WRITING INTO THE UNKNOWN
I started writing the poems in this book in Bulgarian because I wanted to practise a language that I have been studying since my first visit to Sofia in 2013. While I was learning vocabulary, noun by noun, verb by verb, adjective by adjective, I would find myself repeating seemingly unconnected series of words - "room", "confused", "hungry", "flowers", "silently" - and these sometimes came to suggest situations and images or at least to forge unexpected connections in my mind. The poem ‘Weather Forecast’, for example, came about because one day I happened to be learning vocabulary to do with the weather, food and clothes - and, for some reason, that suggested the idea of a weather forecast written, not by meteorologists, but by love.
When I translated these poems into English, the results surprised me. I had, after all, tried to write in Bulgarian (that is, I tried to think/create/imagine in Bulgarian rather than thinking in English first and then translating into Bulgarian) so I only had a vague conception of what the translations would be like. Once translated, though, they turned out to be quite different to the poems I write in English - not only in terms of subject matter and vocabulary, but also in their form, style, perspective and tone. Hence the title of the book: translating the poems into English was rather like translating the work of someone else, someone I didn’t know.
This is, of course, largely due to the fact that Bulgarian isn’t my native language. There are words, idioms and grammatical structures that I simply don’t know yet and so when I’m writing in Bulgarian my thoughts can only go in certain directions - into territory where I have the Bulgarian words to express something. Rather than being frustrating, however, this apparent constraint opened up all sorts of new possibilities. It was as if I was being given a whole new set of tools and new set of resources to draw on.
At the same time, writing in Bulgarian has introduced me to new ways of thinking about writing itself. Rather than sitting down and thinking ‘Today I’m going to write a sonnet about the cherry tree in my garden’, I’ve had to find out what I’m writing and what I’m writing about as I go along. I’ve had to let language take the lead and put more trust in it than I probably do when I’m writing in English. Maybe this is another reason why these aren’t - as a friend of mine remarked - "typical Phillips poems".
To me, that seems like a good thing. It is, after all, very easy to become trapped in your own voice, to repeat the things which have worked in the past, and pushing at the boundaries of your comfort zone - by, for example, attempting to write in a language whose traditions and riches you’re only just beginning to appreciate - is one way of finding an escape route.
Unknown Translations, however, is far from being a solo venture. I could not have even attempted to write it without the enormous help and support that I’ve received while I’ve been learning the Bulgarian language and tentatively showing these poems to my friends, both in the UK and Bulgaria. No book is the product of one person alone and, in this case, there are many who have played some part in its creation, whether by encouraging me to continue or correcting my errant use of Bulgarian prepositions. In particular, I would like to thank: Alexander Shurbanov, Emilia Mirazchiyska, Rosen Karamfilov, Yuliyana Todorova, Ivo Hadzhiyski, Mira Vladimirova, Yulia Kosharevska, Pavel Tsvetkov, David Cooke and, above all, the Shiderovi family - Vasilena for introducing me to Bulgaria in the first place and Marina for the portrait on the cover. I would also like to thank all the Bulgarian poets who have generously allowed me to read and translate their work into English and the editors of the magazines which have published some of the poems in Unknown Translations along the way - namely, Raceme, Black Sheep Journal, Various Artists and Ink, Sweat & Tears.
As always, these poems are for Sarra, Lydia and Samuel.
© Tom Phillips