October 2012 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Smith&Press: Translations of Early Printed Books

I recently found out about Smith&Press, a fairly new independent publisher that is producing incredibly useful translations and handsome facsimile editions of early printed books. They caught my eye with their recently completed four-volume translation of The Nuremberg Chronicle. So I asked the founder, Selim Nahas, about his mission and his goals for the company by email earlier this week.

RRB: Tell me how you got started.

SN: I have been an antiquarian book collector for 15 years now and have come to appreciate how rare and expensive collecting may be. For the general public that may have an interest regarding early printed materials and social issues of the Renaissance, there seemed to be three fundamental problems. Accessing the materials (the books) has become too prohibitive in price. Access to special collections is rare for those that are not affiliated with an institution. The material can be difficult to read even for those versed in Latin or other languages and finally, many wonderful works have not received the attention they deserve simply because they are not part of a curriculum or they are simply very rare. The reality is that large projects, such as this one, generally can't happen in the absence of a business approach that finances the talent and drives a schedule.

Chronicle-Vol. 1.jpg
Volume one of Smith&Press' Nuremberg Chronicle translation.

: Is your mission to produce beautiful books or to provide translation and access to early books? Or a little bit of both?

SN: I consider the experience of reading books from this period in history a portal into the thought process of the day, both socially and technologically. To truly enjoy the experience of early books, one must have the means to touch and read them. Much too often, the public will center on the prints and illustrations, the rubrication or illumination of these books. While I too gravitate to the tactile experience of books, I believe they have much more to offer. My objective, therefore, became to solve the following three problems:
1) Provide access to institutions and the general public to these works by offering a cost- effective, high-quality Reference Facsimile as well as a full-size, high-end Facsimile.
2) Provide translations with clear notes explaining elements of the text that may not be evident to the reader and cite the sources from which these works were derived or compiled (keep in mind that works at this time in history were subject to use by anyone with the means, since copyright law did not exist).

3) Respect the art of the book by offering the work in a format that always roots the reader in the original work. We achieve this by juxtaposing the original page with the translated one to allow the reader to follow along without the need to turn pages. We also provide a full-size facsimile with a conservation-grade binding. Unlike most facsimiles, the full-size facsimile is made from super high-resolution scans (1200 DPI). These scans provided us the resolution we needed to extract the text and image to print on a page as the press would have originally. We did not want to transfer stains and other imperfections by providing a high quality image of the page. We wanted the book to look the way it did when originally printed in Nuremberg on the Koberger presses. We also did not add color in the process because the original was printed in black and white. Any color would have been added by hand after the printing process was complete. The paper we selected matches in thickness and weight of the original paper and is a nice representation of what the Chronicle would have looked like had you purchased it in the fifteenth century. The binding is also made in the same manner as an original. We have seen original examples in both pigskin and calf on a variety of different boards. We selected the final design based on real examples of the Chronicle as well as details referenced by J.A. Szirmai (The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding). The tooling is appropriate for the period and region as well as the type of end bands and boards. The final touch is added using bronze-cast clasps and bosses that are fully functional to complete the binding. The result is a book that I have as much pleasure handling as my original copy. (Yes, I'm not exaggerating.) The facsimile feels and behaves the same way the original does. The journey to complete this level of quality required no fewer than three excellent binders and conservators to work on this project. I encourage you to take a look on the website to view the images of the full-size facsimile if you have not done so already.  

RRB: Smith&Press has just completed a full translation edition (in four volumes) and reference facsimile edition (one volume) of the Liber Chronicarum (a.k.a. Nuremberg Chronicle). This seems like a huge undertaking for a new and independent company. Why such a big project?

SN: I selected the Nuremberg Chronicle for a few reasons. This work holds a very misunderstood place in history. It has often found its demise at the hands of dealers who sell individual pages in anticipation that individual leaves will bring more than the book as a whole. The Chronicle is the most ambitious integration of text and illustration of the fifteenth century. Having worked with it digitally and owning an original copy of my own, I have come to appreciate the challenges to edit and produce such a work.
     I also selected the Chronicle because many share my enthusiasm for this book. I felt that institutions would benefit from the broad spectrum of material that it covers. I am aware of the translation that Walter Schmauch produced of the German edition. I was also convinced that the German edition differed from the Latin edition for a number of reasons. This is the only English translation of the Latin Edition of the Chronicle in the world. I believe that the scale of the project was also one that did not lend itself to translation as a hobby type of project. I funded the translation and took the risk of producing the books irrespective of whether they would sell or not. I began by offering the first volume which covered the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th ages. I used it to gauge whether the market would support my ambitions. To my pleasant surprise, the response turned out to be quite favorable. I also felt that if I could produce a quality project of this scale and provide it with the proper credibility, then I could potentially pursue this into a small company with the charter of providing more materials like this.

