Trustee Angela Rodel: “AUBG is a Rare Gem”
In 1996, Angela Rodel arrived from the U.S. to Sofia to study Bulgarian language and music on a Fulbright scholarship. More than 20 years later, she is still here, now the Executive Director of the Bulgarian-American Fulbright Commission. Rodel is also a musician and ethnomusicologist and a philologist and award-winning translator. She is also a member of the AUBG Board of Trustees.
Rodel was recently on campus for the Media Literacy Summer Camp, a project jointly organized by Fulbright Bulgaria and the Association of European Journalists (AEJ). We used the opportunity to talk to her about Bulgaria then and now, the importance of cultural exchanges and liberal arts.
How did you first become interested in Bulgarian culture and language?
I actually first studied Russian language and literature. I’ve also always been interested in music and I’ve always sung in choirs. At my college at Yale University, there was a Yale Slavic choir and when I went there and they played Bulgarian music I realized that Bulgarian music is the best music in the world. And so even though I was still studying Russian I became more and more interested in Bulgarian music, Bulgarian culture, Bulgarian language. So actually after I graduated I got a Fulbright and came here to study language and music.
You first arrived in 1996?
I actually first came in 1995 for the folklore festival in Koprivshtitsa. After my third year in college, I wanted to come and check because I was thinking of trying to apply for a grant. The festival is really, really amazing, just a beautiful place, incredible music. And so I was here just for a couple of weeks in the summer and that made me decide to come back for longer. The first time I came back for the whole year was in 1996 which was a very interesting time to be in Bulgaria.
How did the country look to you back then?
It wasn’t easy. I think I came with a really naïve idea because I had just heard the folk music and I had this idea that everyone here was a shepherd and walked around in nosiya [traditional Bulgarian folklore clothing] which clearly wasn’t the case. I realized that very quickly when I arrived in Sofia in 1996 to study at Sofia University. It was an economic crisis, I saw modern Bulgaria. It was just interesting to see that this country is actually a lot deeper and complex and has a lot more history. But I wasn’t disappointed, I wanted to know more. Watching the whole society go through this really traumatic time was scary but fascinating. And it was a really good lesson for an American because I think we take for granted that our economy is stable, that there is a certain standard of living. And to see how fragile all of that is – that it is not a given, that you actually have to work to protect civil society, to protect the economic wealth and stability – it was a really good lesson for me to learn.
A lot has changed in Bulgaria since then. What do you think are some of the major differences?
Definitely. I know all the Bulgarians are still frustrated by the slowness of the process but I think things have dramatically improved. In 1996 people couldn’t afford to get a cup of coffee, that’s how bad it was. The inflation was terrible so even though I know Bulgarians are frustrated now that their living standards maybe aren’t on the level of Western Europe, there is no comparison. People can afford to have children, to take a vacation in Greece. Ok, we are not quite on the level of the Germans yet but I think the fact that many Bulgarians do not have to worry about living hand to mouth anymore is just a huge difference. The way Sofia looked back then was very grey, now it is so cosmopolitan; it looks like any European capital. I think that says a lot about the mentality and the culture, people are becoming a lot more cosmopolitan; people speak English a lot more now. I suppose it was easier to learn Bulgarian back then? It was. Nobody really spoke English; young people didn’t speak much English. I had studied Russian, and you kind of get along with Russian but Bulgarians, and especially young Bulgarians didn’t speak Russian at the time. Nowadays, being the head of the Fulbright, I hear a lot of Americans complain that it is actually very difficult to learn Bulgarian because when you are struggling Bulgarians immediately switch to English.
Speaking of the language, one of your many careers is that of a translator. What do you find most challenging about translating from Bulgarian to English?
I think the fact that there are so many rich layers to the Bulgarian language which I think reflects Bulgarian history. For many of those, we don’t have any equivalent in American English. You have Turkishisms which are some of the most colorful aspects of the language. They are very vivid words and there is no register in English that has that same sort of flavor. Also, the “socialist speech” that’s very popular with contemporary Bulgarian writers like Georgi Gospodinov. They talk about socialism in a very specific way that we don’t have anything equivalent to in English. If I translate it literally it just becomes nonsense. What is important is what it sounds like, this sort of highfalutin language. And it is hard to find a way to evoke that feeling in the English reader because we just don’t have a lot of these registers.
