Bulgarian literature began in the second half of the 9th century AD with the translations by St. Cyril and St. Methodius of religious works from Greek into the vernacular, now known as Old Church Slavonic. From this period until the Turkish conquest of Bulgaria (1396) Bulgarian literature consisted mainly of similar translations of the Gospels, lives of the saints, sermons, and other religious material. Historical chronicles were also written.
During the Turkish and Greek ecclesiastical domination (1396-1878) Bulgarian literature virtually ceased to exist. The 19th century marked a revival of Bulgarian literature. It had its origin in historical works such as Istoria Slaviano-Bolgarska (History of the Slavic-Bulgarians), written in a form of ecclesiastical Slavonic mixed with popular language by a monk, Paisij, about 1762.
After 1830, a movement in Bulgaria for freedom from Turkish rule and Greek church domination, the establishment of Bulgarian schools and printing houses, and the publication of Bulgarian grammars and other educational works, all played a part in producing a new Bulgarian literature.
Before 1878 writers were concerned with social and political questions, above all with national independence, rather than with literary style or the problems of the inner life of the individual. The most important writer of this pre-liberation period was the revolutionary poet Christo Botev.
The principal writer of the next period was Ivan Vazov, one of the most prolific as well as one of the most popular of Bulgarian writers, and the one who scored a success in English translation with his novel Under the Yoke (1893; trans. 1912).
Other important writers of this period were Stoyan Mikhaylovski and Aleko Konstantinov. The former was a pessimistic philosopher, disillusioned with politics; the latter was a satirist who characterised the Bulgarian peasant in Bai Ganyu (Uncle John, 1895).
In the post-liberation period, writers increasingly emphasised technique and form, as well as harmony and rhythm of language. Important writers of this third period are the short-story writers Dimiter Ivanov, who wrote under the pen name of Elin Pelin, and Yordan Yovkov; both are noted for their interest in peasant life and the countryside.
Bulgarian literature after 1944 adhered closely to the requirements of Soviet socialist realism.
The work of some talented current writers, including the poets Blaga Dimitrova, Lubomir Levchev, and Pavel Matev, nevertheless reveals a fresher point of view, and may signal a movement towards greater artistic freedom. The prose of Jordan Radichkov is especially interesting. He handles historical themes, always a Bulgarian favorite, with unusual finesse, and his short novel Khradriatyat Chovek (A Brave Man, 1967) has earned wide popularity.
Elias Canetti won the 1981 Nobel Prize for literature for his novels and plays about individuals at odds with society. Born in Bulgaria, Canetti wrote in German, and kept homes in London, England and Zurich, Switzerland.