Some thoughts on the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize

This morning, the first thing I saw on Twitter was a new prize for emerging translators. It was being organized by well-regarded indie publisher, Peirene Press and you can find all the details here.

(Please note that the prize conditions may have changed since I wrote this article. Any such changes are not coincidental; they are the result of efforts made by myself and others, on social media and via email, to raise our concerns with the publisher.)

In summary, the prize is open to previously unpublished translators (defined as those who have never had a full work of translated fiction published). You need to translate the first chapter of an Italian novel. The prize is worth £3,500, and your translation of the whole novel will be published by Peirene Press.

Sounds great!

But let’s think about this. What they’re really saying is that the prize is a fee for performing a piece of professional work. So literary translation is no longer something that you are paid to do, but rather something that, if you are lucky enough, someone rewards with a cash prize.

And it gets worse. There is no entry fee but Peirene Press “think it is important that everyone who enters this Prize gets something out of it. So in lieu of entry fee, we have decided to ask all entrants to instead subscribe to Peirene Press.”

Or, in plain English, the entry fee consists of a subscription to Peirene Press, and we (Peirene Press) think it is important that we (Peirene Press) get something extra out of the prize, namely, additional subscribers.

And then it gets weird. Entrants must attend an obligatory writer’s retreat in the Pyrenees (no travel expenses available, although the wording on the Peirene website suggests that they think the Pyrenees are in the UK!) and there are no details of whether the retreat involves any editorial input. Apart from just feeling a bit bossy and pointless, this excludes potential entrants with commitments (family, work or whatever) , other circumstances (e.g., physical disability) or just personal preferences that might prevent them from going on the retreat.

When I commented on the prize on Twitter, someone from Peirene replied that their initiative was intended as “a celebration of translation” (preceded by the inevitable “I’m sorry you feel this way…”).

Well here’s an idea. Why don’t you celebrate translation by:

  • not presenting paid work as something that translators should compete for the privilege of performing;
  • not packaging the fee payable for that work as a ‘prize’, and;
  • not forcing translators to go on ill-defined writers’ retreats as one of the conditions for performing our work?