Shortlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Translated from Japanese by Allison Markin Powell

By all accounts this is the most beloved of Kawakami’s novels and there have been a number of reviews in the blogosphere.  But what was I expecting?

The cover, a reproduction of one of Natsume Hayashi’s levitations, led me to expect something strange and quirky between the pages.  Well, it was certainly unusual but I wouldn’t call it strange or quirky, not even the weather.

Unusual in the sense of it being the story of a blossoming romance between a woman in her late 30′s and her former teacher, a man some 30 years her senior.  It is a romance that grows slowly from a friendship forged over many nights social drinking and one which both parties seek to avoid through reticence, refuge in the politenesses of Japanese conventions and, let’s not forget a lotta, lotta saké.  It’s not clear to the protagonists or to the reader at which point companionship turns to friendship turns to love.  This is something that is realised only when the paths of Tsukiko and Sensei fail to cross for a number of weeks.

A gentle story but, if I’m honest, too slow and repetitive for me … and I was concerned about the quantities of alcohol consumed.  Does anyone see some message in that, other than one of solitary people seeking to quell their loneliness through drink?

I won’t reveal the ending. I will reveal, however, that it was only at that point that the poignancy and charm of the novella truly asserted themselves.



I am now juggling 4 shortlists: Bailey’s, BTBA, IFFP and The Walter Scott Historical Fiction Prize.  I only intend reading the latter in full and from the TBR for the others.  This means slow progress and being behind the curve for a while but for some reason, I’m more interested in my TBR than anything else at the moment.

Even so, since the Bailey’s longlist was announced, I have read the astounding total of just two titles.  Still both were good choices.

I didn’t think so during the first few chapters of Deborah Kay Davies’s Reasons She Goes to the Woods, which had more than a few oh-lordy-I-really-hope-I-imagined-that moments.  Thankfully these were short but they were disturbing.  The story of Pearl is told in a sequence of one page episodes as an abstracted contemporary fairy tale.  But this is not Walt Disney.  This is a very Grimm world, one in which Pearl is the wicked witch: the female foil to Lionel Schriver’s Kevin.  There is a dawning awareness that Pearl’s obsession with Daddy is not just that of a daddy’s girl.  Nor that the external cause of her mother’s mental issues is very far away.  What I didn’t understand and thought not quite real was the adulation which the other kids bestowed on Pearl, even in the face of some breathtaking cruelty.  Still that, I suppose is the mark of a true sociopath.  Control and manipulation are second nature, though there comes a time when you can’t kid all of the people all of the time and the comeuppance becomes inevitable …..It’s very satisfying watching someone like that get their just desserts … as in Grimm, so to in Davies.

Jumpha Lahiri’s The Lowland is as different in tone and structure as is possible to imagine: a story of how the political can clash with the personal with repercussions reverberating through the years.  It begins in Calcutta with the brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who become politically active during the 1960′s.  Udayan joins the radical Naxalite movement, while Subhash leaves to study in America.  Udayan’s commitment costs him his life and he leaves a young pregnant widow, whom Subhash subsequently marries to save her from the bleakness that would await her in India.  He brings her daughter up as his own and, after Gauri abandons the family to pursue her own career, he brings her up alone.  Now that may be a spoiler but I don’t think the focus is on the plot.  Lahiri’s interest lies in the relationships: parents-child, brother-brother, husband-wife, emigrant-home country, immigrant-adopted country. As the story moves forward in time, she peels back the layers of history to reveal the truth behind Udayan’s death in the Lowland.  Without doubt it is the pivotal moment in the lives of all the major characters and it is not until the very end of the novel that we discover the detail of what led to it.  The telling is very fluid and accomplished, but for me, it became just another dysfunctional family story once Subhash and Gauri had married.  Neither is there the kick that Davies has injected that makes the story memorable.  

I am obviously missing something.  The Lowland was longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and has now been shortlisted for the Bailey’s.  But, if this were a rooster-like bout, I’d be putting Davis through to the next round.  I find some weeks after reading both novels, that the whole of Reasons She Goes to The Woods adds up to more than the sum of its episodic parts.

Reasons She Goes to The Woods 4_stars.GIF /  The Lowland 3stars.GIF

Today we are celebrating the IFFP shortlisting of Birgit Vanderbeke’s very fabulous Mussel Feast with a 3-course menu charting the book’s progress from author’s brainchild to finished product. I did think of including part 4: Meet the reader but the idea of interviewing myself felt too weird.  However, you, dear blog readers, may interview me (in comments) if you so wish. 

