The Bulgarian Чужбина: an “Untranslatable,” Dreamed of and Unknown Place
by Ekaterina Petrova
The idea of chujbina weaves through My Brother’s Suitcase like a leitmotif.
In her generous review of my translation of the anthology My Brother’s Suitcase, Izidora Angel—fellow translator from Bulgarian and inexhaustible translation advocate—says she wished I had “left Abroad as the original Chujbina — the buzzy compound of syllables that remains forever an exotic source of infatuation, aspirational and out of reach.”
Izidora has a point, to be sure. Although, technically, the word “abroad” is a perfectly good translation for чужбина (chujbina), appearing as its most straightforward equivalent in the dictionary, the English word fails to capture the Bulgarian term’s full range of connotations or the tremendous power it holds over the hearts, minds, and collective consciousness of many Bulgarians. Particularly for Bulgarians who lived during communism (1944 – 1989), chujbina meant much more than just what lay “abroad,” beyond the physical borders of Bulgaria: on the one hand, it encompassed grand ideas of freedom, justice, and democracy, and on the other, it served as a sort of label for a certain standard of living and a collective noun for astonishingly pedestrian but highly covetable consumer goods, foods, and amenities, which were completely unavailable (or rather, accessible only to a select élite) in Bulgaria. It was during communism that the notion of chujbina, although it had existed as a term since much earlier, took on a new life of its own. As Izidora puts it, echoing Fernando Pessoa, chujbina became “the phantom country [. . .] that is always the myth, the nothing that is all.” In popular usage, the term was used almost exclusively in reference to the capitalist West, and rarely to other communist countries or to developing countries in Africa, Asia, or South America. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian communist regime itself also employed the word chiefly in reference to that very same West, although its usage was imbued with an additional sense of danger and hostility.
It’s quite convenient, then, that the etymology of chujbina in and of itself contains intimations of danger and hostility. The word has the Proto-Slavic *ťuďь (“foreign people”) at its root, which also serves as the basis for a series of similarly “unfriendly” words, including: чужд (chujd), meaning “foreign,” “strange,” “alien,” but also “another’s” or “someone else’s”; чужденец (chijdenets), meaning “foreigner” or “stranger”; and even отчуждение (otchujdenie), meaning “alienation” or “estrangement.” So, while the root of chujbina seems based on subjective emotion and individual perception, its English equivalents appear to be conceptually based on facts: the etymology of “abroad” is spatial, from the Old English on brede, literally meaning “at wide,” and that of “overseas,” meaning “across or beyond the sea,” is obviously geographical.
As a facet of the Bulgarian collective consciousness, the word chujbina has the added benefit of neatly rhyming with and having the same number of syllables as its direct antonym, the term родина (rodina). By comparison, the two words’ respective English equivalents—“abroad” and “homeland”—do not share any kind of syllabic, rhythmic, or sonic kinship.
The idea of chujbina weaves through My Brother’s Suitcase like a leitmotif, which is no surprise, considering the anthology—which has Stories About the Road as its subheading—is dedicated to themes of migration, immigration, and emigration. The word appears a total of 33 times over the original’s 239 pages, including three times in the plural and once with a definite article (which is grammatically as unusual as having “abroads” and “the abroad” in English). In many of these instances, the word is used more or less neutrally, and my English translation reflects this by rendering it as “abroad.” There are a few cases, however, where translating chujbina as “abroad” doesn’t do justice to the original concept’s range of nuanced meanings and—if you’ll forgive the pun—the heavy baggage with which the Bulgarian word is often loaded.
The first such case, found in Georgi Gospodinov’s contribution to the anthology, is precisely the one Izidora references in her review. Known as a writer who explores memory, both personal and collective, and often engages with Bulgaria’s communist legacy, Gospodinov shares a childhood recollection, which in my translation reads as follows: “I remember when we were children, my brother and I [. . .] hoped that one day we would get on a plane and go to the country of Abroad, even though my brother said there was no such country on the map” (116). And Izidora is right, of course: in this case, leaving “Abroad” as Chujbina would’ve at least hinted at the fact that the term contains a complex network of meanings and connotations beyond those that the term “abroad” can encompass.
