Archive for the ‘Peirene Press’ Category

It’s becoming a habit.  For the third year in a row, I’ve saved up a full series from Peirene Press to binge read over a long weekend.  It gives me an opportunity to see how they play off each other and assess them as a series, and my view of series 5 is that it is the best yet.  In each series so far, there’s always been one that didn’t gel with me.  That’s not true here.  Nor is that due to them being of a likeness because the books in this trio are as different as different can be.

Let’s start at the beginning.

imageWhite Hunger by Aki Ollikanen
Best Finnish Debut Novel 2012
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016
Translated from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

It is 1867, the second year of the last great famine in Finland, and the population is paying the price. It is estimated that 270,000 people died of starvation in Finland that year, and Ollikanen pitches us right into the midst of this suffering. Winter approaches with a farmer’s family fishing for food – the store cupboards are almost empty because the crop has failed. His marital life has been affected – his wife does not want one more mouth to feed. The next time we see them, he is dying of starvation and his wife, Marja is about to leave him to his fate and set out with the two children, Mataleena and Juno, to walk to St Petersburg in search of food. It’s a desperate action. The winter is harsh, the snow is knee deep in places, and they’re cold and hungry before the journey even begins. Nor are they the only ones facing such a trek.

Success depends on the ofttimes begrudging kindness of strangers, sharing the little they have for themselves, or giving them a lift to the next place of shelter. The gruel they are served becomes thinner, the bark content of the bread ever higher. The shelters they find – whether communal or private – are not always safe, particularly for Marja. Even well-meaning folk can do harm. (The stomachs of the starving cannot handle food in normal quantities.)

Contrasting with the experience of the rural migrants (can we call them that?) is that of the urban townsfolk. The difference is emphasised in the novella’s structure which alternates between Marja and her family and the urban scene. The townsfolk are not as badly affected, although life is far from easy for all, apart from the ruling classes. Attitudes to sex are more casual. In fact, so much so that Teo Renqvist earned my intense dislike for … well, that would be telling. Which was a bit unfortunate because I can’t give him any credit for his show of humanity at the end.

Returning to the structure. Ollikanen honours the victims of the famine, Marja, Mataleena and Juno by naming a book after each. For two, this means a book of memorial. For the third a book of hope. Spring arrives at the end of the longest winter. Add this to the language which is highly evocative whether describing landscape or the effects of hunger on the body, and it’s not hard to understand the Man Booker International Prize Longlisting.

The story has obvious contemporary political resonance – something that the IFFP judges valued, it seemed to me, above all else. It remains to be seen whether the MBI judges think likewise.

imageReader for Hire by Raymond Jean
Translated from French by Adriana Hunter

If a book lover ever needs a lightening of heart, this little gem is guaranteed to deliver.

When Marie-Constance G’s friend, Françoise suggested “Why don’t you put an ad in the papers offering to read to people in their own homes?”, my mind flew immediately to Scout’s successful foray into the same field in To Kill A Mockingbird. What can possibly go wrong?

Well, well …. and well again.

I don’t recall Peirene doing comedy before, but this is de-lic-ious. (Dear Nymph, give me more.)

Some mishaps are due to Marie-Constance’s naïvety, and others due to her “paragon” of a husband, who gives her free reign to behave as she will. And she behaves in some very dubious ways.

(I could sidetrack into a discussion as to whether indifference to one’s spouse is a virtue? But I don’t want to spoil the mood, so we’ll leave philosophy out of it.)

In addition to the farcical romp, this book delivered something entirely unexpected. Marie-Constance chooses to read from the French naturalists, and, because of the – shall we say – (mis)adventures that result from the power of this literature, I now have a curiosity to read them too.

Well, well … and well again.

imageThe Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen
Translated from Norwegian by John Irons

Ragna sat on her stool and shone, she shone and glittered and tossed her hair, so thick, so long was it that she could plait it, gather it in a ponytail, roll it up and let it cascade down again in long, soft curls. I stared straight ahead, pretended she wasn’t there, didn’t take any notice of her lapping up my humiliation – Mum cutting and my tears falling at every strand of hair that gave way before the scissors.

Afterwards, I sneaked over to the mirror unseen, alone. …. Ragna appeared out of nowhere and stood beside me. We stared at each other for a long time …. Nothing was said, but both of us saw, what our reflections had to tell.

What do the reflections tell? Ragna, the healthy, pretty sister, is full of promise, but already showing a propensity for psychological cruelty. The standing at the mirror is designed to drive a point home. Look at me, I’m not like you. It’s true. The unnamed narrator, at the age of 7, has survived a serious childhood illness which has left her disabled and unable even to grow a healthy mane. She is now entirely dependent on her parents. When the parents die 12 years later, the duty of care falls on the 23-year old life-loving and man-loving Ragna and with she too loses her prospects. Living in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world, there are no other family members, no social care services to ease her burden, which she carries with increasing resentment and rage.

