Eve Mason speaks to Stella Sabin from Peirene Press about the future for this award-winning independent publisher of great books from across the world. The Peirene Stevns Translation Prize 2023 is now open with German as the source language.
Congratulations Stella to both you and James Tookey for taking the helm at Peirene Press this year! How has life been since you announced this news?
Busy! We relaunched Peirene Press in March 2022 with new designs and plans to publish books beyond our novella series (which has been running for 12 years). We also announced our move from London to Bath, with an event at Topping & Company Booksellers. These plans had been in the works for a year, so it was a brilliant feeling to watch it all come into fruition. Peirene has such a dedicated audience of readers, so we hoped we wouldn’t alienate any of them with the changes we were making; but the feedback has been positive so far. It’s been a great privilege to be able to shape an organisation that is so well loved. Following the launch, we’ve concentrated on getting our 2023 catalogue into shape, which for the first time will include books from outside of Europe.
How did you progress to your role as co-director?
I was in the right place at the right time. I joined Peirene in 2018 as an assistant – this was the same year that Peirene founder Meike Ziervogel moved to Beirut to found and run the educational NGO The Alsama Project in Shatila Refugee Camp. At first, she tried to run Peirene alongside, but found it difficult to manage along with her commitments to her students. I took over day to day operations of the Press and then, in 2021, Meike decided to step back from Peirene completely. She considered closing Peirene. I knew I wanted to keep Peirene running, but also knew that I didn’t want to run it alone. I asked James Tookey – a former assistant at Peirene, who went on to co-run the Republic of Consciousness Prize among other things – if he wanted to take on this challenge with me, and we took over ownership together. James and I both have jobs outside of Peirene. I work in radio as a freelance producer and have made programmes for the BBC alongside podcast series for independent clients. I see my work as an editor and as an audio producer as being complementary. They are both about facilitating storytelling and creating an experience that is compelling and immersive.
Peirene made a name for itself publishing translated European novellas – how is the editorial focus developing with this new chapter?
Widening our USP allows us to say yes to more great books.Stella Sabin
It was important for James and me to put our own stamp on Peirene, and from the outset, we were keen to expand its editorial focus. When Meike founded Peirene in 2008, there were very few independent publishers specialising in translated literature. It was very important to her that the company had a strong USP that would appeal to wide audiences. Growing up in Germany, she had noticed that the novella was more popular in Europe than in the UK, where it was often considered by publishers as a less ‘sellable’ format. She wanted to bring European novellas to English-language readers, but the question was how to build an audience for them. At the time, film subscription services like Mubi were on the rise, bringing foreign films to a wider audience, so she came up with this idea of ‘literary cinema’, with the tag line ‘books under 200 pages that can be read in the time it takes to watch a film’. This served Peirene well for the next decade, and we built a dedicated following of readers who subscribed to receive every novella we published. Now, 14 years later, that USP has started to feel like more of a constraint. There are now many more publishers focused on translation, and we feel the audience for translated fiction has grown. Widening our USP allows us to say yes to more great books. We published our first book from Chile (Yesterday by Juan Emar) in 2020 and are publishing a Brazilian book (The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer) in 2023, as well as two Thai translations.
So does this mean Peirene will begin publishing more than its three subscription books a year?
Yes, absolutely – next year, we will be publishing two books outside the novella series: one pocketbook and one longer book. Expanding our list is central to our plans.
Are there particular voices you wish the English-speaking market heard more from?
It requires more work to go off the beaten path and find things that have fallen through the net, but it’s important to do so.Stella Sabin
I think independent publishers have been doing great work bringing lesser heard voices and lesser translated languages into the UK publishing market. Something we have been particularly aware of, especially as (historically) a publisher of European literature, is how easy it is to reproduce or reinforce existing barriers to entry into publishing in the source countries – a translated book has to go through at least two sets of gate keepers, the original publisher and then us! The original publisher decides which books they push on an international stage – some will get prominent positions in the catalogues, English-language translations samples, reader’s reports and the agents shooting out emails to English-language publishers, while others won’t be pushed at all. On top of that, bigger publishers have bigger budgets for book fairs and foreign rights teams, so their books become more prominent internationally. Plus, some countries put lots of money into promoting their literature, and others can’t. All this to say, it requires more work to go off the beaten path and find things that have fallen through the net, but it’s important to do so.
What benefits does Peirene’s relocation to Bath bring? Is it exciting to see the UK publishing industry becoming less London-centric?