RRB: According to Morse Library at Beloit College, the only known English translation of the Chronicle was done by Walter Schmauch, whose unpublished manuscript, now resides in the Free Library of Philadelphia. Does that make your translation the only one?

SN: Yes, this is the only English translation of the Latin edition of the Chronicle. Unlike the translation from Walter, this one has been internally edited for accuracy and provides extensive notes clarifying people and places of interest. Also added in the notes are the sources from which Schedel (the original author in 1493) compiled this work. It turns out that a large percentage of it actually comes from other sources.
    To be clear, I think Walter must have been an amazing person for doing this as a project, for he did this on his own. I, on the other hand, worked with a team of two scholars and used modern technology to my advantage.

RRB: What has been the response so far, in terms of reviews and/or sales?

SN: Our reviews: I took the first two volumes to the ALA 2011 Conference in New Orleans where I had the pleasure of meeting Carolyn Wilcox, Reference & Humanities Editor for ALA Choice Reviews for Academic Libraries. The volumes were favorably reviewed in the February issue of the magazine. It is our intention to have all our works independently reviewed.
    Concerning  sales: We produced 220 large-format, hand-bound sets of this book. By the time the final two volumes became available (this occurred this week), we had already pre-sold 112 sets (more than half our inventory when you consider the copies for internal and personal use). The books have been very well received and our customers have been generous with kind words. We have confirmation that a few are currently teaching with them.

RRB: I see you are also in the process of publishing a facsimile and translation of De Quatuor Signis, a seventeenth-century astrological work that is a less well-known title. The price is $215. Is the intended buyer a student? a collector? institutions?

SN: The author, Philippo Finella, is well known for other books that he has produced, and there is an inexpensive facsimile of one of his other works from Kessinger publishers. The book that we are offering is actually very rare. WorldCat only shows three copies and sales records only surfaced one prior sale. The intended audience is a range from universities to the private collector. This book will be a color limited numbered series edition. We only intend to make a small numbered production run of 220 copies of this work. Once they are gone, we will not reprint it. Access to it will only be available in our digital library project (I must explain this, for it is an ambitious project as well that we are currently working on). The digital library is also the future of Smith&Press in conjunction with the limited series translations.

RRB: How do you choose what to publish?

SN: I previously mentioned that I am a collector myself. I focus on subjects that are culturally interesting for one reason or another. The advent of the printed book had a profound impact on the education of the masses. I myself have an engineering and fine arts education. I have always gravitated to works that have somehow played a role in the evolution of society. Works like the Finella represent a wonderful view into the world of astrology and the role that it played in subjects such as business and personal relations. Other astrology works that we are currently working on provide a portal into the world of medical astrology.

RRB: Who are your translators, and how are they selected?

SN: The primary translator of the Chronicle is Michael Zellman-Rohrer who finished his undergrad at Harvard and is currently doing his PhD at Berkeley. Constantine Hadavas, PhD, who is currently the chairman of the department of classics at Beloit College, also contributed to the translation but focused primarily on the editorial and notes. Michael is one of the best translators I have ever seen. This opinion is shared by Dr. Hadavas as is evident by his commentary and the accuracy of the translation. Dr. Hadavas is intimately familiar with this work as he is the one that augmented the Walter Schmauch translation with commentary. He and I both share a passion for the Chronicle, so I am glad I was able to rope him into this project.

RRB: What else is in the future for Smith&Press?

SN: Earlier, I hinted that Smith&Press is working on a digital library. If you recall one of the original goals of the company is to reach the masses and provide a platform upon which anyone could enjoy early works such as the Chronicle. All Smith&Press translations will eventually be placed into a subscription- based library that will allow universities & institutions to use the material on their intranet for students and faculty. This will be provided based on an annual subscription license. Private individuals will also have the ability to subscribe for a very small fee (our goal is less than $100 per year). I want this to be available to students as well as enthusiasts that don't have the means to purchase a $200 book. Granted, the experience is strictly technology based, but the quality of our images and text are second to none on the web. This digital library will not allow the user to download the work or take it for resale. The most a user can do is a screen capture, which will not provide the person the ability to reproduce the quality which we offer. We are currently looking into technologies from Google and others to provide good search features and security of the library.
    We will always make small printed production runs of our books. We do not believe in making large runs. We expect to add at least 4 more translators to the team in 2013. We also plan to produce at least 5 books in 2013.

To learn more about Smith&Press, visit their website at www.smithandpress.com. You can also follow them on Twitter @SmithandPress. Thanks to Mr. Nahas for this in-depth look at his brainchild.