Ragna dutifully looks after her sister, but with bad grace, never resisting an opportunity to inflict further humiliation. The narrator has nothing to do all day, but read and devise ways of irritating the sister to pay her back in some small measure. As this cycle continues for over 30 years, it needs a stranger to break the pattern.

Enter Johan who moves into a long deserted house nearby. Broad and tall and with a stomach well outside the band of his trousers,  he’s no catch but to the emotionally and sexually deprived Ragna, he is salvation! As their relationship develops, the narrator realises the threat to her existence. Of course, they want peace to enjoy each other. Of course, they’ll want to ship her off to a care home. Of course, she doesn’t want to leave the house she hasn’t been outside since her childhood. It is her world, her only world, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. So she mounts a campaign to thwart their every move.

Is this a miscalculation?

This is an intense, bitter and twisted tale, infused with acts of breathe-taking cruelty. Here are three people in a situation designed to bring out the worst in each other. And yet, despite doubting the reliability of the narrator (is she telling us everything – particularly about her own acts of attrition), it is possible, if not always easy, to sympathise with everyone. Abuse notwithstandig.  Life is complicated like that sometimes.

I think that The Looking-Glass Sisters may be my favourite Peirene. (Although I’ll have to re-read Next World Novella just to make sure.)


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When Peirene #16, White Hunger, dropped through the postbox last week, I was horrified to find that the whole of Series 5 remained in the TBR.  (Where does the time go?) Serendipitously I needed to read just three books to complete #tbr20.  The time was right for a catch up.

I’m not going to review all three in depth because a) time just isn’t on my side right now, b) The Blue Room wasn’t really my cup of tea. (Let’s just say as Tomorrow Pamplona was too testostorony, there was far too much oestrogen in The Blue Room’s pages) and c) Under the Tripoli Sky with its depiction of abused womanhood and an ignored child made my blood boil.  I need to calm down before writing about it.

I may come back and write full reviews of both at a later date because there is plenty to say.  As a whole, I found Peirene’s Coming of Age Series to be the most thought-provoking to date.

Today though I’m concentrating on my favourite of the three.  The review also serves as my first contribution to Stu’s Eastern European Literature Month.

The Dead Lake – Hamid Ismailov 
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

An unnamed narrator is travelling by train across the boundless steppes of Kazakhstan when he meets an incredibly talented 12-year old busker.  The boy’s thick, adult voice and his snappy attitude belie the appearance of his body.  He is a 27-year old man trapped in the body of a child.

Conditioned by The Tin Drum, my mind immediately sprung to Oskar Mazerath, but, thankfully stunted growth is the only thing Yerzhan has in common with Oskar (thankfully, because the world’s only big enough for one Oskar.) As Yerzhan travels on the train with the narrator, he reveals the story of his life in a place that is beautiful, remote and utterly exploited.  His home, an isolated station on the Kazakhstan railway, lies in the vicinity of the Zone (the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site).  His childhood spent riding to school on horses, fox hunting with his grandpa, learning to play the dombra is punctuated by strange and frightening phenomena; a rumbling and a trembling, and then a swirling, sweeping tornado. Ominous to us with hindsight, but to Yerzhan this is everyday life.  (It would be – between 1949 and 1989, a total of 468 nuclear explosions were carried out at the SNTS.) Thrown to the ground, he gets up, dusts himself off and carries on with his daily business.

There appear to be no consequences and so, on the day when he is taken with his classmates to visit The Dead Lake – a beautiful lake that had formed after the explosion of a nuclear bomb – he casually strips off, takes a dip despite warnings to the contrary and his destiny is sealed.  In the words of one of his folk songs:

When I am one, I’m in the cradle,
When I am five, I am God’s own creature,
When I am six, I’m like the birch pollen,
When I am seven, I’m the earth’s dust and its rot,
When I am ten, I’m like a suckling lamb,
And at fifteen I frolic like an elf and gnome ….

Others face fates no less dreadful. While the older generations live to a goodly age, radiation sickness takes hold of  Yerzhan’s beloved cousin, Aisulu, who has grown inordinately tall.  The cost is extraordinary with Yerzhan and Aisulu representative of blighted lives in the hundreds of thousands. The train journey across the Steppes, which has already lasted 4 days when the story begins, continues throughout the entire novella and beyond the end page.  This emphasises the boundlessness of Kazakhstan, an area as large as Europe, and also the environmental devastation.   On page one:

At every way station, the train was boarded by ever more vendors – all women – peddling camel wool, sun-dried fish or simply pellets of dried soured milk.

Busy bustle everywhere. As the train crosses the Steppes, approaching Yerzhan’s home, the narrator is seized by a nameless fear, the feeling of something inevitable yet hidden, that could be here, just round the next bend.  By the time the train arrives at Yerzhan’s home station, Kara-Shagan, there are no signs of life, no chickens running around under the single elm some distance away, no old man with a little flag, no hay laid in for the winter, not even a single little cowpat anywhere.

