Iana Boukova, from 'Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow'

...he saw something silver, like a snake stretched along the horizon, a radiance as slim as a nail, a glimmer at the boundary between the valley and the sky...

Iana Boukova is a Bulgarian poet, writer, essayist, and translator from Latin and modern and ancient Greek. She is the author of the poetry books [Diocletian’s Palaces] (1995), [Boat in the Eye] (2000), and [Notes of the Phantom Woman] (2018), the short story collections A as in Anything, published in English in 2016, and [Tales With No Return] (2016), and the novel [Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow] (2014). English translations of her writing have appeared in Words Without Borders, Best European Fiction 2017, Two Lines, Drunken Boat, Zoland Poetry, Take Five, and Absinthe, among others. She lives between Sofia and Athens, where she is a member of the platform Greek Poetry Now and an editor on the board of FRMK, a biannual journal for poetry, poetics, and visual arts.

Translator’s Note

The following excerpt from Iana Boukova’s novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow comes from the novel’s first chapter, which is titled “Iovana, or The Birth of the Hero.” I chose this excerpt because it works well as a standalone piece (conveniently bookended by the two mentions of Iovana), but also because it demonstrates quite a few of the mechanisms that are at work across this complex, intricate, and compelling novel at large.1 They include the nestling of stories within stories, the meandering and branching out of the narrative, and the cyclical repetition of motifs, images, or events that are similar but not identical. Moreover, even this relatively short excerpt contains examples of some of the overarching challenges presented by the book as a whole and, by extension, offers a glimpse into the overall strategies I’ve adopted while translating the novel.

The first challenge concerns rendering the proper names, which Iana Boukova often employs beyond their immediate face value, so they also perform deeper semantic and connotative work. The name Iovana, for example, would normally be transcribed as Yovana, as this corresponds to how it’s pronounced. It felt important, however, to retain the possibility for the Anglophone reader to make a connection between the fictional character of Iovana, who gives birth to the novel’s protagonist, and the real-life author, whose first name is just one syllable off and who “gives birth” to the narrative.

The name Nayden creates a different sort of difficulty. Although quite subtle in the original as well, a connection—hinted at precisely through their names—exists between the character Nayden and his great-grandson (the novel’s protagonist), who is born under the name Manol in the first chapter, but eventually reappears under the nickname the Foundling in the seventh chapter. The name Nayden is mentioned just once and in passing, but it is immediately recognizable to Bulgarian readers as deriving from the archaic word for “found.” (Some Bulgarian readers might even be aware of an old—but apparently still occasionally employed—practice for the police or social services to register abandoned, nameless children under the proper name Nayden.) The contemporary adjective for “found,” by contrast, is at the root of the sobriquet Namereniya (literally, “the Found One”) under which the protagonist resurfaces in Chapter 7. Because the two names appear so far from each other in the narrative, the connection between them might escape any reader. But I wanted my translation to contain the possibility offered to Bulgarian readers, to recognize the link and realize that Manol eventually ends up acquiring a version of his great-grandfather’s name.

All this would be inaccessible to the English reader if the only sentence where the name Nayden appears were translated literally: “The house had been built by Iovana’s grandfather who bore the name, which is given to lucky orphans—Nayden, though nobody knew where he had come from, who had lost him, who had found him, or who had put into his hands the forked willow stick that guided him.” Because I wanted to offer English readers the possibility, without beating them over the head, to make the connection between Nayden and the Foundling, I decided to slightly alter the sentence by glossing and emphasizing the name in the following way: “The house had been built by Iovana’s grandfather who was called Nayden, a name usually given to abandoned orphans lucky enough to be found, although nobody knew where he had come from, who had lost him, who had found him, or who had put . . . ”

Another, closely related challenge has to do with my decision to leave certain words untranslated. Overall, it turned out that most of the foreign words I left in my translation are actually borrowings from Turkish—so, they’re technically “foreign,” although far less (if at all) marked, in the original as well, since modern Bulgarian borrows hundreds of commonly used words from Ottoman Turkish. Most of the words I left untranslated—“lokum,” “kadi,” “yatagan,” “nargile,” “rakia,” and “kilim,” to name a few—have more or less entered English usage. Yet they still retain “a sense of foreignness,” which is why I decided not to italicize and in this way unnecessarily exoticize them. They also seem much better suited to the time, place, atmosphere, and language of the narrative than their English “equivalents” (“Turkish delight,” “judge,” “Ottoman sabre,” “hookah,” “brandy,” and “carpet,” respectively).

