Perception and reality in Bulgarian translation

When dwelling upon language-related phenomena, it is difficult (and frequently imprudent) to immediately draw conclusions. One of the key formal criteria for the significance of linguistic phenomena is their continuity over time. Until recently, we could have resorted to this argument so as to avoid taking trends in the language of the youth culture seriously — we usually perceive this as a result of fashion or up-to-date, yet short-lived, influences. Lately, however, permanent courses of development have transpired in the way young people treat language in relation to translation.

Before proceeding further, however, I should note that my reasoning is based on relatively small-scale personal observations concerning certain ongoing processes among young people pursuing a major in the humanities at the highest academic level. My students come from Sofia and other large cities in Bulgaria. They major in Italian studies, prepping for a career as teachers or translators from the Italian language into Bulgarian. I also have insight into young people who pursue other somewhat similar majors. Teaching theoretical and practical issues in the field of literary and specialist translation, I engage students in discussions concerning both the foreign language they are studying and our mother tongue. I have been doing this for 14 years, the past few of which bore witness to changes that are now paced differently — in intensity and scale — as compared to how generations typically changed before my eyes earlier.

Undoubtedly, the underlying reasons for these changes are partly political. Bulgaria has been a full-fledged member of the European Union (EU) since 2007. Prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, foreign language influences in Bulgaria had been filtered mostly through the mediation of Russian, which most Bulgarians used freely, including for reading world classics as well as technical and other literature when these works were unavailable in Bulgarian translation. If the Russian language had supposedly influenced Bulgarian because of their close linkage, the influence had not been too colossal, since these two languages are Slavonic and share many similarities.

After the end of communist rule, Bulgaria obtained direct access to products of cultures that had previously remained out of reach. The opening of the West to Bulgaria diversified cultural and language models, with which Bulgaria started interacting more intensively. On the one hand, this resulted in extricating and modernizing the Bulgarian language. On the other hand, the need to catch up in getting to know masterpieces of the world’s literature — having until then gone untranslated — caused a sharp increase in translated works. Exchanges in the field of nonfictional texts also increased. All that gradually increased the need for well-prepared specialists in progressively more European languages. The role of translators became particularly important, as translation was (and still is) inevitably one of the pivotal channels to fit in the global culture, especially for a country with such a rare language as Bulgarian.

Those processes, which for many progressed in a stressfully short timeframe, were at their cusp around the time of and immediately after Bulgaria’s accession to the EU. The EU is a supranational formation that cherishes multilingualism as an underlying value, which does not simply entail the mutual recognition of national literatures. Aligning Bulgarian legislation with EU law — along with the hefty amount of documentation that had to be translated in only a few years, mostly from English, French or German — had a staggering effect on the Bulgarian lexis. Many of the terms in the legislation were unknown or difficult to translate with the available linguistic resources. A similar effect was generated in mostly all other areas of life, accompanied by a boom in computerization and use of the world wide web. Different generations reacted differently to those processes. The majority of the elderly remained outsiders to the digital world and became isolated from the newest developments and terminology in society. Middle-aged individuals try to keep up with new types of communication, while preserving the best of the unadulterated paradigm of language. As for the younger generation, in most cases, this paradigm appears foreign and unknown. This is likely linked to the fact that 73.6% of Bulgaria’s population aged 55–64 do not use foreign languages, while 52.4% of the people aged 25–34 use at least one foreign language, according to the National Statistical Institute (NSI) as of 2012.  

People who have witnessed only the new stages of social development in Bulgaria are now more frequently deaf to the abundant traditional Bulgarian vocabulary and choose foreignisms or neologisms despite the availability of an acceptable alternative of Bulgarian or Slavonic origin. On a syntactic level, a number of structures actively used by previous generations are now beyond the background knowledge of the young generation and sound unnatural and alien to them.

Young people, however, cannot be blamed. From a very early age, they are overwhelmed by a load of information: music, internet content, software, translated literature, advertisements and media products — all predominantly foreign-language works or translated recasts. For young people, it is a must to be fluent in at least one foreign language, even if they do not have an academic degree. They respond to this demand by reading and actively using all kinds of resources, in original (foreign-language) form. This contributes to them being greatly competitive on the international market, as the traditionally high level of foreign language studies in Bulgaria is coupled with flexibility and strong capabilities to adapt in an international context. Paradoxically, feedback given by employers — publishers, owners of translation agencies, editors — indicates that they are much happier with how young employees perform in a foreign language rather than in their native language, which they take for granted when it is not the subject of their specialization.

