‘You’re crazy – but give it a whirl!’ was how one publisher greeted the idea of founding their own press. Swiss nationals Frédéric and François von Hurter, together with their French friend Laurence, shared a wealth of business experience but none in publishing, and originally planned to focus on translated fiction only, ‘the exotic, the ambiguous, the dark’, as François recollects. That was back in 2003. Now the success of Bitter Lemon Press speaks for itself.
The press’s founders shared a passion for reading and had studied and lived in Anglophone countries for decades. ‘Books were important in our upbringing and in our home life… Northern and Southern European writing was always at hand. Much German literature was always part of the reading diet,’ François explains. Warmly welcomed by all the fellow publishers they consulted while planning their new venture, they decided to stick to translated crime fiction in the early years. ‘I loved the crime genre but had to browbeat my two partners into acknowledging that it was a worthy and rich form of fiction – over the years they have become total aficionados.’ Bitter Lemon Press has gone from strength to strength and now comprises four staff, a loyal team of freelancers and a non-fiction arm, Wilmington Square.
François is clear about their list and output: ‘Our cruising speed seems to have settled at eight to ten books a year, six or seven fiction and two or three non-fiction titles, but without pre-established plans about source languages or genres. On the fiction side we do focus on crime and noir stories, particularly those with a very strong sense of place and, if possible, elements of social criticism.’ This may sound rather serious but François goes on to stress the importance of humour in a good crime novel, as well as the attraction of stories driven by psychology and character. ‘Where possible we avoid serial killers,’ he remarks, drily. ‘We like conflicted, complicated protagonists and they don’t all have to be alcoholic, recently divorced police detectives… Our only real criterion is whether we would immediately call close friends encouraging them to read the novel.’
The publishers look at French and German press reviews to source their translations, and are more enticed by a passionate passing reference than a formal proposal at a book fair. Recommendations from translators interest them, sometimes more so than lists produced by the foreign-language publishers or agents. They are especially proud of their novels translated from the German. These include the legendary 1930s Swiss author Friedrich Glauser, never previously available in English. François is not alone in believing the Sergeant Studer crime series to be one of the best ever published in German. The eponymous Glauser Prize goes annually to the best crime fiction written in the German language.
More recently, Bitter Lemon published a paperback edition of the very successful and humorous Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano, ‘beautifully translated’ by John Brownjohn. NBG readers who attended the Krimi evening in November 2015 will remember Giordano’s entertaining contribution to the panel. John Murray is to publish the hardback edition in the UK and Harcourt in the US. François speaks proudly of seeing their ‘fledgling… flying off to a good start.’
Bitter Lemon draw their books for translation from several sources. They look at the French and German media for reviews and also get recommendations by word of mouth. They often find it more enticing to hear a passionate passing reference than to read a formalised proposal at a book fair. And recommendations from translators do interest them, sometimes more so than lists produced by the foreign-language publishers or agents. While they like to work with translators known to them or to colleagues, they are also open to new ventures and would consider asking two or more translators to submit samples of a text in order to help inform decision-making.
François and his colleagues work with the whole draft from the commissioned translator rather than seeking interim submissions but give feedback even before the formal copy-editor comments are ready. ‘Literary translators often have problems with weapons and post-sex dialogue so those parts are the most entertaining to edit,’ adds François. In any new collaboration they tend to screen translator questions before they go to the author, but are later happy to see direct communication between translator and author.
Bitter Lemon have recently diversified into non-translated literature but remain interested in exploring new areas for books in translation. François refers to Austria and Turkey as well as the wider Middle East, while a novel set in an Islamic community in Europe could be as interesting as something set in the Middle East itself. Bitter Lemon Press looks set to remain as vibrant and colourful as its name suggests!
Interview with Deborah Langton