There were two exceptions to this rule, and—unlike the examples cited above—both of them happen to fall within the present excerpt. The first exception is the word “nestinari,” which originates not from Turkish, but from the Greek word Αναστενάρια (“Anastenaria”), and refers to those practicing a traditional fire-walking ritual usually performed in northern Greece and southern Bulgaria. Although the word has been slowly entering English usage, as for example in Kapka Kassabova’s 2017 book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe (originally written in English), I suspect that Anglophone readers are still largely unfamiliar with it. This is why I decided to gloss it by adding “fire-walking” as a descriptive adjective to the word “nestinari.”

The second exception, though of a different kind, is the word “veresija,” which does originate from Ottoman Turkish, but—unlike the examples listed above—doesn’t seem to have entered English usage (yet?). Rather than translating it along the lines of “on credit” or “a debt to be repaid later,” which sound too contemporary and seem unsuited to the time period of the narrative, I decided to leave it untranslated for two reasons. Firstly, because its meaning is made abundantly clear by the already built-in context, in which the word appears both times, without any need for additional glossing, stealth or otherwise. (The word initially shows up when the fishermen tell Nayden, “We’ll take you on veresija—and if you enjoy it, you can pay us back next time you come,” and then again, when he dies, with “that word—veresija—on his lips,” which “left everyone perplexed, since he was known as a prudent man who neither lent nor borrowed.”) Secondly, the appearance of the same marked word in both episodes serves as a pair of milestones or bookends. This allows the reader to connect the two episodes, while a less noticeable word might cause her (as it originally did me) to miss the important link between them. Although its pronunciation would normally require the word to be transliterated as “veresiya,” I’ve decided to keep the Serbo-Croation spelling, since it allows the Anglophone reader to easily look up and find the word’s definition.

A third kind of overall challenge that this excerpt also exemplifies is Iana Boukova’s occasional propensity toward exceptionally long sentences, which contain five, six, seven, and sometimes over a dozen clauses, stretch over many lines with great momentum, and move the reader between different subjects, from minor details to major events, through great distances, or across large spans of time. It was precisely while working on the translation of this except that I decided I would not break up any of the long sentences in the entire book. As a result, I’ve worked very hard (with varying degrees of success) to retain them without losing any of the original’s elegance, energy, and vigor.

My favorite long sentence from the whole novel, in fact, comes from this excerpt, and its current appearance is the result of once spending no less than 90 minutes working on it together with my mentor and thesis advisor Aron Aji: “And years had to go by until someone set foot in the house again, used a knife to cut his way through the rusty thorns overtaking the yard and banning people from entering, climbed the damp blackened staircase, shoved the door once, then a second time with all his strength, until shards of rust sprinkled from the hinges and the door opened a crack, and through that narrow opening, sideways and with effort, this man entered the house together with his new bride, and they grew dizzy from the stench of rot and mouse droppings, and choked on the thick cloud of dust that a bird, startled by their entrance, sent flying around the room while it crashed into the walls and broke its bones.”

The sentence above also illustrates another peculiar feature of the novel’s style, which includes the frequent starting of sentences with the conjunction “and.” Although generally considered bad style, Boukova does this very intentionally, as a way to give the narrative a certain oral quality and instill it with the sense of a breathless piling up of events one after the other. This is why I’ve resisted the urge to eliminate the “ands” at the beginning of sentences, and I’ve retained almost all of them as they appear in the original.

Lastly, I’d like to mention that having this excerpt published in 91st Meridian feels incredibly special, not just because of my personal affection for the International Writing Program, but also because it was thanks to Nataša Ďurovičová’s invitation to read from Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow back in the fall of 2018 that I got to publicly present my nascent translation (including a part of this very excerpt!) for the very first time.

1The rest of the chapter has been published as three separate excerpts—to read them as a whole in the order they appear in the book, please start here.

