Publisher Profile: Ariadne Press

Karl Johns and Jorun Johns of Ariadne Press on Austrian literature in translation

Ariadne Press has been publishing translated Austrian literature since 1988 from Riverside, California. Their 260 titles range from exciting new fiction to autobiographies, pioneering critical work, and plays, on diverse subjects from Nazism to science fiction to music and humor. I spoke with editor Karl Johns and founding editor Jorun Johns on the phone about Ariadne, Austria’s modern literary masters, and the intersection of Vienna and California.


Eva Richter: How did Ariadne Press start?

Karl Johns: That’s interesting, how everything starts. The International Arthur Schnitzler Research Association was founded in 1962 to celebrate the 100th birthday of Arthur Schnitzler. When all the German-language refugees came to the United States, California was actually the second most popular goal after New York, in spite of the fact that the Midwest and Chicago already had German speakers and German newspapers and all that. So there were a lot of people in California and Los Angeles. Many of these people survived as psychoanalysts. They were the ones who were most prosperous, maybe. Some of them were the admirers of Arthur Schnitzler, and that’s how that was started, and that led to the journal, which became more and more general, not just Arthur Schnitzler but all of Austrian literature, and it was called Modern Austrian Literature. My mother, Jorun Johns, was one of the editors of that. It sort of grew, and it became the standard place for people to publish articles about modern Austrian authors.

The logical thing was that these people needed to publish books for their academic credentials. And it’s always difficult to find a publisher! So my mother founded Ariadne together with two colleagues, Donald Daviau at UC Riverside and Richard Lawson at San Diego State University. The first book they published was the memoir of Leon Askin, who had begun as an actor in Vienna and emigrated. Since then, Ariadne has put out 260 titles, and we have a number in the pipeline, including Shaking the Empire: Shaking Patriarchy, an anthology of feminist writings from Eastern European languages. All our books are translated into English, with one exception, and the idea is to make Austrian literature, authors, and studies of them available to the English-speaking audience. The Library of Congress does not distinguish Austria from Germany, but it really is a separate tradition.

ER: Is there a particular quality that distinguishes modern Austrian literature? Who are some of the contemporary Austrian fiction writers you’ve published?

Karl Johns: Austria diverges from Germany in the early 19th century; it becomes distinct. Most people would admit that the greatest German-language authors were Austrian. In Austria, you have a mixture of different cultures. If you grew up in Vienna, you were exposed to Hungarian, Czech, Slovenian, other things. Peter Handke, who’s considered the greatest stylist in German today, wrote the very best prose. As it turns out, he grew up in a southern town on the border of Slovenia, where people were bilingual. And in the same area, Robert Musil—who’s another one of the greatest stylists in German, author of Man Without Qualities—also grew up! So these people were often bilingual themselves, or at least were exposed to other languages, and that may be a reason that they were sensitive at an early age to qualities of the language. So the Austrian language is distinct from the Bavarian and other German forms.

But for contemporary writing, it’s all very much up in the air. You can argue about who’s important. There’s a lot of social concerns. The Europeans are all more, I would say, left-wing than the so-called intelligentsia tend to be in America. A lot of it’s politicized now. Peter Handke ended his career when he endorsed the Serbs in the war. That was basically his retirement. As for Thomas Bernhard, he was trained as a musician. He writes with a musical style, and that’s difficult to translate. My mother also edited the first volume that was done in English about Elfriede Jelinek. Then she went to meet her, and Jelinek was very conservative, very well-dressed, quiet, subdued, but the things she writes are the opposite.

In the United States, people don’t know Jelinek’s name, but in Germany, everyone had already read all of her books when she won the Nobel Prize, then she sold 30,000 copies within a week. In the United States, nothing. There are people in New York and in certain theater circles who know the name, and maybe a university here or there where somebody teaches it.

ER: How would you characterize the reception and readership of translated Austrian literature in the U.S.? It sounds rather bleak.

Karl Johns: It’s a small niche market. You know, the population of Austria is smaller than that of L.A. county. If I just think of how many art historians have come out of Vienna, a city of 1 million people, compared to the United States, with 40 million or 80 million, it’s amazing how productive the Austrians themselves are. One would think that they would be read a little more around the world. It’s true that in Germany and Switzerland they are. The big secret if you want to know about up-and-coming Austrian authors is to read the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, because they review these things! And very well, with great interest. One would think that maybe the United States could also develop an interest in some of these subjects, but it’s always an uphill battle to get the Americans to read something.

