Can you name a famous Bulgarian writer? Don’t be misled by the two obvious choices. Elias Canetti, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, was born in Bulgaria’s Ruse on the Danube, but left the country when he was six and wrote in German. The best-selling Elizabeth Kostova is not a Bulgarian at all – she is Bulgarianmarried. As for reading a Bulgarian book in English? No?
This same experience had quite an effect on Englishman Edward Vick, founder and manager of EVS Translations, who has several offices worldwide, including Bulgaria. In 2004 he established the Vick Foundation in Sofia, with the aim of sponsoring an annual literary prize for a contemporary Bulgarian novel – and "to read at least one book a year in an English translation."
Nominations come from publishers and authors. A jury consisting of professionals in various fields chooses the winner from a selection of short-listed works, while readers can nominate their own top favourite. The successful author receives 10,000 leva and an English language translation of their book. How has this helped achieve the goal of the foundation: that of encouraging writers to write and readers to read? Vagabond talks to Edward Vick to find out.
I first came to Bulgaria in 2001 because it was a country I hadn't been to before. It was my birthday and I looked at the map and said: Where can I go for the weekend? I had an interesting time in Sofia.
A year later we started doing some translation business here. If I have to describe what the business is in one sentence, I would say that when I buy the Financial Times, the most interesting thing for me is the date, because about 40 percent of what is in there has come through our offices at one time or another.
What does a prize do for a novel?
I studied English literature at Cambridge University. Before going there, I had a teacher who had won the Booker prize – Stanley Middleton, whose novel Holiday shared the prize with Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist in 1974. The Vick Foundation was born out of a love for literature. I understood that the situation with writing in Bulgaria was absolutely terrible. Nobody reads the Bulgarian books. If you ask the publishers how many books they publish and the answer is 200 or 500, you know it's not possible that these books have been read. Maybe 15 years ago there were bestsellers in Bulgaria by Bulgarian authors with a run of 100,000 copies but not now. It's a vicious circle. The publishers find it difficult to publish because there are so few readers or maybe it's because the books are not that good. The first Vick prize winner won 200 leva for his book and that's all he saw. It seemed to me at the time that perhaps politics is involved in writing in Bulgaria, that you have to be friends with the people in the publishing house or the authors' association in order to be published. I knew absolutely nothing about Bulgarian literature and I wanted to read a translation, at least of the winning book.
Winners get 10,000 leva and a translation into English. Were any of the winning books published after you translated them?
The first five years we offered translation into English – done by professional translators, including professors from Sofia University. We are not doing it this year, because we found the last two or three years that the winners, curiously enough, had their own translators, and one had their own distribution channel for their book.
We have seen that EVS offering to translate a novel doesn't actually help to get it published, because it is the publisher who decides if they are going to publish a novel from Bulgaria, and whether or not it is translated is more or less irrelevant as a factor. It’s really only a tool to give some people an indication that the book is interesting to read. With the first two winning novels, The Executioner and The Glass River, we took them to the Frankfurt Trade Fair.
How many Bulgarian books have you read now? Were they a good read?
The winning five. I hear a lot of discussions about what kind of novels are written here in Bulgaria. The first five winners all deal with Bulgarian topics, which are perhaps rather difficult for somebody from the outside to catch on to. I think part of the idea of the prize is to make Bulgarian writers conscious that it is possible to have an international audience and I think it's a key factor. The first two winners were certainly writing only for a Bulgarian audience, and never thought of anything else. Kisyov, the first Vick Prize winner, told me "If I had known I was going to win the prize, I would have written it better." So who you're writing for is important; he was writing for 200 people.
How has winning the prize affected the authors?
The number of reprints is top secret among Bulgarian publishers, but we get the impression from the market that the books were reprinted, some of them many times. Winning the prize has also done something for the authors' selfesteem. Our first writer has now written a satire about getting a literary prize. The second winner, The Glass River, is being filmed. It will be subtitled in English and, I hope, will be quite widely available. Emil Andreev, the author, is now able to make a living from writing. Biolchev (a former dean of Sofia University), our third winner, did not need to worry about supporting himself from writing before or after the prize, nor about finding people to translate his books. Our fourth winner, Tenev, is really wonderful, because he is quite aggressive in terms of marketing and also has a very interesting publishing house, which works for him very well. Perhaps this is the model of the new Bulgarian writer, one who's thinking in wider terms. The translation of the latest winning novel is ready, we're in the final stages.
The Vick Prize jury is drawn from outside the narrow literary professional circles. Why?
It is very difficult to choose a jury. On the one hand, you have to include the literary world, which can be a closed world, and not the best judge of whether a book will succeed outside Bulgaria. At the same time, it's more important for me to find my ideal average reader. At the foundation, we try to find a mix which will help to expand the readership outside this small circle of people who are reading and rereading each other's books, the 200 or so people who are the "literature readers" in Bulgaria. We tried last year with our jurors to include people from very different walks of life: a businessman, a pop singer, a model, a football player, chosen more or less as examples of people who might possibly read, and encourage others to read. We included people who were non-literary, because non-literary people perhaps read more for enjoyment and less as literary critics.
Where does funding for the Vick Foundation come from?
From EVS Translations. It has to be said that the prize money is only a very small percentage of the actual amount involved in organising the prize – the staff, the organisation, the meetings, the marketing measures. Of course, it has established the Vick Prize as an important prize in Bulgaria. Is that enough?
It’s very nice to be able to fill a gap in Bulgaria with people who are relatively well known, but it doesn't actually mean that more people will read books. What would make more people read books? It's a mystery to me. I would really like to know. We have looked for a solution in various different ways and still haven't come up with a successful one, so I have to confess that I am somewhat disappointed. In order to create a river, a large river, you need to have water coming from many different sources. And we are one stream that is contributing to this river, the ministry of culture is another stream, or the publishers, or the book sellers, or the newspapers. We're trying to make our small contribution to literature in general and specifically to Bulgarian literature. We're not under any illusion that we can achieve anything great but it's the theory that every little bit counts.
The three best things about Bulgaria?
The great opera singers. I think the wonderful thing is that, when you go to the Sofia Opera House, you may not find a great name but, while you might get an absolutely rubbish performance one night, the next time the performance could be better than what is offered at the Met. You never actually know what you're going to get in Bulgaria, but you might get the best in the world. I like Bulgarian wine too. And the people in Bulgaria who are capable of doing a lot more than they sometimes believe themselves.
Bulgaria’s biggest negative?
The number of deaths on the road. If nobody cares and there is no chance of bad drivers being stopped, then there's something wrong with the system in general. I am a great fan of Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, and I miss it in the city. This surprises me a bit as history books say that at this time Bulgaria was more or less independent, yet not a lot of building took place.
Vick Prize Winners
2004 Stefan Kisyov, The Executioner
2005 Emil Andreev, The Glass River
(read an excerpt in Vagabond 35-36 or click here)
2006 Boyan Biolchev, Varoe’s Amazon
2007 Georgi Tenev, Party House
2008 Evgenia Ivanova, Stoyanovich
The 2009 Vick Prize winner will be announced later this year
Georgi Tenev won the Vick prize for 2007