—Ekaterina Petrova


The house had been built by Iovana’s grandfather who was called Nayden, a name usually given to abandoned orphans lucky enough to be found, although nobody knew where he had come from, who had lost him, who had found him, or who had put into his hands the forked willow stick that guided him around. He always followed it barefoot, with the small steps of the fire-walking nestinari, his eyes half closed, and his breath even, as if he were asleep and dreaming. Then the stick would suddenly start to tug at his hands and pull towards the ground. He would stop, open his eyes, and tell those around him: “The water’s here.” He seemed to walk around half-asleep, but his mind was always clear, he bargained vigorously, shined his silver coins with lemon and salt to make them look more precious, and whenever he gathered enough, traded them in for a gold coin that he sewed into his waist sash. He could always find water, and his work was going smoothly. As time passed, the sash grew heavy, and he started to think his stick was becoming disobedient, since it was known that willow was drawn not just to moisture, but to metal as well. The gold must be throwing it off, he figured, then took off the sash and buried it under a rock. But even without the gold’s interference, the stick still tossed this way and that, caught a whiff of the trace only to lose it again, and refused to obey him, so he put it aside and sat down on a slope to get some rest.

And then, from this elevated spot where his path had taken him, he saw something silver, like a snake stretched along the horizon, a radiance as slim as a nail, a glimmer at the boundary between the valley and the sky, so unexpected that he thought it would disappear from his sight if he blinked even once, but he blinked, then blinked again, and then once more, and it did not disappear but remained where it was. And so he turned to the first person he spotted in this bare place where his path had taken him, an old man as twisted as the prickly shrubs his goats were chewing on, he asked him what that thing was, and the old man, without even turning around to look, replied brusquely, it’s the sea. And he asked again, breathless with fear that the old man perhaps did not know, perhaps had forgotten, or perhaps, simply out of spite, would not tell him, what is the sea, but the old man replied, growing more irate with each word, what could the sea be, it’s water, what else could it be, it’s nothing but one big water. But he kept insisting, even though the old man seemed beside himself, and kept asking him if he’d seen the sea up close, if he’d ever gone all the way down there, and what the sea looked like up close. That was when the old man completely lost his composure, grabbed his staff, and with unexpected agility gathered his goats, while along with the spit flying out of his mouth, he spewed a series of carefully selected, long-winded curses at those who appear out of nowhere, may their shadow grow too small for them, and do not bother to greet you or wish you a good day, may their eyes grow white and turn into eggs, but immediately start to interrogate you, may their own mother forget them. “Have you been there?” he mimicked, altering his voice. “Have you seen it? What would I need to go and see it for, when there’s nothing to see, when it’s nothing but water, and what’s there to see in some water? . . .”

But he probably did not even hear the last of the old man’s words because he was already running down toward the valley with all his strength, jumping over rocks, tripping over roots, the forest was growing denser until it obscured his view, he lost his path in his haste, some shrubs with long grasping thorns tore his clothes, while others, with faded blooms, covered his eyelids with a fine yellow dust, so his eyes became swollen and watery. For two days and two nights, he walked through this forest, where not even a single handspan of earth could be found that was not covered in gnarled roots and thistles and stinging grasses, so there was not even a single spot for him to sit down and rest. At night, he remained standing, half-asleep, leaning against rough tree trunks, vulnerable to the wolves and the ghouls or whatever bred in this forest whose far end did not let you see the sun, let alone that silver sliver along the length of the horizon. But the incline led him in the right direction, so he did not get lost, and eventually, half-blind and ragged, he emerged into the open, into some boundless pasture with grass taller than his shoulders, and there he collapsed and slept, and dreamt of a woman who had blood on her teeth. But before he could get scared in his sleep, he noticed it was not blood but a red Easter egg she had eaten, shell and all, so its pieces were stuck to her teeth. I mustn’t forget her name, he thought in his dream, but woke up before he could ask what it was, and smelled freshness around him. He followed the scent until he heard the rumble, then followed the rumble until the cliff came to end, and then saw it beneath his feet—the sea he had never suspected.

He stood a long time at the edge of the cliff, while the wind healed his swollen eyes, among some white, screeching birds that dropped into the foam as though they were shot, and when he looked to the side, he saw a narrow bay with boats tied to a rickety pier and some fishermen sitting next to a fire. And he asked them to take him out to sea with them, he had money and would gladly pay. But just as he was mentioning the money, he felt around his waist and remembered he had left his sash up in the mountain, under the rock, so his bottoms were now held by only a twine. “Never mind,” the fishermen laughed, “we’ll take you on veresija—and if you enjoy it, you can pay us back next time you come.”