Another instance where translating chujbina as “abroad” fails to render the original’s complexity is in Dimitar Kambourov’s sprawling essay, whose Bulgarian version features the word a whopping 21 times. Considering this remarkable frequency, as well as the fact that all four grammatical exceptions mentioned earlier occur precisely in this essay, it’s safe to assume that for Kambourov, chujbina signifies an intellectual concept, or even a state of being, much greater and more existential that simply a place located beyond the confines of his home country. And while for Gospodinov, Chujbina is a foreign country, Kambourov’s chujbinas are often embodied by the women he’s romantically involved with. One striking passage in particular features the word chujbina three times in close proximity, and also in parallel with a certain chujdenka (“foreign woman”) who also happens to be a chujda jena (“someone else’s wife”). In this case, translating chujbina as “abroad” would’ve destroyed the sonic and etymological connections between the words, which is why I decided to lean into their shared “foreign” root instead. In an effort to reproduce the Bulgarian’s rhythmic and incantatory qualities, my translation of the passage attempts to retain some of the repetitions (and even creates one that doesn’t exist in the original): “ . . . my fellowship in Budapest became a completely different type of foreign country. A foreign country like a foreign woman. A foreign country like another man’s woman” (182).
A third instance in the anthology where the word “abroad” may have worked more effectively if it had been left untranslated occurs in the opening paragraph of Edgar Villanueva’s essay, which was originally written in Spanish and then translated into Bulgarian by Neva Micheva. My translation into English, although I did consult the Spanish original to the best of my (admittedly limited) abilities, is based predominantly on the Bulgarian translation. In it, I have rendered Villanueva’s “mi primera noción del extranjero” and Micheva’s “първата ми идея за „чужбина“” as “my first notion of ‘abroad’” (163). (I’ve even replicated Micheva’s decision to doubly emphasize chujbina as a conceptual notion by adding quotation marks around it, which are absent from the original.) As far as meaning, it’s not a bad translation. But looking at it now, I wish I’d at least considered leaving the word “abroad” in Spanish. Not just as a way to keep a trace of the language that the essay was originally written in, but also as a nod to conceptual connection between the Spanish extranjero and the Bulgarian chujbina, both of which have “strange”/“foreign” as their roots.
And besides, the sentence in which the word appears seems to capture both the concept’s essence and the impossibility of translating it unequivocally: “It was my first notion of extranjero—a dreamed of and unknown place.”
The writing of this essay has been supported by the National Culture Fund of Bulgaria.
 One of the most canonical Bulgarian texts, which also has a great hold over the Bulgarian collective consciousness, mentions the word as well. Written by the poet, revolutionary, and national hero Hristo Botev and titled “Farewell in 1868,” the poem bemoans the fate of the Bulgarian men who were forced to leave their homeland while fighting for Bulgaria’s liberation from Ottoman rule—it curses at “this Turkish black banishment / that drove us away young / into this heavy chujbina – / so we’d walk and we’d wander / cast out, wretched, unloved!” (Translation is mine.)
 Interestingly, English → Bulgarian dictionaries offer chijbina as a translation for the word “overseas” while Bulgarian → English dictionaries do not offer “overseas” as a translation for chujbina. In this context, it’s worth considering the imprint that the history and geography of these words’ places of origin have on their etymologies. The origins of the word “overseas” are likely linked to the fact that Britain is an island—the term’s appearance in the late 1500s coincides, surely not by accident, with the onset of British colonialism (the word was even popularized during World War I as a euphemism for “colonial”). Meanwhile, as testified by Hristo Botev’s poem mentioned in the previous footnote, for Bulgarians chujbina lay just on the other side of the Danube River.
Ekaterina Petrova is a literary translator from the Bulgarian and a bilingual nonfiction writer. Her work has been supported by grants from PEN, the University of Iowa, Art OMI, Traduki, and the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and has appeared in Asymptote, Words Without Borders, European Literature Network, EuropeNow, Reading in Translation, Exchanges, and elsewhere. Currently based in Sofia, she has spent time living, studying, and/or working in Kuwait, Minnesota, New York, London, Berlin, Northern Ireland, and the south of France.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, January 17, 2023