Peirene Press and author of Magda, a disturbing portrayal of the wife of Joseph Goebbels. More about Magda in Part 2 but for today we're talking about Peirene and publishing translated fiction....
You're probably best known as the founder of Peirene Press, specialising in short contemporary foreign fiction. Starting up a publishing house presumably wasn't something that occurred to you overnight, so what led you to it?
My entrepreneurial role requires a combination of analytical skills and creative drive. I have always been interested in both. My main subjects at Abitur level (A Level equivalent) were Maths and German. Then for many years I concentrated on my linguistic side, studying Arabic and Literature at University. I worked as a journalist for a period and afterwards became a freelance writer. I love writing but it’s a lonely job and I realized I also wanted to have an impact – however small- on society. So I set up a business with a product I am passionate about: a publishing house for foreign literature.
Why translated fiction? There are after all hundreds, even thousands, of books published each year in English.
Much impressive literature has been created in other countries – but lacks an audience in English. I am for example amazed that it was left to Peirene to publish the 20th century Catalan modern classic, Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal, and one of the most controversial French novels of recent years, Beside the Sea by Veronque Olmi, that sold 35,000 copies in France and a similar amount in Germany.
It’s a pity that these books face such difficulties accessing the English market. The Anglo-Saxon world ends up with a homogeneous literary culture. The obsession with plot and information delivers a thriller-like kick but wears flat after a while and rarely leaves us feeling culturally enhanced or intellectually uplifted.
Goethe once said: ‘Left to itself every literature will exhaust its vitality, if it is not refreshed by the continuous contribution of a foreign one.’ My children are growing up in the UK, and probably my grand-children in due time will grow up here too. I would like them to experience a literature and a culture that is vibrant, alive and open. Peirene is doing her bit to help.
I'm not sure all English writing sacrifices depth for plot - and presumably foreign bookshops are as clogged with best-sellers as any here - but the novellas chosen for Peirene have certainly all been thought-provoking and left an impact out of proportion to their length.
There's obviously an art to translating, getting the words, rhythm and mood to match the original. How do you find someone to do this? How closely do you work with translators? Have you ever been disappointed with a translation?
I never rely on reader reports or sample translations. Before I buy the English rights for a text, I will have read the work in its entirety either in the original or German/French translation. I therefore have a very good sense of the rhythm, voice and essence before we start to translate. In order to find a translator: If it is a new language for Peirene, I will ask other publishers for translator recommendations. I then usually commission three or four 1000-word sample translations. It is important that I find a translator who has a similar approach to literary translation as I have. Peirene’s aim is to find a way to capture the essence – the soul – of the text, which includes the rhythm and the voice, and then recreate it in English. The English book needs to read ‘as if written in English’ – the characters and the story need to come off the page just as they do in the original. However, that generally means that the original and the English texts sound very different from each other. They are in fact two entirely different texts. But ultimately they achieve the same effect on the English reader as they had on the original reader.
Once the translator has delivered the translation, the editorial process starts. I make the first edits, which often include numerous back and forth between the translator and myself. When we both agree on a draft, our copy editor, Lesley Levene, will read it. She is extremely good in picking up on unnecessary repetitions and phrases that still sound awkward. Eventually the big test comes: an English reader who doesn’t know anything about the text or the translation process will read the novella. Anything that still jars or doesn’t make sense or doesn’t appear to be part of the logic of the text will be underlined, and we have to go back to the drawing board.
If I have found a good translator, I like to work with them again - translators such as Jamie Bulloch or Emily Jeremiah.
Our detailed editorial process ensures that Peirene only publishes translations that are of very high quality. And so far I have been proud of each Peirene translation.
I'm not sure if it quite counts as a compliment but Peirene novellas don't feel like translations. I've read many others with badly-constructed sentences or words that jar and stop the flow of the writing. Please encourage your translators and editors to keep up the good work!
The Peirene facebook page recently quoted Denis Parsons Burkitt "It is better to read a little and ponder a lot than to read a lot and ponder a little." This seems to me to encapsulate Peirene's ethos. Would you agree?
Yes, absolutely. For me, reading is a creative act. Often, however, we abuse reading as a means to escape our present reality. That is a pity. Reading should broaden our mind and engage our creative skills. We need space to ponder what we have read. If we continuously binge-read we forget to use literature as a wonderful tool to analyse and understand ourselves better.
You've made me wonder how many reviewers and bloggers might be guilty of binge-reading as I certainly feel a self-inflicted pressure to read not only the books lined up on my to-be-read pile but others I hear talked about through social-media. On the other hand, I've always been someone who's always read non-stop, so having to write reviews might actually encourage me to take
more time and to think about what I've read instead of moving
immediately on to the next book.
Do you feel everything an author has to say can be put in 200 pages, or do you feel the modern reader doesn't have the time to commit to a 800 page epic saga?
Do you ever feel there are limitations to this?
In a healthy literary culture there should be scope for short and long books, just as there should be plays, film, poetry and novels. Nonetheless I love the novella form because it forces the writer to think about the structure of their book. A novella resembles at best a piece of art: narrative, voice and structure form a complete whole and each of those three aspects informs the other and the meaning of the text lies in the three components working together.
Peirene seem to specialise as well in innovative marketing - subscriptions, coffee mornings, literary salons and even the roaming book store taking books out to the public. Were these things always part of the plan? Does this help to catch the public's eye and spread the word to people who might not have discovered you?
Peirene prides itself on strong, recognizable branding. This was a deliberate choice from the very beginning. We don’t just want to publish books. Peirene has another objective: To create a cohesive community of readers and booklovers. I would love readers to buy the Peirene books not for the individual title but because they trust Peirene to make a good selection. A sort of European literary book society. You subscribe and we send you every four months a small, fascinating book you can read in an evening. To enhance the community spirit, we support a charity, The Maya Centre (50p of each book sold goes to this charity), we run Pop-up Stalls, Coffee mornings, Supper Clubs, a masterclass in novella writing and the Peirene Salon where readers, critics, writers come to my house.
The Salon is something I would love to attend - for once I envy people in London!
What exciting things do Peirene have lined up for the future?
In 2014 Peirene will publish a new series: ‘Coming-of-age’ which consists of three novellas from Uzbekistan, Libya and Norway.
I don't think I've read anything from Uzbekistan or Libya so these should prove really interesting.
Thanks Meike for an interesting look at Peirene and we will shortly publish part 2 of our Q&A with questions Meike as an Author. Watch this space...
We have reviewed a number of Peirene's publications and you can see them here.