Maybe now, with ebooks, it’ll work better. We hope digital publishing will eventually take off. One work of ours that sells quite well as an ebook is Stefan Zweig’s Decisive Moments in History. It’s amazing, Stefan Zweig’s books are still selling as well now as they did in his lifetime. It’s funny, and it’s very rare. He’s the kind of person we want the Americans to know better as an Austrian author who cared for people and wrote well.

Jorun Johns: I think maybe there’s a little more attention paid now than when I began. In New York there’s the Austrian Cultural Forum, and they have readings and so on. Of course, New York is quite a different place. It’s so much easier for people to have access to things. I felt, over here in California, that it’s very difficult to get access to things. That’s where I got the idea to start publishing these books and see how they can make a difference, perhaps.

Since I was teaching, and as I’ve always been an academic, that’s where I started. I felt that you have to have the books available and people will find them, especially people who may be teaching at different universities. I think it’s important to have the books translated, and also have books on the authors, for people who need to know or want to know a little more about them. It just depends on who finds the book and uses it in classes, since this will mean more people who are then exposed to that and might start reading it. That’s the only way I think one can try to get the knowledge out there, at least coming from an academic background.

ER: Ariadne has traditionally published many women and feminist writers, including Elfriede Jelinek, Marlen Haushofer, and more recently Kathrin Röggla. Why this focus?

Jorun Johns: People don’t really know about these writers in the United States, so I felt that since they can’t read German, you have to translate the books and tell people about them. That’s why I started with Jelinek, because women were not as well known as writers. When I started working on this twenty years ago, I felt they needed somebody to talk about them. I think in the meantime, they’ve had as much exposure as men, in general. But that’s why I started out concentrating more on women, because I felt that they weren’t really known at all.

ER: What qualities do you look for in translations?

Karl Johns: I tend to translate too literally, not move enough into English idioms; other people become more idiomatic to the point that it becomes more of a paraphrase. Depending on the difficulty of the original style, you find a place somewhere on that scale. It’s good to have other people edit what you’ve done. You get into the language so much that after a while you can forget which phrases are accepted in the other language or not. There are expressions that are so close but not quite the same, and my mistake would be to stay too close to the original, whereas others would want it to sound more like English. But then I think that would be falsifying the style of the author! So, that’s a problem too. I can’t tell you what a good translation is. Poetry is very hard to translate, so we’ve not done poets so much. Ernst Jandl, for example, would be an important name to have, but his work can’t translate. It’s beyond translation.

ER: How has your experience of publishing in Riverside, CA, been?

Karl Johns: We used to have annual meetings in Riverside, where people would come and lecture on topics we would set: Austria and the Nazis, for example, the Jewish presence in Austrian literature, specific authors like Stefan Zweig. And authors would come and do readings. They liked coming here, because in the spring it’s beautiful, and it’s so much cheaper here! They loved to come. So for about ten years we were having these conferences, where you would meet everybody, including the Austrian authors. It was a very good place to sit down and talk if you liked. You ask about the contemporary Austrian writers, and after meeting so many, I can only say that they have nothing in common. I’d go to meet them at the airport and wouldn’t know how to recognize them! “Oh, I’m just sort of middle height, an introvert…” They’re a very mixed bag: a small population who are overproductive.

With digital changes, being in Riverside is not much of a problem. It used to be that publishing had to be in New York, but those days are probably over, and I think anybody can do something now, anywhere, if you learn the language. That’s the joke, that people are learning fewer and fewer languages. That’s why we think translations are important. If you look at history, translations are always important. The Bible had to be translated. Universities say they’re not going to order translations anymore, but they’ve got translations all over their libraries; how can they say that? You can’t. We think translations are an important thing in the life of a culture.


Eva Richter is a writer and editor. Her short stories have been published in Columbia University’s Catch & Release and other outlets, and she is the co-editor of Asymptote blog. She holds a bachelor’s in English and comparative literary studies from Occidental College and co-produced the independent film Redlands.