It’s been a really positive move for us. Being in a smaller community has opened up lots of opportunities for collaboration with other organisations, including Bath Spa University. Bath is also full of wonderful bookshops – Topping and Company Booksellers have been a great friend to us.
Peirene has also had a beautiful rebrand – what brief did you give art director Orlando Lloyd for Peirene’s new look?
Peirene novellas were always designed to be collectable editions that looked beautiful together on a subscriber’s shelf. This has remained the case over the last decade, but over time our book covers stopped having the same impact on booksellers and readers. People came to expect a certain thing from us and we didn’t have the flexibility to surprise anyone. When we came to create the new designs for the novella series we wanted to come up with something that was still collectable and cohesive, but gave each book a more distinctive character. Orlando came up with this split design where the top half is a commissioned artwork and the bottom half is clean with the title and author and translator’s name. The spine is also split so they still look great on a book shelf! For our branding and website we wanted to find a look that stood out among other publishers, whilst feeling positive and open – hence the bright yellow and playful fonts.
Will Peirene be continuing with the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize?
Yes, we have been running the Peirene Stevns Prize now since 2019, with the generous support of Martha Stevns. We have run it for translators from Italian, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese. This year we are delighted to announce that the source language will be German! The prize is open to any translator from German to English without a full-length translation to their name. The winner will receive a fully-paid commission to translate a whole novel for Peirene, a six week retreat in the French Pyrenees and a year long mentorship with an established literary translator. We are delighted to confirm that the mentor for 2023 will be Jamie Bulloch.
How do you hear about new titles, and how might publishers or translators catch your eye with an unsolicited pitch?
We usually hear from publishers or authors’ agents, many of whom we have existing relationships with. We also receive a lot of email submissions from translators, which we do our best to stay on top of – we have found lots of our books this way. A good pitch tells us why this book should be published as well as what it is about/who the author is. If we aren’t already in touch with the translator submitting, then it’s great if they can show they have read some of our books and know our list.
What’s your strategy when you come across a book in a language you don’t read?
This happens a lot! We have a network of translators whose judgement we trust, and they can do reader’s reports and samples for us. If we have been convinced by a pitch or a translation sample, we will usually commission a report or a longer sample.
Translated fiction still only makes up around 5% of fiction published in the UK. Why do you think this is?
I don’t know if the answer lies with readers or publishers. As you say, translated fiction is such a small percentage of books published in the UK, but within the general fiction market I believe it punches above its weight in terms of sales. I don’t know why we publish less translation in the UK – I’m guessing it’s partly cultural and partly financial. The outlays are quite high for publishing translated literature, and the money publishers make from selling on the rights can be smaller. But it’s possibly as much about the dominance of our language in the international publishing market, and the UK educational system and its emphasis on ‘English’ literature (whatever that means).
That said, I think there is also a sense among some UK readers that translated literature is hard to read, academic or pretentious.
How might translated fiction become more accessible?
This is something we thought about when we were in the design process for Peirene – how can we make a brand that feels fresh and exciting, but also open and joyful? As far as it is possible to do so with colour and font, we wanted to give people a sense of the enjoyment they could get from our books, as well as appealing to younger readers who statistically are much less likely to pick up literary/translated fiction.
We’ve also looked at different mediums – translated fiction is less likely to be published as audiobook, because production is expensive and the independent publishers can’t always afford it. Since taking over Peirene we have published three audiobooks with different partners – Spiracle Audiobooks, Listen with Audrey and New World Audio. Our hope is that by branching out into new mediums, we can bring translated fiction to a wider audience.
It was lovely to see a German title as one of Peirene’s most recent publications – do you have any favourite authors writing in German, or favourite German books?
Yes, one of our highlights this year was the event we held with New Books in German and the Goethe Institut to celebrate the launch of Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich) back in February. We then had the great pleasure of hearing that book go out on BBC Radio 4 in August. I’m really excited about A Simple Intervention by Swiss writer Yael Inokai (Carl Hanser Verlag, 2022) – a haunting and powerful novel following a young nurse in a psychiatric unit, as she loses her faith in the medical establishment. We are using an excerpt from this book for the Peirene Stevns Prize this year. The winner of the prize will translate the whole novella for us.
The Peirene Stevns Translation Prize 2023 is now open. To read more and find out about how to enter, click here.
Read translator Jo Heinrich’s article on translating Marzahn, Mon Amour
Read an article on other books set in and around Berlin, by translator, book seller and tour guide John Owen