What are your favorite books, Bulgarian and international?
I love Russian literature, that’s why I got into Slavic languages; I am this super fan of Russian classics, Dostoevsky especially was one of my favorites. In Bulgarian literature, I really like contemporary authors, Georgi Gospodinov, Milen Ruskov, the classics - I was able to translate Ivailo Petrov’s “Хайка за вълци” [“Wolf Hunt”] which I think is probably the best Bulgarian novel. There are a lot of really great short stories, both contemporary and classic, in Bulgaria. I’m a novel reader, that’s the genre that I like and so I like Iris Murdoch: these very long intricate novels. There is also a great Canadian writer who I don’t think is as famous as he should be, Robertson Davis, I think he is just a genius. These are the types of books I like to read in my free time.
Still, I imagine you don’t have a lot of free time. How do you manage to juggle your many jobs?
I guess being sort of hyperactive and type A helps (laughs). You have to prioritize. Now that I’m working for Fulbright full time I don’t have a lot of time for translations so often during vacations I’ll translate. In the summer when I’m back in the States I will be translating Georgi Markov.
What do you believe is the impact that the Fulbright Commission has here in Bulgaria?
It sounds cliché, but it is life-changing. If I hadn’t had that opportunity I would have never come here for that long. I think it is important to have long-term exchanges. If you visit a country for a week you get a superficial impression but you don’t dig in into the way people see the world. I know many Americans who have come here. And Bulgarian culture, Bulgarian language, Bulgarian history remain an important part of their life, whether academically or artistically. And 700 Bulgarians have gone to the States on a Fulbright. The kind of visa you get – you have to come back – so it is not brain drain, you actually are not allowed to stay in the U.S. which is good because we don’t take all these talented people and steal them. One example: we have a professor at the art academy, Boyan Dobrev, he was doing wall-paining in a very traditional style: icons, church paintings. And he went to the States and discovered multimedia. This was 15-20 years ago, so he was the first multimedia artist and he made this great installation at Sofia train station, this really cutting edge, top-notch world art. And he said that if he hadn’t gone there and seen what the people were doing he would just continue doing what he has done here. This is just one example of these 700 people that really, fundamentally change the way they see their own possibilities, the possibilities of their communities, their career here in Bulgaria. It is important for the exchange to be personal and for it to be long-term.
And how do you see the role of AUBG in Bulgaria and abroad?
I think it is such a unique institution. I am a huge supporter of liberal arts, that is the kind of education that I got and I think that it is frankly the best kind of education. Even if going into a specific field, with liberal arts you learn how to think, learn how to frame your arguments, learn how to be critical, how to read critically, speak critically. Unfortunately, prime education is losing that. I think in both the U.S. and in Bulgaria we are teaching for tests, teaching people to memorize, and especially in the 21st century we can google anything, we don’t need that kind of knowledge. We need to know how to think and how to imagine and I think there is no better system for that than the American liberal arts system. AUBG is just a really rare gem here. And it shows. Last night I was at the American Embassy party [the U.S. Embassy party for the Fourth of July] and it was a really long line outside so I started talking to people. The guy in front of me, he is in the energy sector, helping to diversify it, bringing in natural gas, and it turns out he is an AUBG alum. AUBG people are people that are really doing things that are changing Bulgaria and society; everywhere you turn you find AUBG alums. They have this idea that you not only can but you should change the status quo, you should think outside the box, you should have this broad education. And I don’t know anywhere else in Bulgaria where a young person could get that kind of education.
You are a member of the Board of Trustees. What do you hope to achieve as part of the board?
I think we have gone through a little bit of turbulence in the last couple of years and I think that everybody on the board is interested in stability, getting a stable management team. One thing we have to do is diversify the streams of funding. I think there is a lot of excitement on the part of alumni to be more a part of that than they have been in the past. We will continue with our previous sponsors but also find new sponsors, find new ideas. There is a lot of excitement around finding new ways to push the university forward.
Photo by Anastasia Garyainova