The Treasure of Slaveykov Square

24.08.2012 § 1 Comment

Sofia’s Slaveykov Square, named after father-son poet duo Petko and Pencho Slaveykov, is a bustling marketplace for one of the most coveted and important commodities in the nation: books. As a small country with a significant contribution to world literacy, reading and books have always been prized very highly in Bulgaria. The years of the Socialist boom were also the heyday of publishing, with hundreds of Bulgarian authors being printed alongside translations of world classics. Many of these books, often produced in hardcover and printed to last, have been resurfacing in used book stalls alongside new books and editions.

Some chain bookstores are beginning to emerge in Bulgaria (names such as Helikon, Hermes and Ciela), with a modest selection of English-language titles, but they tend to sell exclusively new books, which would deprive you of the thrill of rooting through a bin of second-hand literary treasures in an old produce box.

You can experience this thrill walking down many streets in central Sofia, with improvised book stalls dotted throughout the city. However, it is in Slaveykov square that you will see a proper Bulgarian book market in all its glory. Textbooks, new editions and antique hardcovers cover some 40 groaning stalls. Every bookseller has a particular bent, with some focusing on sci-fi and fantasy, others on travel guides and dictionaries, and others still selling exclusively second-hand books. Prices range from 10-30 Leva for a new book and as low as 3, 1 or even 0.50 Leva in the second-hand bins.

The selection of Bulgarian titles is vast, and that of English-language foreign literature is nothing to scoff at. However, even Slaveikov Square is quite sparse on a crucial sub-genre: English translations of Bulgarian literature. The vicious circle of poor demand and poor supply has made it close to impossible to find many translations, in English, French or German, of even the most seminal works of Bulgarian literature.

Yet, determined to have something to pull from when I talked about Bulgaria, I set out to find a book of Bulgarian poetry in English. The book I found surpassed my wildest expectations.

Called “Anthology of Bulgarian Poetry”, this 600-page volume was translated into English by British poet Peter Tempest over the course of almost 30 years. Released in 1980, I am fairly certain it is the only such anthology to ever be published. Sampling everything from Medieval manuscripts, through folk songs, and most everyone of significance all the way up to Nedyalko Yordanov, who is active to this day, it is quite, quite thorough. Copies of it are fairly rare, and the price (90-150 Leva) reflects that, although it is possible to find copies on Amazon for less. Myself, I gladly shelled out the money after reading the translation of a Penyu Penev poem that I had been struggling with translating for some time.

Over the next months and years, I will be able to enhance poet profiles with Tempest’s lovely translations in English, parting the veil before another aspect of Bulgarian culture – our poetry. For now, I leave you with a small teaser, written by anti-Fascist rebel Nikola Yonkov Vaptsarov on the day of his execution by firing squad for being part of the Communist resistance against the pro-German Bulgarian government, on July 23, 1942.


to my wife

Sometimes I’ll come when you’re asleep,
An unexpected visitor.
Don’t leave me outside in the street,
Don’t bar the door!

I’ll enter quietly, softly sit
And gaze upon you in the dark.
Then, when my eyes have gazed their fill,
I’ll kiss you softly and depart.



The fight is hard and pitiless.
The fight is epic, as they say.
I fell. Another takes my place –
Why single out a name?

After the firing squad – the worms.
Thus does the simple logic go.
But in the storm we’ll be with you,
My people, for we loved you so.

2 p.m. – 23.VII.1942


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