"A room of shelves bent under the weight of books which looks more like a monk's cell than a contemporary dwelling. The voices singing Handel's Messiah sound like a chorus of angels.
Whether it was because of the night setting in, or because of the solemn music I cannot say but there was something disturbing in my conversation with Ventseslav Konstantinov - a translator and specialist in German literature. Imperceptibly Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Heinrich Böll and a number of other ''friends'' of the translator crept in and sat beside us. Max Frisch will come a little later... This was no doubt a strange company for the merry, ruddy-cheeked Ventseslav Konstantinov."
- Like every man of an optimistic disposition, "he began our conversation", I have always been interested in contradictions, I remember once saying in an interview for the ABC weekly that the young generation does not think about decay and death, whereas this is one of the main problems which interests me in the works of the writers I translate.
Kafka attracts me with his sense of humour. He creates sinister and absurd situations in his works but the serenity which shines through them makes even the most painful human states bearable. If Rilke "thinks with his heart", Kafka "feels with his brains". His serenity came from his bird's eye view of life. Kafka's emotions are subordinated to powerful analytical brain. He brought all that is morbid to light but he did not take pleasure in suffering, he merely showed it.
"But still," I interrupted, "there is something in Kafka which is of great and lasting interest to you."
- Yes, you have "hit the nail", as people say. It is true that in Kafka's serenity I discovered my own thoughts related to the so called idea of the wandering soul. This is also the origin of my interest in Elias Canetti, who impressed me most of all with his biography. It is a biography of a wandering man, a citizen of the world (this is also the description Stefan Zweig gave to himself). Canetti's fate is that of a cosmopolitan. In his works Spain, Turkey, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Austria and Switzerland merge into one. When I read his play "Wedding" I felt the universal value of the problems he dwells on.
It may sound strange, but my interest in German literature and culture came through music, through German music. My mother and father were musicians and my wish was to become a pianist. My parents spoke German and my grandfather graduated in philosophy in Halle. Since my earliest childhood I have lived surrounded by German books and German music.
"But what made you become a translator and not a musician? Who was your teacher?"
- As a child I enjoyed Erich Kästner's books so much that I wondered who had translated them. Thus Vladimir Moussakov was the person who awakened my interest in the art of translation. But Dimitar Stoevski was the one who taught me - both with his translated works and with the friendly advices he gave me.
"How many books have you translated?"
- Now they amount to 19 books of novels, fairy tales, drama and poetry. I have also contributed to some collections of translated poetry and short stories.
"Recently we witnessed the publication of a collection of works by 10 German 20th century writers. It was entitled ''The Limits of Life''. Can you tell us what these limits are?"
- The collection centers around a story by Thomas Bernhard of the same title strongly influenced by Kafka. It deals with the limits of vegetation beyond which there is nothing but vacant land. My aim was to transfer this idea of extreme conditions to human life and to show love, death, violence, alienation and loneliness (as spiritual concepts). I did all this on the basis of the interrelation between man and nature in its in-corrupted sense.
"But isn't all this painful and depressing for the translator. Doesn't it cause internal ''moral haemorrhages''?"
- It is only logical for the translator to become a part of the world of the author. However, there is one great temptation and that is that you can forget that the aim of the writer was to reject all other worlds and to construct one of his own and that the aim of the translator is to re-embody himself into the world of the various writers. The translator is the typical "homo ludens" or a "playing man". He exists only as a role.
"There must be something both difficult and delightful in these ''games''".
- This is quite true. The greatest pleasure in translating is precisely this feeling of spiritual closeness and spiritual merging with the translated author. Moreover this spiritual relation is different with every writer. Thus the translator constantly learns new things about himself.
SN visiting Ventseslav Konstantinov, From Bach to Kafka, or... about temptation
- In: "Sofia News", Sofia, 22, May 30, 1984.