Why I Began the Press

I founded the Obolus Press because Sir Stanley Unwin (1884–1968) was right: Publishing translations is highly speculative work.

As Unwin observed nearly a century ago, publishers find it difficult to make money on translations because there are too many parties involved. Most of the foreign books that do appear in English were either very successful in their home market, or they received a grant from a government or institution to put them over the top.

So the anglophone reader is offered a few best sellers and titles that have been chosen by some committee, while thousands of interesting, mid-list books remain untranslated…(1)According to the University of Rochester, only about 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations.

Surveying this heap of neglected literature, this mound of market inefficiency, I wanted to put whatever talent I have to use, contribute an obolus to the humanities, and bring some of these writers across the linguistic divide.(2)An obolus is a little silver coin. In ancient Greece it was commonly placed under the tongues of the dead so that they could pay Charon to be ferried across the river Styx to the underworld. The word is still used in French (verser son obole) and in German (seinen Obolus entrichten) — if you “pay your obolus” you are making a modest contribution to something.

If I were to do all the translation and typesetting myself, and hire freelancers for the rest, I reckoned that I could defy Unwin’s Law and turn a profit so long as I limited myself to works that had fallen into the public domain. (I hasten to add that this final condition is no hardship. Quite the opposite. Like William Hazlitt, I have more confidence in the dead than the living.)

In 2010 I made a tentative start with Georges Barral’s account of the five days he spent knocking around Brussels with Baudelaire in 1864. I was surprised at how well the little memoir was received. It was favourably reviewed as far away as Sweden and the Brussels City Museum purchased a couple hundred copies. However, instead of pushing ahead and translating more books, I regressed — back to hackwork, scribbling for money.

I imagine I would still be scribbling away if my biggest client had not done me a tremendous favour: They didn’t pay me. I kept filing copy every day, they kept publishing it, but I went without a paycheque for two months. I’m a frugal fellow and was able to weather the storm, but it gave me pause. I was already disgusted with churnalism, and now I was earning literally nothing from it… Why continue? To quote Philip Larkin, I chucked up everything and just cleared off.(3)It is easier to be courageous when one has no other options. As Xenophon said while standing beside a ravine in the Anabasis (6.5.18): “We may bless the ground which teaches us that except in victory we have no deliverance.”

Since then I have published monographs on Henri Le Sidaner and Maurice Utrillio, there’s another about William Bouguereau in the hopper, and a history of the Weimar hyperinflation is well underway. I am 47 years old and there are enough untranslated books to keep me busy until the age of 97, which is a wonderful thing since the idea of retirement is anathema to me.

I prefer not to talk about myself (translators, like typography, should be invisible), but thought I should make some kind of introductory statement. I conclude it with a promise to keep the first person to a minimum on this blog.

↑ 1. According to the University of Rochester, only about 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations.
↑ 2. An obolus is a little silver coin. In ancient Greece it was commonly placed under the tongues of the dead so that they could pay Charon to be ferried across the river Styx to the underworld. The word is still used in French (verser son obole) and in German (seinen Obolus entrichten) — if you “pay your obolus” you are making a modest contribution to something.
↑ 3. It is easier to be courageous when one has no other options. As Xenophon said while standing beside a ravine in the Anabasis (6.5.18): “We may bless the ground which teaches us that except in victory we have no deliverance.”