New English translations of untranslated ancient texts

As an experiment I have used my own heavily-taxed salary and commissioned a translation from Arabic of the Commentary on the Nicene Creed by the 9th century Melchite priest, al-Majdalus, using a commercial translator.  This is expensive, but I have read that this is how the Ante-Nicene Fathers translations were made.  It will be interesting to see what the quality is like.

Naturally I need to get the money back, if I am to do this again. So I will try to publish a printed version, and sell copies to institutions. Once the cost is covered, I’d want to get it online somehow in some manner that doesn’t preclude sales. But the markets are different; online is everyman, while the academic needs his page numbers and ISBN. 

If this could be made to work, then perhaps we might do some more.  Translators from Arabic seem fairly available.  None of the big histories in Arabic are in English; Agapius, Eutychius, Bar-Hebraeus, Al-Makin, etc, although French translations exist of most of them.  I estimate that Agapius is around 90,000 words, and it would cost about $10,000 dollars to have a translation made. Now that is more than most of us can spare (!). But it isn’t really such a huge sum of money, is it? It isn’t that long ago that a laptop cost $5,000, for instance. If one could sell the volume at $100 a go, and could sell 100 copies — I’ve no idea if one could! — the sum would come back there and then.

Is it possible?  Could we do an ANF for the new millennium?  Should I look for subscribers?  How do I market the volumes to the sort of institutions that might buy them?  Over what period do the sales come in?  There are a lot of questions here.  But I’m going to dip my toe in the water and see what happens.

4 thoughts on “New English translations of untranslated ancient texts”

  1. Thank you for your great public-spirited ideas here about increasing the availability of translations.

    One thought I wanted to share is the very good experience I have had using Lulu Publishers for self-publishing ( There are quite a few academic and scholarly works that have shown up at Lulu, and they do have hardback printing options available. I’ve now published two Latin books with them and had very good experiences distributing the books this way. In my case, it’s not so much about an effort to recoup an investment (my only investment is time, not an actual outlay of funds); instead, Lulu has helped me to make these materials available in book form since, for students, having a book in hand is often more convenient than consulting materials online.

    Best wishes in your work!

  2. Thank you Laura for the recommendation. I will look at this.

    What was the physical quality of the volumes like?

    The problem I see is finding buyers for these things — translations of obscure writers, mainly of interest to people in academia. Do you have any suggestions on this?

  3. My experience with the paperback volumes has been very good – I have not done anything with the hardback publication options, although there are quite a few hardback volumes that people have created (I noticed that people are republishing public domain editions of the Vulgate, Isidore, etc., which seems a very good idea – especially since they can enlarge the font as they prefer, etc.)

    What’s nice about Lulu is that they do not charge any upfront fees or maintenance fees of any kind, so you do not have to be in a rush to get volumes sold, with volumes moldering in your garage, for example. So if you are able to reach your potential audience by any means – blog posts of your own, announcements via other relevant blogs, information posted on listserves, etc. – the word can trickle out, and the books are published as requested by your audience. That’s not good if you need money up front, of course, but it’s a nice way to recoup money you might have invested over time.

    Also, I’ve been approached by publishers about my Latin Via Proverbs book, where they wanted to assume the book once they saw what it was like. I don’t have any interest/need to turn the thing over to a regular commercial publisher, but with Lulu you retain all the rights and can always hand the book over to a commercial publisher if something like that becomes an available option.

    Another nice thing is that you can configure different options – a volume that is English only, a volume that is facing text, a volume that includes notes, etc. It’s all up to you – that kind of flexibility is something a commercial publisher is usually not in a position to offer.


  4. This is very interesting — thank you. I think that I will have to look into this seriously. I really do need to retain control over the translations — the last thing I want is to create material that simply is unavailable to most people because of copyright. Once the books have recovered the costs of translation, I want to put them in the public domain.

    Probably the thing to do is to experiment — publish something, and see where it goes.

    Again, thank you for all this most useful suggestion.

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