For now, though, please enjoy the starter and scroll down/follow the hyperlinks to the main course and dessert.

The Mussel Feast Menu

Starter: Meet the Author (Birgit Vanderbeke)

Main Course: Meet the Translator (Jamie Bulloch)

Dessert: Meet the Editor (Meike Ziervogel)


Birgit Vanderbeke answers:

What was your starting point?

The Mussel Feast came into being in August 1989 during an extraordinary historical situation.  No-one knew that the wall would fall but everyone knew that “”something” was on the way and that “something” was about to happen.  As I was writing  The Mussel Feast, the television constantly broadcast pictures of increasing numbers of East Germans travelling via Austria, Prague and Budapest to the West German embassies.  The Monday demonstrations in Leipzig began around that time and people were worried that the East German government might emulate the behaviour of the Chinese government in Tiennamen Square.  I also remembered what it was like to move as a 5-year old child from East to West.

Let me add to that a little literary theory.  For my thesis I had been thinking about the relationship between metaphor and metonymy. (By the way I was intending to study for a PH.D but The Mussel Feast and other literary pursuits changed that plan.)  I really enjoyed putting theory into practice with the mussels.  A metaphor loses its power when it becomes part of a metonymy.  To this day readers are puzzled by my mussels and wonder how they “work”.  That amuses me.

Describe the creative process from that point until it achieved its final German form.  

At the beginning of August 1989 I started with the first sentence and wrote quickly and sequentially to the end in one pass, without considering composition, style or aethetics.  I believe that I had the material for this first book inside me for a long time and that it, in fact, was part of my inner life – both consciously and subconsciously.  Thus, I only had to turn something inside out and transform it without scruple or hesitation. The whole thing took about a month.  The following April  I spent two days discussing the text with my editor during which we removed one or two redundancies.

Did the fact that it took so long to find an English publisher frustrate you in any way?

It took more than 20 years to find an English editor.  Thank you, Meike.  However, it didn’t frustrate me. It’s a well-known fact that only a small number of books are translated into English.  I did think it a shame though.  However,  I’m all the happier now. Also slightly amused  because it is delightful to watch English readers interpreting the book as if it had just been written, while, in fact, it is nearly 25 years ago.  This historical “gap” seems to be one of the distinguishing features of the critical appraisal.

What does the IFFP shortlisting mean to you?

The IFFP shortlisting is a great pleasure and an honour. It is also quite exotic, because England – until recently – was as  physically removed from my life as the creation of The Mussel Feast is timewise. And yet, unimaginably I have enjoyed, both physically and mentally, four trips  to London in the space of one year.


Today we are celebrating the IFFP shortlisting of Burgit Vanderbeke’s very fabulous Mussel Feast with a 3-course menu charting the book’s progress from author’s brainchild to finished product.

The Mussel Feast Menu

Starter: Meet the Author (Birgit Vanderbeke)

Main Course: Meet the Translator (Jamie Bulloch)

Dessert: Meet the Editor (Meike Ziervogel)

Jamie Bulloch answers:

How did you come to be the translator of The Mussel Feast?

I had already translated two titles for Peirene Press: Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by F.C. Delius, and Sea of Ink by Richard Weihe.

Describe your working method. How long did it take, how many drafts until you handed your translation to the publisher?

Birgit famously wrote this book in three weeks; I wasn’t able to match that tempo! I’m not always working full time, so it’s difficult to tell exactly how long a translation takes. I like to work through a first draft relatively speedily, then edit slowly and carefully, with minimum reference to the German original. In this way I can best satisfy my principal aim, which is to produce good English prose that doesn’t read like a translation. The publisher always receives my second draft, therefore, though the final text will involve further corrections/amendments after both the copyediting and proofreading stages.

What were the specific challenges of translating the text? How did you resolve these issues?

The style of Mussel Feast is quite particular, with very few breaks and sparse punctuation. In consultation with the publisher I took the decision to add more commas, semi-colons and full stops to ensure clarity and allow the text to read more elegantly. Because of its highly structured rules regarding word order, German as a language remains intelligible with minimal punctuation. English does not work in the same way, so the challenge was to find a solution which recaptured the breathlessness of the original without confusing the reader.

I take the view that everything is translatable; sometimes you just need to think laterally. For example, if a joke (especially a pun) in one sentence seems to defeat your creative powers, perhaps it’s possible to invent a different joke in the next sentence, or even paragraph. Cultural and historical references can be an issue, but I’m firmly of the belief that the (hopefully curious) reader should make an effort to find out about things they may not be aware of – no ordeal these days with the internet constantly at our fingertips. After all, one of the joys of literature in translation is the way in which it introduces the reader to new worlds.

