When Angela Rodel studied linguistics at Yale University, she didn't know translating was a legitimate career. On Tuesday, she shared the prestigious International Booker Prize for translating "Time Shelter," by Georgi Gospodinov, from Bulgarian into English.
"We've had eight hours of interviews today. It's insane! But I'm not complaining," Rodel said by phone from London, where the Booker ceremony took place. She and Gospodinov share the roughly $62,000 prize for the best work in translation published in the United Kingdom.
The 1992 graduate of Burnsville High School studied Russian and German at Yale, partly because, "I was a dark, angsty teenager." But she had sparked to Russian in high school: "This was totally strange but I guess the winds of perestroika made it there because one of the French teachers started teaching Russian, too."
At Yale, Rodel joined a Slavic chorus after hearing the music and thinking, "I want my voice to sound like that."
She went to Bulgaria as a Fulbright scholar after Yale, then earned a master's degree in linguistics from UCLA. On a return visit to Bulgaria in 2004, "I decided to stay. My husband at the time was a musician and poet and Sofia is a really small town. We all knew each other, so I met all these writers. Someone would give me a poem or story and I would translate it, just for fun."
Almost by accident, she became a full-time translator, which she now balances with being executive director of the Bulgarian Fulbright Commission.
Rodel hopes the Booker recognition helps change the notion that translated works are "second-hand goods."
"There's a perception that it's somehow 'less than' because it wasn't originally in English. But there are brilliant, talented writers all over the world," said Rodel, who speaks Bulgarian at home with husband Viktor and daughter Kerana and often dreams in the language.
Her job is not line-by-line transcription but something more artful.
"You want the reader to have a similar emotional experience in the translation as they would in the original. You try to capture the atmosphere, the style of the work. So, if there's something experimental, there should be something experimental in the translation," Rodel said. "If there's a humorous novel, with plays on words, maybe you can't do the exact same pun in a given sentence but there may be an opportunity to do one a few sentences later that works in English."
The Bulgarian language presents challenges for an English translator, including different verb tenses and gendered nouns.
The Burnsville native has worked often with Gospodinov, who also lives in Sofia. When the two learned in March that "Time Shelter" made the 13-book longlist, she said, "We thought, 'This is amazing. A Bulgarian book has never even made the longlist, so this will be the end of that.'"
They won the whole thing at a ceremony that included actor Toby Stephens reading from "Time Shelter."
"The invitation said to 'dress smart,'" said Rodel, who nodded to the art of translation by pairing a cocktail dress with a Bulgarian folk-art necklace. "It all started at 6 but they didn't announce the award until 10, so we were all just dying."
Rodel is working on several projects, including a translation of a Bulgarian novel to be published in January. Meanwhile, she and daughter Kerana will visit Eagan in July for a family reunion and lots of time in Minnesota parks.