Peirene Press week – Off the Shelf Translation talk

Rather fortuitously I found out that Peirene Press were taking part in the Off the Shelf festival of words in Sheffield. There Meike Zeivogel, founder of Peirene Press, was in discussion with Hamid Ismailov, author of The Dead Lake and host, Rachel Genn.

It seemed too good an opportunity to miss so I headed off, battling through match day traffic and managing to find the outside that had disappeared in a blanket of fog.

The talk was held at Coffee Revolution in the University of Sheffield’s Student Union. There an intimate group had gathered in a sprawling setting. This seemed apt as it was the reflection of Peirene books themselves, which hold sprawling worlds in small settings.

We gathered round to listen to what turned out to be a fascinating talk regarding Peirene Press, the inspiration behind The Dead Lake and translated fiction.

Meike began by explaining where the name Peirene came from. Flicking through a book on Greek mythology she came across the nymph Peirene. The tale is that when Aretemis, Goddess of Hunting, killed Peirene’s son she wept so much she turned to water. Poets would come and drink from the spring she had become and be inspired after. It was this metamorphosis that rang a chord with Meike and she realised that name was perfect for the publishing house she envisaged.

When she looks for submissions Meike tries to read the text in the original language or if not in a German or French translation. This way she can get a feel for the story as each as its own rhythm which changes as it is translated. It allows for the flow or shape of the original to be felt.

Only three Peirene books are released each year, under their own theme. This theme does not set the tone for the books that will be published, it is in fact the books that dictate. Meike will read submissions, rejecting those that don’t appeal to her as a reader. Those that are good but don’t fire her interest will be put to one side. Once she finds a book that strikes a chord she will then go back through the pile of possible books and see what there is that could link three together. What I found refreshing is that Meike looks for books as a reader, trying to read by her feelings. As a reader this is something I do every time I pick up a book and I think this perspective shines through in the titles Peirene print.

Meike and her colleagues clearly have a love for what they do and are passionate about the books they publish and this is echoed by readers of their titles.

Hamid Ismailov went on to discuss the writing of The Dead Lake. He said he couldn’t remember why he suddenly started writing the novel but that it had sat inside him for 20 years, ever since he met a man in the 80’s who had remained a boy. The story had shocked him but he hadn’t known how to apply it. Suddenly however he knew he should write the book and The Dead Lake was born. Although his book sits under the ‘Coming of Age’ title he does not see the book as a coming of age tale, something Meike and host Rachel Genn both disagreed with!

The translation process was discussed. It was interesting to note how the vagrancies of the English language effects the translation process. For example Russian text has lots of long sentences and as with many languages has the verb at the end of a sentence. That being the case the tense of the sentence has to be hinted at in another way. This is not necessary in English. Meike had to chop down lengthy sentences in The Dead Lake to give the sense of moving on and re-wrote the book four times after it was translated. The best translation, she felt was using the original as a jumping off point but to not re-write totally.

Hamid himself has spent 20 years as a translator but still doesn’t consider himself a success at it, describing it as an ‘impossible art’. He discussed how the translator of his previous book, The Railway, emailed him over 2,000 times to discuss certain phrases and words. He was initially horrified but found that the translator put flesh on a book that started out as an ‘x-ray’. He hopes now that the same translator will translate all of his work and stated that he was brilliant at bringing his books into the English context.

What was commented on, and which struck a chord with me is that every book is a process. The original of any book is not what the reader views, it has gone through changes with an editor, proof-reader and author. In translated fiction another layer of the point of view of the translator is added. But the change doesn’t stop there. The translation continues with every reader. This is of course true, no one reads the same book the same way, we all take something different from it.

My thanks go to Hamid, Meike and Rachel for a lovely way to spend a foggy Tuesday evening.

Also present was Forgotten Fiction who were operating the pop-up bookshop. Sadly the title I had my eye on, The Mussel Feast, wasn’t there but you can check out the shop on their Facebook page.


You can read my review of The Dead Lake here.

Find out more about The Dead Lake and all of Peirene Press’ titles on their website.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. As a translators, I found this post very interesting. Particularly the fact that Meike made changes to the book once she had the translation!
    I do agree that it is “an impossible art” and it’s great that Hamid was open to so many emails and questions from his translator – a collaboration will produce a much better final product.
    Great post! Thanks for sharing 🙂


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks very much. I do find the whole process of translation, and translated fiction, fascinating so it was great to hear opinions from both an author and publisher.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like a perfect evening! And I do so love the story behind the name Peirene… thanks for sharing Janet 🙂


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks. Isn’t it a lovely story. I do love reading about the Nymph in the Peirene newspaper 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascnating post, Janet. I imagine the translation process varies tremendously between publishers, authors and translators. Well worth battling throught the fog!


    1. janetemson says:

      Thanks Susan. It was worth the battle 🙂 I too find it fascinating and can see arguments for both sides.


  4. I wish I could have got to this event – but time and other things happening were against me. Still, I’ve put Meike in contact with the organisers of Derby Book Festival, so I’m hoping she might travel HERE!!


    1. janetemson says:

      Oh hopefully she will be able to get to Derby, that would be great. I don’t often get the chance to go to book events so when they are close (or close-ish) I try. Fingers crossed Peirene will be there 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.