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.