the  obolus  presslogo

Ferrying artists and authors back from the 19th and early 20th centuries


charon's barque: a blog and miscellany


why i founded the press

Nearly a century ago, Sir Stanley Unwin (1884–1968) observed that publishers find it difficult to make money on translations because there are too many parties involved. This remains true today: potential earnings are so diluted that acquisitions editors will only consider a foreign book if it has been very successful in its home market (and therefore likely to do well abroad), or if it is eligible to receive a government grant to offset some of the cost.

As a result, the English-speaking reader is offered a few best sellers and titles that some committee has deemed worthy, while thousands of interesting, mid-list books remain untranslated... *

Surveying this heap of neglected literature, this mound of market inefficiency, I thought I might succeed where others had failed — it was time to escape from the corporate veal pen and put whatever talent I have to better use. †

If I were to do all of 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 working with the defunct is no hardship. Quite the opposite. Like William Hazlitt, I do not think the worse of a book for having survived the author by a generation or two, and have more confidence in the dead than the living.

My hope is that by ferrying some of these lesser-known artists and writers across the linguistic divide, I can both earn a modest income and contribute an obolus to the humanities. ‡

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



* According to the university of rochester, only about 3% of books published in the United States are translations.

† The magazine I was writing for at the time hadn't paid me in two months anyway. Why not chuck up everything and just clear off?

‡ 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 small contribution to something.