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

Surveying this heap of neglected literature, this mound of market inefficiency, I decided that it was time for me to escape from journalism churnalism and put whatever talent I have to better use. 2

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.)

The plan, therefore, is to contribute an obolus to the humanities and bring some of these lesser-known artists and writers across the linguistic divide. 3

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.

— Andrew Rickard
July 2020

1 According to the University of Rochester, only about 3% of books published in the U.S. are translations.

2 The magazine I was writing for at the time hadn’t paid me in two months anyway; it’s easy 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.”

3 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.