What are the implications of starting a blog? For me it has brought multiple new acquaintances and friends, a much more enjoyable reading life and, inevitably, an unmanageable TBR! For others the paths that have opened up are more life-changing. Australian James J Conway’s blog Strange Flowers, started in 2009, led to his establishing Rixdorf Editions, a Berlin-based independent publishing press in 2017. We are about to relive that journey with him.
1) Welcome to the blog, James. You are a man with many hats. But before you don each one during this interview, I have to ask what led to you leaving Australia to live in Berlin?
Thanks for having me, and for your tireless efforts in celebrating (not just) German literature! So I left Sydney for London in 1998, originally for love but also just a hunger for experience. The range of culture on offer in London was mind-blowing, and I was excited not just by the city but the whole continent. Taking the train to Paris for the weekend was the kind of thing I used to dream about. I became a British citizen back when “European Union” were the first words in the passport and I wanted to deepen my engagement with Europe. Something compelled me to learn German, and I had no fixed aim to begin with. I would take the tube to South Kensington and go to the Goethe-Institut; it was like a day trip to my future, although I didn’t know it at the time. After nine years in London I looked around and found myself in a stressful job in financial reporting which allowed little time to do any of the things that make it such an incredible city, with most of my good friends having moved away. So in 2006, with passable German in my pocket I moved to Berlin – not quite on a whim but with no grand plan, either.
2) Did your passion with “the footnotes of history”, resulting in the creation of Strange Flowers exist prior to your “exposure” to the bohemianism of Berlin? Or was a prior fascination simply nourished by it.
It was very much there beforehand. On my parents’ bookshelves in Sydney there were all sorts of biographies and early on – certainly before I could articulate it as such – I became aware that there were categories of renown that went beyond the expected achievements in life. There was one book in particular that I remember –“Zanies”, a kind of middlebrow compendium with potted bios of extraordinary people. I absorbed it at an age when you just take in everything, like a sponge. Later I was driven by the same desire to discover and share unheralded stories. There’s a certain type of performative otherness which I find fascinating, partly because it is not at all my own mode of existence. I started Strange Flowers in 2009, guided by a motto from the great Quentin Crisp: “In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast.” But yes, the longer I was in Berlin, the more I realised that the things that so many people associate with the city – the freedom, the openness, the rebelliousness – didn’t just emerge from nowhere, that you can trace them back to the late 19th century, specifically to the Naturalist movement, and the development of a vivid alternative to the conservative mainstream of the time.
3) As a blogger of almost 15 years, I appreciate the time the hobby consumes. I can see that each entry on Strange Flowers is an individual research project, taking weeks, if not months to create. How do you go about this? Do you set a time limit on each entry?
Now you’ve awakened my guilt, because I have far less time to spend on the blog than I used to. At one point I was posting daily, which even I can’t believe now; you can essentially trace my employment history through the frequency of posts. Some posts certainly take a lot of digging, but often it is a synthesis of things that have accrued in the research pile over time and which suddenly come together. For years now I’ve been collecting books, saving articles, bookmarking sites for anything I think might be of interest later on. Research is my happy place; I love making connections, tracing hidden links, drawing out mutations of sensibility through time and place.
4) Let’s celebrate the energy you’ve put into Strange Flowers. Which 3 posts give an overall flavour of the site?
One thing that definitely developed as Strange Flowers progressed was a sense of place, and I love being able to visit locations associated with the objects of my various obsessions. A good example of this is my visit to Vienna (actually two parts: one and two). I would also add my review of Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Bougrelon. It is an example of how interests can ripen and deepen over time; I was fascinated by the Decadent figure of Lorrain long before I read his work, and then I loved Eva Richter’s translation. And a bit further back – an early precursor of performance art, which shows how every hidden story conceals even more stories.
5) Working as a commercial translator, you decide to dive into the world of literary translation. What led to this decision?
My work in London was highly abstract; I could never see the value of it, least of all to myself (beyond the pay of course). With commercial translation – which I still do – it is much more straightforward. I receive a text, I translate it, review it, send it back, all within a few hours usually. It often involves research, and you find yourself engaging with areas you’d never previously considered, like environmental law in Switzerland. And then, once you finish, you can put it aside and you don’t have to spend the rest of the day worrying about Swiss power stations. But still, I was looking for greater meaning, something that I could actually define and develop myself rather than just doing for someone else. The desire to attempt literary translation was there longer than the reality; I had no network, little credible experience. But the Diploma in Translation I sat for had a literary component, so when I passed that I thought, “well, someone thinks I can do it”. In a way Rixdorf translations are the two things coming together –translation and the urge to tell forgotten stories. There’s definitely a continuum; for instance, I first wrote about the “bohemian countess” Franziska zu Reventlow on Strange Flowers in 2010. I hadn’t read her books then, but her charisma and bravery seemed to reach through time. And then seven years later I issued the first English translation of her work – The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe.
6) Did the transition from commercial to literary translation come easily? What were the challenges?
