Jules Verne deserves a better translation service

Monday, September 17th, 2007

Adam Roberts argues that Jules Verne deserves a better translation service:

I’d always liked reading Jules Verne and I’ve read most of his novels; but it wasn’t until recently that I really understood I hadn’t been reading Jules Verne at all.

I’ll explain what I mean. Verne has been globally popular since the 19th century, and all his titles have been translated into English, most of them soon after their initial publication. But almost all of them were translated so badly, so mutilated that “translation” is something of a misnomer.

Some of this I knew already. I’d heard that the original translators into English felt at liberty to cut out portions of Verne’s original text, particularly where they felt he was getting too “technical” or “scientific”; and I’d heard that one of those early translators — the Reverend Lewis Page Mercier — had bowdlerised any sentiments hostile towards or injurious to the dignity of Great Britain (such as might be uttered by Captain Nemo, an Indian nobleman who had dedicated himself to an anti-imperialist cause). I knew too that the original English translators tended to mangle the metric system measurements of Verne’s careful measurements and descriptions, either simply cutting the figures out, or changing the unit from metric to imperial but, oddly, keeping the numbers the same.

But I didn’t understand just how severe the issue was until I set about preparing an English edition of a Verne title myself. It came about because I was publishing a novel of my own called Splinter, a 21st-century and fairly postmodern riff upon one of Verne’s lesser-known titles Hector Servadac. My publishers decided to put out a special box set of Splinter and Hector Servadac together, and asked me to sort out copy for the latter. I thought it would be a simple matter of reprinting the original, usefully out-of-copyright 1877 English translation, and blithely said yes.

But when I checked the 1877 translation against the original my heart sank. It was garbage. On almost every page the English translator, whoever he, or she, was (their name is not recorded), collapsed Verne’s actual dialogue into a condensed summary, missed out sentences or whole paragraphs. She or he messed up the technical aspects of the book. She or he was evidently much more anti-Semitic than Verne, and tended to translate what were in the original fairly neutral phrases such as “…said Isaac Hakkabut” with idioms such as “…said the repulsive old Jew.” And at one point in the novel she or he simply omitted an entire chapter (number 30) — quite a long one, too — presumably because she or he wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t be bothered to, turn it into English.

He does recommend William Butcher’s recent Oxford World’s Classics translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea — which, by the way, refers to the distance traveled while under the sea, not the depth.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    Good news everyone! This recommended translation is available free of charge on William Butcher’s own home page.

  2. Isegoria says:

    Butcher sounds like an interesting fellow:

    William Butcher was formerly Head of the Language Centre at the Hong Kong Technical College. He has studied at Warwick, Lancaster, London, and the École Normale Supérieure, and has taught languages and pure mathematics in Malaysia, France, and Britain. As well as thirty articles on French literature, he has published Mississippi Madness (1990), Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Self (1990), and translations and critical editions of Verne’s Humbug (1991), Backwards to Britain (1992), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1992), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1995). Dr Butcher is at present working on a book on natural language processing.

Leave a Reply