What do employers complain about? First and foremost, word-for-word translation and the trend of borrowing foreign structures in Bulgarian syntax cause concern. This does not seem to be a big problem with specialized translations — endeavors are observed in many areas to simplify and unify expressions, so as to facilitate the shift from one language to another.

The most precarious of all seems to be the perspective of increasing post-editing work. Machine translations into rarer languages often render texts that are borderline acceptable. Not only are they difficult to edit but also make us wonder whether they may reduce our threshold of tolerability for wording that was once intolerable for the system of language.

In any case, young people are submerged in an international linguistic and cultural environment, which noticeably affects their customs of expression. They increasingly use Roman alphabet terms in Bulgarian texts (that they have written in Cyrillic) and fail to transliterate and translate names, terms and expressions that are actually translatable. Their style is permeated by segments expressed in foreign languages they speak. The failure to seek equivalents may be caused by prestige attributed to foreignisms but also by a form of linguistic laziness. Both instances can be explained by the massive invasion of imported products and services (with respective advertising campaigns), the opening to foreign markets, labor migration, the impatience to wait for an official translation and the direct use of material in a foreign language. Some of my students studying Italian claim that they prefer using English as a go-between language for translation and consultation purposes and, therefore, reduce the use of Bulgarian sources.

An advertisement in Sofia’s subway, for example, prompts: Виж Арр-а! (Check out the app!) where the English abbreviation (App) is spelled out in the Roman alphabet, in contrast to the rest of the phrase in Cyrillic, and bears a purely Bulgarian definite article (a), which, on top of it all, forms part of the word, itself. Young people find it increasingly more natural to ask Нуж¨’а от помощ? (Any need of help?), which is much closer to the English phrase “Need help?” and also easier as compared to the traditional formation of questions using the customary Bulgarian interrogative particle, which (depending on its position) can even change the emphasis of the question.

For this reason, it is now increasingly common to hear that someone can “walk in another person’s shoes” although no such expression exists in the Bulgarian language. One could, however, “enter into someone’s situation,” which would be the Bulgarian equivalent to walking in someone’s shoes and is not known as an idiom in English. Widespread corporate stylistics, which follow international models and are mandatory mostly in international companies, also infect the informal speech of susceptible young employees and spreads this trend into various types of contexts. 

This sometimes affects the results of literary translation and, more particularly, the use of language registers. There is a trend to aspire for more sophisticated and refined wording in the translation than what the original presents. It is interesting that, at least in my observation, the opposite inclination to lower the register occurs more rarely.

Translating more formally is not necessarily wrong. Its flaw is not in distorting facts, but in stripping the text of its vibrant form of colloquialism and informality. What’s more, syntax is sometimes compromised when the original employs a marked word order or techniques that send emotional messages or emphasize a particular sentence element through syntactic structures, but they are then ironed out in the translation. This virtuous approach signals a special sort of understanding as to what a “literary” translation should sound like. In this regard, we can also partially seek an explanation in some of the established practices, such as the requirement of certain television channels to soften vulgar remarks in the translation of subtitles.

The previously mentioned phenomena are, of course, somewhat exotic against the backdrop of the traditional translation practice, which relies upon well-established professional standards and indisputable rules. In fact, it is precisely because of these standards and rules that we can account for deviations and trends that appear unusual for its context. Regardless of whether these phenomena will endure or fade away over time, they have been caused by the effects that translation, in all of its manifestations, has brought upon Bulgarian, since it is a rare language hungry for and open to external stimuli.

It is curious that cultures that express themselves in rare and relatively non-widespread languages often harbor a perception of being endangered under the pressure of translation production. Literary and cultural circles in Bulgaria are concerned about policies in support of national literature. One may have the impression that books by Bulgarian authors are not numerous compared to books published as translated versions. However, according to data of the NSI for 2013, the ratio between original and translated literature was 5,275 to 1,578 titles. In fiction, the same ratio was 1,480 to 862. This indicates a clear-cut majority of original over translated literature.

This trend seems to differ from public perceptions. Such a paradox can perhaps be explained by the reverberation and prestige of everything foreign, as well as by the financing of translation works, from a number of foreign languages, under programs and grant schemes. Thanks to the adequate policies in some countries, Scandinavian, Turkish and Serbian literature, for example, is currently flourishing in Bulgaria, along with the traditional presence of major European languages. A conclusion can therefore be drawn that Bulgaria is short of translators with a major in Bulgarian studies to work toward promoting Bulgarian authors in foreign languages. Diverse, high-quality fiction generated by Bulgarian authors in recent years has provided a wealth of material to be translated. This promises career advancement to specialists who make efforts to master the Bulgarian language — they will certainly have a lot to offer to their publishers.