize at the Rashko Sugarev’s National Short Story Competition, and he is featured in Best European Fiction 2016 (Dalkey Archive Press), Granta Bulgaria, and Drunken Boat, among others. A former resident at the Iowa International Writing Program, Poleganov has a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and Creative Writing from Sofia University, where he is currently working on a Ph.D. in Bulgarian Literature.
Melanie Evans graduated with a BA in Modern Languages and Cultures at Pace University. She walks dogs, and writes about the international cultural scene in New York from her apartment in Harlem. Her interviews and articles have appeared in the Ninth Letter, Reading in Translation, Vagabond, and other publications.
Published on February 5, 2018.