And they took him out to sea, and until his last day he never forgot the icy tentacles that crawled down his back, that delicious thrill in his groin the moment before stepping onto the boat—one foot still on the pier and the other hanging over the void—that blissful drop, that ominous joy which made his head spin, that feeling that he was having a frightening dream and laughing in fear.

They brought him back in the evening, smeared with tears and vomit, and they laughed and held their bellies, because he had cried and begged while sticky bitter sweat ran down his face, and he had babbled deliriously, about his mother, whom he had never known, and about some gypsy woman and an egg, and he had begged them over and over to get him out of there, to do something, just to get him away from there. He could barely stand on his feet when they left him on the sand, but eventually managed to drag himself back to the water, which was already black and full of stars, and he plunged his face into it. And he spat with disgust amidst the fishermen’s new laughter, because it was salty on top of everything else, you could not even water a small garden with it, which was why he left, turned his back on it, spat once more, and never looked at it again, and returned to dry land.

Over time his bare feet grew increasingly deft at detecting the underground vein, they followed it while his stick nodded in approval, and sometimes a single stroke with the shovel was enough to make the moisture gush out and overflow before the gaping mouths of the crowd that had gathered behind him and placed bets. His waist sash grew so heavy that it made him stagger and got in the way of his walk, while the cold of the metal around his waist, and also its weight, gave him constant diarrhea, from which he suffered for the rest of his life. He also hired two men to pull the cart in which he collected the most curious kinds of objects, either because he liked them or because he had managed to buy them at a good price: a metal knocker shaped like a woman’s hand with a ring on the index finger; a taxidermied fox with a taxidermied rabbit in its mouth; a Venetian mirror with a golden frame and a chipped corner; and another, less expensive mirror with a perfect web of cracks covering its surface, on which the light played around with different colors and the faces multiplied; a walnut clock as large as a cabinet, which showed one o’clock always and one o’clock forever, because it had no second hand to make it move forward; and all kinds of other things.

But he had to wander around for a long time before his stick eventually pulled down with such force that it almost broke free from his hands, it grew insistent, led him around in a circle, and brought him back to the same spot over and over again. A mad man, the villagers said, only a mad man digs a well by the river and doesn’t find any water. And not only that, but he also brought master craftsmen from afar to build his house, which he could describe in such detail, it was as though he had already seen it many times: two stories tall and with a special place in each room for his favorite objects. And the strange thing was that after it was built, everyone felt as though the house had always been there. But back when the foundations had barely been laid, a worker was digging deep down at the bottom of the well—so far down that no light could reach him, so he worked in complete darkness—when suddenly he felt moisture on his palms but could not say anything because he had to climb the rope ladder to the top as fast as he could while the water chased at his heels, filled the entire hole, and stopped only when it reached the stone enclosure around it. This feat was something the villagers could never forgive the outsider, and they despised him once and for all. The water from the well, incidentally, turned out to be very good, tastier than any of the other springs in the area, and people came from distant places especially to try it.

But in fact it was not the water, they say, that caused him to settle down in this rugged place with its thorns and its lean Sundays, but a girl he once saw standing under a cherry tree’s branches, reaching up but failing to grab them, and laughing. He did everything in his power to make the wedding happen as soon as possible and when he awoke on the following morning, his wife was not in his bed. He found her all the way at the other end of the village, sitting on a swing with her girlfriends, still wearing her bridal garments and all the jewelry from the wedding, which jingled around her neck. And so, they began living in complete harmony: he, with his workers and the construction, and she, with the games of hide-and-seek among the trees and with the warm, yielding mud by the river where she waded around and left footprints. And it was only her advanced pregnancy that forced her to put an end to these activities. Her girlfriends once asked her about that thing, which was always kept hidden from them and only discussed in riddles, and without thinking too much about it, she said it was like swinging on a swing, except, as the woman, you were the swing yourself. But they took that as just another elusive response (which perhaps it was) and were not at all satisfied. It was only after she went into labor that it became clear why she had been married off to the outsider so hastily and without any bargaining.

