Barbara began her professional life as a journalist in Germany, before moving to work in publishing in the UK. It was during her time at Harvill Press that the idea for Haus Publishing was born, by way of that towering figure of the Anglo-German literary world, W.G. Sebald. While discussing with him the possibility of bringing his essay collection Luftkrieg und Literatur out with Harvill, Sebald suggested that she publish a selection in English of Rowohlt’s illustrated biographies – ‘the staple food of all students and school pupils’. And so, in 2001-02, Haus Books was born. In 2008, the imprint Arabia Books was founded, one of whose most successful authors is the Syrian-German writer Rafik Schami.
Although its beginnings were in non-fiction, Haus has since expanded into fiction – much of it in translation. Schwepcke happily ‘blames’ this on Rafik Schami. Having published his book Damascus: Taste of a City in their Armchair Traveller series, Schami’s German publisher asked Schwepcke to recommend an English-language publisher for his novel Die dunkle Seite der Liebe. And her mother, commissioning editor of their Armchair Traveller series, encouraged her ‘to do the crazy thing of saying, “Why don’t we do fiction?”’. Haus’s wonderful fiction list, this season alone, includes several titles translated from German, from Joachim Sartorius’ The Princes Islands (tr. Stephen Brown) to the paperback edition of Schami’s latest, The Calligrapher’s Secret (tr. Anthea Bell).
Haus is unusual in having a book shop on its premises. The bookHaus, 70 Cadogan Place, is a venue that allows Haus both to have their whole list permanently on display and to hold launches of their own and others’ books. Peirene Press launched last year’s Catalan title, Stone in a Landslide, to a packed bookHaus, with the audience spilling out onto the streets of Belgravia.
Schwepcke does not hesitate when asked to pick out a favourite from the impressive list of Haus titles – and we are back with Rafik Schami. The Calligrapher’s Secret is her pride and joy, not least because of the essay that prefaces it, on the beauty of the Arabic script and its limitations, which Haus produced as a beautifully illustrated booklet and sent out to booksellers in advance of publication. Schwepcke’s praise for the book is unflinching. ‘It’s a lot to do with Rafik’s passion but also with Anthea’s wonderful rendering of his language; they really are a match made in heaven. Without hesitation I’d say that Rafik’s is the work I’ve been most proud of – outstanding, inspiring, and even made me start up a new company!’.
That new company is ‘Swallow Editions’, and arises from Schwepcke’s commitment to promoting emerging writers and translators. Although she has a long-standing affiliation with many of her translators, she is very keen to work with new talent. When Schami was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2010, he pledged to donate any prize money to a fund that would give emerging writers from the Arab world the chance to be translated into English. Schwepcke loved the idea and suggested that Haus support the project even if Schami did not win the prize. And so ‘Swallow Editions’ was founded, as Schwepcke explains: ‘Rafik heads a group of like-minded people who support this; the first “swallow” has been chosen, and the text will be translated by an emerging translator who will be in London on a residency programme.’
Schwepcke is positive about the future of Haus and of fiction in translation more generally. She is particularly excited about publishing Swiss author Alex Capus’s new book, and about an English original, The Berlin Cantatas, for which she hopes to sell the rights to Germany and beyond. She praises a number of ‘fantastic initiatives, which are all going to contribute to getting more translated fiction out there’, but notes that the most vital stage now is the relationship with booksellers. There is an increased appetite for translated fiction amongst publishers, but ‘marketing and selling is the next nut to be cracked’. With figures of such energy and creativity as Schwepcke leading the way, NBG feels even more positive about this now, too.