The final sentence, which I won’t quote, couldn’t emphasise the plain fact more chillingly: it’s not just the lake that is dead.


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I’m reading from the Impac and Folio Prize Longlists and decided that a couple of shorties (i.e novellas) would help the #tbr20 cause along quite nicely.

I’ll start with Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation, which appears on the 2015 Folio Prize longlist.  I heard so much about this upon release last year.  Reviewers fell in love with it one after the next and I can certainly see some of the charm.  The story, to be truthful, is nothing outstanding – a domestic drama of courtship, marriage, parenthood, adultery. It’s the manner of the telling which lifts this novella beyond ordinariness.   Like the jigsaw on the dustjacket, this story is told in fragmentary pieces that need to be put together to form the bigger picture.  Fortunately the fragments are chronological, so it’s not too difficult to piece them together.  

Told from the wife’s point-of view, I read the collection of small, concise paragraphs like a collection of memories jotted down in a notebook: a memory about the husband, her child, feelings interspersed with philosophical bon-mots. The ebbs and flows of a long-term relationship reflected in all honesty: that time of initial discovery,  fondness,  love, happiness, familiarity, sadness, disillusionment, bitterness, counselling, reconcilation. At the moment of greatest difficulty the narrative switches from first person (I, we) to third (the wife, the husband) to denote estrangement and distance.  The concision of thought lending an at times poetical melody to the text.

Some have described it as postmodern, an adjective shared with Kristina Carlson’s Mr Darwin’s Gardener, which is longlisted for the 2014 IMPAC prize. This is a much more complicated prospect; its ambition to depict the collective mind of an English village during the advent of Darwinism.   Set in Darwin’s home village of Downe, Darwin remains off page, leaving them to his gardener, Thomas Davies;  a grief-stricken widower, with two young children, who eschews religion and adheres to his employer’s theories.  Unsurprisingly he takes his comfort from nature.

He is both distanced from and surrounded by a multitudinous and at times motley cast of characters.  The village drunk doctor, the publican, the grocer, a book group, a would-be author,  the wife-beater, the do-gooders, the gossips.  We see them at home with all their imperfections, we see them grapple with the questions that Darwinism has brought to their faith, we see a microcosm of society and we need to pay attention. I haven’t read a review of this book that hasn’t used the adjective polyphonic because that’s what it is. Ofttimes the villagers act like a chorus, each having their say in a single scene, not always explicitly and individually introduced.

I can’t say I did pay the necessary attention (despite the publisher’s warning that this book needs to be read slowly and savoured). There’s no doubt that I would benefit from a second reading, to pick up on what I missed first time round. This is an incredibly detailed and quiet text, and I’m not the most attentive reader of those.   Still I came away with positive impressions.  It’s clever, thoughtful, sympathetic to the foibles of human nature and open to the restorative power of nature.  Perhaps a little less sympathetic to those not accepting of Darwin’s theories. The criticism implicit in the portrayal of their flaws? I can’t quite make my mind up about this. Hence the need for a second reading of an admirable historical portrait in  fine, nuanced translation from Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  

© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)

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An invite to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Award Ceremony took me to London last week, specifically to RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) on Great Portland Place.

where I met bloggers David from Follow the Thread and Stu from Winston’s Dad  as well as blogger-turned-vlogger William from Just William’s Luck.  I availed myself of the refreshments …. of course I did – the event was sponsored by Taitinger ….



A couple of glasses later and it was time for Boyd Tonkin to deliver his speech.


Salient points:

1) Translated fiction does have a wide-spread audience (Top 3 UK fiction bestsellers w/c 22/05/2014 were all translations)

2) A special mention to the Shadow IFFP panel (that made Stu and David smile)

3) Another special mention for The Mussel Feast. (A bitter sweet moment – oooooh, it hasn’t won but there’s never been a special mention before – hooray! And I must say the Peirene Nymph behaved with absolute grace on the night. One day, Peirene, one day.) 

4) The winner is The Iraqi Christ by Hassan Blasim, translated by Jonathan Wright.  



The audience applauded heartily though I confess to mixed feelings. I am delighted for Comma Press, the author, the translator and the short story.  (That’s the second short story collection to take a major prize this year; the Folio Prize went to George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December.) But it’s not a winner, I’m likely to read.  It doesn’t appeal. (Cf Shadow IFFP review from Dolce Bellezza)

Still enough of my grumblings – there was champagne to imbibe and German author Birgit Vanderbeke and her translator, Jamie Bulloch to chat to.  I also met translators Frank Wynne and Shaun Whiteside.  And, of course, the nymph Peirene. (The rumour mill has it that she had a sore head the morning after … I confess, I made sure her glass was kept topped up …. What else can you do?  1 glass to commiserate, 1 glass to celebrate, and repeat ….)

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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.


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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.

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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.

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