What does the IFFP shortlisting mean to you?

The IFFP is the premier, most high-profile disctinction for our profession, and unique in that it places equal emphasis on the writer and translator. The competition is very stiff, and the judges all extremely well read and erudite. So it’s a thrill for any translator to find themselves on the shortlist.

Today we are celebrating the IFFP shortlisting of Burgit Vanderbeke’s very fabulous Mussel Feast with a 3-course menu charting the book’s progress from author’s brainchild to finished product.

The Mussel Feast Menu

Starter: Meet the Author (Birgit Vanderbeke)

Main Course:  Meet the Translator (Jamie Bulloch)

Dessert: Meet the Editor (Meike Ziervogel)

Meike Ziervogel answers:

When did you decide to add The Mussel Feast to the Peirene catalogue?

In the autumn of 2011, just after the Frankfurt Bookfair, I was approached by Rotbuch Verlag, the German publisher of Das Muschelessen (The Mussel Feast), with the request for Peirene to publish the book. I felt honoured, yet surprised. I had read the book back in the early 90’s, shortly after publication. When I set up Peirene in 2008 The Mussel Feast was one of the titles I checked out straight away. I googled it and for some reason I came away convinced that the book had already been translated years ago. I was wrong. So, when Rotbuch approached me, I reread the novella to make sure that my present day judgment reconciled with my memory. Needless to say, it did.

How long from that decision to the finished book arriving at Peirene HQ? What are all the stages in between?

As soon as I had negotiated the English rights for The Mussel Feast, I asked Jamie Bulloch if he wanted to translate the book. Jamie and I had already collaborated on two other German novallas – Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman (Peirene No 3) and Sea of Ink (Peirene No 9). We work well together and have similar ideas of what a good English text should read like. He delivered his translation in early summer of 2012. I then edited it. This process can take up to a month, because I go through the story a number of times. In early September it went back to Jamie. He made a few more changes. Afterwards I sent the text to Lesley Levine, Peirene’s line editor. She checks for grammatical mistakes, unnecessary repetitions. And it is quite amazing how many sneak in without either the translator, in this case Jamie, or I spotting them. Once that was done, The Mussel Feast went to our external reader. His job is to mark up anything that still jars and sounds awkward in English. Usually at this stage it’s a mere couple of phrases that still need changing. Then I sent the text to Alex at Tetragon, our setter. And once the text is set, it’s again printed out and subjugated to a final proofread by a new proofreader. The Mussel Feast eventually headed to the printers in late October 2012. The finished book arrived in November in time to be mailed to our subscribers in December. It’s official publication date, though, was in February 2013, when bookshops replenished their stocks.

You personally act as editor of the translated text. Describe that process. Were there any significant decisions/changes made during the editing of The Mussel Feast? Do you have executive rights on this or do you collaborate with the translator?

In my view editing literature in translation is just as important as editing a novel written in English. When a text arrives on my desk my job is to make sure it works in English.

With all the Peirene books I either know the original story or a German/French translation of it. So I have a very good sense of the overall structure, rhythm and soul of the story. The best translators – such as Jamie – know that the original merely serves as springboard to create an English book. The translator needs to be creative writer and their work will go through a number of editing rounds. In my view, editing translations is like peeling an artichoke. Each round of revision brings us closer to the essence of the original and improves the English text.

Moreover, editing translations involves similar work as editing an original text: rewriting what doesn’t work, thinking of structure (should this sentence/paragraph come first or do we need to change the order), making sure that images make sense and come alive, language register etc.

With The Mussel Feast, we faced a number of challenges: Firstly, the sentence structure that Jamie already alluded to. Secondly: Birgit Vanderbeke is an author who creates many of her images via language association. Das Muschelessen is filled with German colloquialisms and metonyms. Indigenous metonyms often lose their sense when translated into English, nor does the English equivalence calls forth the same association. So we had to find ways of rewriting without jeopardizing the flow of the narrative. And sometimes Jamie came up with ingenious rewordings. Haushaltsgesicht – household face, i.e. the face the mother makes when she is at home being a good housewife – is now ‘wify mode’. And thirdly: There are a lot of repetitions in the original. In the German these repetitions give the text a sense of breathlessness. In English they serve the same purpose. However, we had to carefully balance them so that they wouldn’t tip the reader from breathless excitement into sheer boredom.

What does the IFFP shortlisting mean to you?

