Battling the 3 Percent Problem: A Profile of Peirene Press

October 2, 2012
Peirene Press forthcoming books in 2013.

Recently, I came across a blog post from the Economist’s Prospero blog entitled “Stories from Elsewhere” that opened my eyes to the shocking statistics surrounding translated works: “Only 3% of the books published annually in America and Britain are translated from another language; fiction’s slice is less than 1%.” That 3% hasn’t changed, then, since 2007, when the University of Rochester launched its site of translation news and reviews, aptly named Three Percent. Balancing this grim news, the Prospero post notes some of the excellent presses endeavoring to solve this issue by translating works originally written in a wide range of languages into English. The task is daunting. Think of how many words do not translate well from one language to the next, and how this varies from language to language. However, presses such as Peirene Press have committed themselves to the task.

Peirene, a small London press, describes itself as “committed to first-class European literature in high quality translation.” Peirene publishes three short European novels a year in English translation from several languages such as Swiss, German, and Finnish, novels Peirene claims can be read in as little time as it takes to watch a DVD. Peirene curates its translation series according to themes—three books each year that share similar content or style. Thus far, Peirene has published titles under three categories: Female Voice, Male Dilemma, and Small Epic. Peirene has recently chosen the theme for 2013, which will be “Turning Point: Revolutionary Moments.” As to its selections, Peirene relies on both outside sources and independent judgment: “We regularly review the winners and short-listed books for the most prestigious literary prizes in the various European countries. . . . Furthermore, we work with international agents and pay attention to what foreign publishers have translated. We are also influenced by suggestions from readers, friends, writers, translators, journalists, university professors. And last but not least we attend European book fairs and are not afraid of making personal choices.” 

Despite the dearth of translation, and thus the need, starting a small press devoted to translated literature sounds like a risky business proposition. In its most recent newsletter, Peirene’s publisher, Meike Ziervogel, describes the press’s intention: “Big publishing houses react to the market—they provide what the reader already knows and therefore wants. Small publishing houses, like Peirene, give you something unexpected and unusual.” For example, Peirene’s most recent book is Richard Weihe’s Sea of Ink, a novella about Chinese painter Bada Shanren, originally written in Swiss German. At the most recent Peirene event, excerpts from the book were given a dramatic reading, and Fabian Kunzli offered a musical response.

Thus far, Peirene has published nine books and selected the three books that will be published in 2013:

2010, Female Voice:

  • Beside the Sea, by Veronique Olmi, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter
  • Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal, translated from the Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell
  • Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, by Friedrich Christian Delius, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (see WLT, July 2012)

2011, Male Dilemma:

  • Next World Novella, by Matthias Politycki, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
  • Tomorrow Pamplona, by Jan van Mersbergen, translated from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson
  • Maybe This Time, by Alois Hotschnig, translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis (see WLT, May–June 2008)

2012, Small Epic:

  • The Brothers, by Asko Sahlberg, translated from the Finnish by Fleur Jeremiah and Emily Jeremiah
  • The Murder of Halland, by Pia Juul, translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken
  • Sea of Ink, by Richard Weihe, translated from the Swiss German by Jamie Bulloch

2013, Turning Point:

  • The Mussel Feast, by Birgit Vanderbeke, translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch, to be released in February
  • Mr. Darwin’s Gardener, by Kristina Carlson, translated from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah, to be released in June
  • Chasing the King of Hearts, by Hanna Krall, translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm, to be released in September 

Lauren Cheney is a WLT intern.