It was because her seed was bad, so the child started to come out sideways, shoulder first, and those who had work to do far away gladly set off to do it, while those who had none stayed behind, cursing their fate and their village. Her screams lasted for two days and two nights, which drove the dogs mad, and some of the bigger ones even bit through their chains, ran off into the woods, and turned into wolves. On the third morning, she gave birth to a girl, and her blood ran out.

But the outsider’s plans turned out altogether miscalculated. The house had barely been finished when he felt a horse’s hoof slam into his back, right between the shoulder blades, right as he was sitting at the table and breaking bread for his workers, then he sensed the horse’s fiery breath in his ear and heard the flapping of its wings, and he slid, completely unprepared, off his chair, while the painful red gnawers rushed into his chest, along the length of his left arm, all the way down to his fingers. Someone who knew about these things let some blood from the inside of his elbow, while others set out to the surrounding villages to search for a healer. But all they could find in these remote parts was a small, shriveled-up woman who claimed to be a clairvoyant and sank her gaze into his palm and was about to tell him what she saw there—You’ll go on a long journey—when he interrupted her, impatient to know what he should do to cure himself, so she opened her mouth without knowing what she would say, and she told him—You should drink wind. Because although she seemed unremarkable, the woman was a true clairvoyant and servant to words—she always obeyed what the words commanded of her, and he paid her handsomely for her efforts, because he still remembered, he had never forgotten, the wind that had once healed his eyes, and the fishermen’s veresija. It was with that word—veresija—on his lips that he died a few days later, soaked in bitter sweat and laughing in fear, and this left everyone perplexed, since he was known as a prudent man who neither lent nor borrowed.

After his death, they excavated the whole yard three times over, looking for his sash or whatever was left of it, and someone probably found it, though no one ever confessed. Along with the sash, the large Venetian mirror also went missing, as did the small cracked one, and the clock with the single hand, and even the nails from the walls—only the knocker remained on the front gate, because the letters on the woman’s ring had scared off the man who tried to tear it down. The girl was raised by relatives until they found someone from another village who did not ask too many questions, and they married her off to him.

And years had to go by until someone set foot in the house again, used a knife to cut his way through the rusty thorns overtaking the yard and banning people from entering, climbed the damp blackened staircase, shoved the door once, then a second time with all his strength, until shards of rust sprinkled from the hinges and the door opened a crack, and through that narrow opening, sideways and with effort, this man entered the house together with his new bride, and they grew dizzy from the stench of rot and mouse droppings, and choked on the thick cloud of dust that a bird, startled by their entrance, sent flying around the room while it crashed into the walls and broke its bones. The young man cleared the yard, replaced the rotten planks and the cracked roof tiles, whitewashed the walls, and carved notches, some deep and others shallow, depending on the force of his strike, down the entire length of the two wooden pillars that supported the upper floor, covering them from top to bottom. Because his wife had gone into labor and they had untied all the knots of her clothes, but that did not help—the child was coming out sideways, just as with her mother and her mother’s mother, and further back. With the last of her blood, she gave birth to a girl—the knife had long ago snapped against the wood—and they named her Iovana.


Ekaterina Petrova is a literary translator and nonfiction writer. She holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa, where she was awarded the Iowa Arts Fellowship. Her translation-in-progress of Iana Boukova’s novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow, which she began working on as part of her MFA thesis, was selected for Art Omi’s 2019 Translation Lab and received a 2021 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. Ekaterina’s work has appeared in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, European Literature Network, Reading in Translation, EuropeNow, Ninth Letter, Drunken Boat, B O D Y, and Vagabond. Her translation of Bogdan Rusev’s novel Come to Me (Dalkey Archive Press) was published in 2019; the nonfiction anthologies My Brother’s Suitcase and Fathers Never Go Away came out in her translation in 2020 (ICU Publishing).

91st M 2021 Vol 11 no 1



· Zhang Zhihao: four Wuhan poems; translated from the Chinese by Yuemin He
· Choi Jeongrye: five poems; translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony and Chung Eun-Gwi


· Homeira Qaderi, from Noqra, the Daughter of Kabul River; translated from the Dari by Ali Araghi
· Iana Boukova, from Taveling in the Direction of the Shadow, translated from the Bulgarian by Ekaterina Petrova
· Pilar Quintana, "Easy Money," an excerpt; translated from the Spanish by Joel Streicker
· Beaudelaine Pierre, "You May Have the Suitcase Now," a memoir-essay.