I am absolutely thrilled that Peirene is on the short-list. Since we started publishing in 2010, a Peirene book has been long-listed each year. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (Peirene No1) in 2011, Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Peirene No 4) in 2012, The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul in 2013 and in 2014 Birgit Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast. As Jamie has already said, The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is extremely prestigious and the competition very tough. So being long-listed four times in a row and now on the short list is a huge credit to our authors, translators – and The Nymph of course.

The bookshop at Aye Write is an extension of Waterstones Sauciehall Street branch (now there’s a shop I can lose myself in for days ….).  For the length of the festival it is housed in a small corner room just off the main corridor.  

The big table in the centre, whilst packed with treats galore, takes most of the space, and so it is important to schedule browsing visits for a time when everyone else is at an event.  You certainly don’t want to be there when the crowds have descended to buy copies for signing – particularly when authors are squashed into the right hand corner for signing. 

It really is the most curious set-up.  It wasn’t always thus.  Way back in the mists of Ayewrite history, I remember,  the bookshop was housed in a far more spacious place.  To the right of the main hall I think – the room that this year was used for storing chairs. Perhaps a council-run festival doesn’t wish to appear too mercenary?

Shelf organisation too is somewhat idiosyncratic.  The books are organised by the event date – at least that way, if you know who you’re coming to see, you can easily find their book.  It’s taken a while but this filing system has grown on me.  I don’t usually get a printed copy of the program until I arrive for my first event and no matter, how many times I study the online catalogue, I always miss something interesting.  One year I almost missed Anthea Bell.  It wasn’t until I saw a batch of her translations on the shelf, and went to investigate the program that I discovered one of the highlights of the last 8 years at Aye Write! This year’s discovery was former Edinburgh Makar, Stewart Conn.

Normally my bank manager is quite relaxed about my visiting the Aye Write Popup Shop.  This year’s programme, however, was far more comprehensive that it has been to date.  There were obviously some generous sponsors around this year … and my bank manager needs to schedule a meeting with them because the popup shop has now been added to Lizzy’s solvency risk register.

The thing is Aye Write now has its own generously sized bookbag and the rule is, have bookbag, must fill!  Aye?  Right!

Bookshop Ratings

Ambience: Pleasant when less than half-a-dozen others in the shop.  Otherwise claustrophobic.  5/10

Distance from Home: Short-range 22.9 miles (Actually the nearest book shop to home!) But only there 10 days a year.  7/10

Literary Deliciousness:  An interesting selection.  Strong on Scottish literature.  Almost no translated material but good for making discoveries.  7/10

Packaging:  Curiously the Aye Write bookbag was not for sale in the shop but at the box office.  Packaging was a Waterstones plastic bag bearing the bon mot Even the most ardent reader will never reach the end of a good bookshop.  6/10

Will I return?  Of course though not for another 12 months.  7/10 

Average score:  6.4

Later today I’ll be taking the train to the Mitchell Library for the final day of Aye Write 2014.  It’s such a beautiful building – time for a tour methinks.

The small entrance on North Street is the one I use.

North Street Entrance

Walking round the building brings you to the main entrance on Granville Street, which is much more spectacular.

Granville Street Entrance

Once inside, it can get very busy.

A busy foyer

The auditorium is just on the left and the main cafe to the right. Walking back through the library, the business centre and around the corridor, the book shop is on the right (separate post to follow) and the grand main hall is on the left.  How’s this for a ceiling?

Main hall ceiling

Impressive even with a missing pane?

Missing Pane

Opposite the main hall is the grand staircase.

At the bottom of the stairs

Half way up, there’s an excellent view of the inside of the intricate building dome.

Inside the dome

Turn right to the Burns Room, where the poet himself is to be found guarding the library’s valuable collection of poetry.

Burns guarding his poetry

Back to the top of the staircase now, and turn left.  This brings you to the Jeffrey room which houses a beautiful collection of first editions, fine bindings and illustrated books, which were donated to the library in 1902 by Robert Jeffrey. The terms of the bequest were that the collection was to be displayed in its entirety.  The result is rather fabulous.

Dickens 1st editions

Back to the staircase again.  (I wandered up and down this corridor and staircase quite a lot during the festival.) A quick peek over the banister shows you the view to the exit back to North Street.

Down the stairs to the exit

At this time of the year, it can be quite dark when leaving but the library at night is really stunning.

The Mitchell at Night

Look carefully and there she is, at the top of the dome: Literature is wishing you a safe journey home and a speedy return.

Fare Ye Well


It’s a beautiful venue for a literary festival, don’t you agree?


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