Commercial translation requires flexibility, an understanding of voice and research skills which are just as valuable in any other type of translation. And also, my work was never solely corporate; I’ve translated texts for the German National Library, for the literature festival here in Berlin, for galleries, and a number of books for a German theatre publisher. So it wasn’t such a stark transition. As a process, I enjoyed literary translation straight away: defining a strategy, weighing up loss and compensation, all those knotty questions about register and nuance, the close reading of the text. But the challenge of course is that it’s close reading which requires a response. As a reader I can choose not to dwell on ambiguities in the text, or let them float around my mind in free association, but as a translator you have to make a call and/or find some way of preserving that ambiguity. I think any translator will tell you that you can go through pages of text with relative ease and suddenly snag on a word or phrase which can absorb enormous amounts of time. Some days I will wake up and the first thought in my mind is some vocabulary puzzle which I haven’t been able to solve the day before. Logistically, one of the hardest things in balancing commercial and literary translation is reconciling the time horizons inherent to each. I will often get a commercial text in the morning to be returned in the afternoon, and meanwhile in the back of my head I’m thinking, what will I be publishing in 2023? It is very difficult to hold those entirely different time scales in your mind simultaneously.
7) Did you always intend to found Rixdorf Editions to publish your translations, knowing that the texts probably wouldn’t appeal to mainstream publishing.
I very much wanted to get the material out in some form, and considered trying to interest an established publisher – a university press, for instance – in taking them on in the form of an imprint. But as I put together a proposal I developed such a clear idea of how the books should be presented that I thought, as difficult as it would be, I should do it myself. I cannot overstate how little publishing experience I had. But I was greatly inspired by the example of independent presses which were reaching into the past and creating what I would call an alternative canon of works in translation – New Directions, Seagull, Wakefield, Twisted Spoon, to name a very few. I responded not just to the material they published but the evident passion and erudition with which they contextualised and presented the works. It wasn’t that I saw myself as a potential publisher, casting about for material, I was very much impelled by the material itself. And in the afterword for each title I wanted to add context around the work and also honour the lives and struggles of the writers themselves, a project that definitely followed on from Strange Flowers. I never worry about running out of material; I do worry I won’t live long enough to translate everything I want to!
8) On one hand, having your own translation/publishing house gives you all the independence you could wish for. On the other, all the risk. I suppose you have to balance one against the other. How does that go?
It certainly gives you freedom. You can take a translation project from initial idea to physical object within a few months which is just not how normal publishers work, unless they’re rushing out a cash-in celebrity bio. Obviously I get to choose the titles, and as it’s an intensive process I don’t choose on a whim or engage with something that I can’t wholly get behind. But with a small press (and it’s basically me, and my partner Miles who proofreads the translations), no matter how hard you work you have a feeling that you could be doing more, and that feeling is relentless. Things are always going wrong, you’re constantly prey to influences outside your control. You can never dedicate as much time as you would like and something has to give, and often in a micro outfit it’s the promotion. Early on I had a naïve, romantic idea that I could just issue a work and people would see what I saw in the original text. But that’s just not how things work. You have to keep at it and keep at it, and sometimes even then you will find it impossible to engage interest in a project which you feel strongly about. But it’s something I chose to take on, it was always going to be difficult, and ultimately you hope people respond to the outcome rather than the effort.
9) What does it take for a text to be considered as a potential addition to the Rixdorf Editions catalogue?
The basic criteria is a book that was published in Germany between around 1890 and 1918, which hasn’t been issued in English before. Beyond that, for me it has to say something beyond its age. Like Berlin’s Third Sex by Magnus Hirschfeld which is about early 20th century queer life and reads so much like the Berlin of now. Or Anna Croissant-Rust who emerged from the Naturalist scene in Munich; if you took her radical 1893 prose poems, removed the year and asked someone to guess when they were written, few would go lower than, say, 1930. Another thing is they need to be relatively short. I don’t think you can lure people into engaging with an unfamiliar era by dropping some great tome on their toes. And the book also has to be something that I feel I can inhabit, in a voice I can adopt as my own. But even that changes over time. The next Rixdorf book is Three Prose Works, a collection of texts by the great Else Lasker-Schüler, and her voice is so unique, so challenging, so confident in its own irregularity that I really don’t think I would have been up to it when I started out. “Voice” is really key – in a literal sense. If I’m considering a book I will read the original aloud, start to finish, as a way of working my way into the text, finding my voice within it. Then later in the process I will also read the entire translation aloud. It’s time-consuming, but there are things you discover when sounds emerge from your mouth that you don’t get from silent reading.
10) How specifically did the latest Rixdorf, Papa Hamlet, convince you to make the investment?
It was the intensity of it I responded to. It struck me as very modern, not at all concerned with spoon-feeding the reader, and there was a slightly unhinged energy to it which appealed to me. I was interested in Naturalism, perversely because it’s so unfashionable now, but also because I believe it has been misunderstood. Papa Hamlet launched Naturalism in Germany; the authors Arno Holz and Johannes Schlaf were highly important writers both together and separately, so it’s kind of extraordinary that this is the first English translation of their work. As this and Anna Croissant-Rust indicate, German Naturalism could be highly inventive and daring; much closer to Modernism than Realism. In fact Papa Hamlet is even Postmodern in a way, with its appropriations and irony and play of identity; the authors initially made up a Norwegian author and claimed to have translated him (which naturally intrigued me as a translator). The main characters of Papa Hamlet are bohemians and as Strange Flowers indicates, I’ve long been interested in bohemianism as a field of experimentation which has essentially resulted in many of the lifestyle options available to us today. Again the sense of place is important; being able to get on my bike and cycle to places where the writers lived and worked, and wrote about, adds depth and variation to the whole process. And there is a marked sense of place in the work itself, which essentially plays out in one room. I started translating it in the first lockdown, so the closed-in, anxious feeling of the text felt very familiar. I remember wondering how I would feel about it once corona was behind us. I’m still wondering …