Lost in translation: The peculiar case of a popular French author (Column: Bookends)

English speakers have long had an advantage for there are few classics from other literary traditions which are not available in the language. Translations of Homer, Rumi, Cervantes, Goethe, Pushkin, Dumas, Tolstoy, Kafka, and many others are so prevalent that it is easy to forget that these originally come from different languages. But translators may not always do a good job – one 19th century French author has suffered much at their hands.

With his “Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers” (“Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” for us), “Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours” (“Around the World in Eighty Days”), “Voyage au centre de la Terre” (“Journey to the Centre of the Earth”), “De la Terre a la Lune” (“From the Earth to the Moon”), Jules Gabriel Verne (1828-1905) is one of the world’s most familiar — and most translated — authors.

An inspiration to a galaxy of aviation and rocket scientists, astronomers, astronauts/cosmonauts and explorers, Verne is deemed a father of science fiction with his “fantastic” tales of exploration and credited with “inventing” submarines, helicopters, space flight as well as many other discoveries including computers (his “compteurs” is even close to the name).

“Voyages extraordinaires” (“The Extraordinary Voyages”), on which his reputation is built, comprise 54 novels published between 1863 and 1905, and when he died, he left more incomplete manuscripts. His son Michel would subsequently publish them over the next two decades, though adapting or even rewriting some of them. One book, written in 1863 but locked away in a safe and forgotten after his publisher deemed it too fantastic and pessimistic, was finally published in 1994.

But leave alone, for some other time, the question of how far it is correct to consider him a seer of scientific progress, or a progenitor of science fiction, it is more fitting to deal with how Verne’s popularity and prodigious output paradoxically saw his reputation as an author suffer – both in his own land and the world outside.

While in his own land, many contemporary critics held his commercial popularity meant he was only a mere genre-based storyteller than a serious author (though this would soon change), Verne, in the English-speaking world, was only deemed a writer for children and a naive proponent of science and technology – for which translators and publishers were solely responsible.

US academician Arthur B. Evans notes that literary scholars agree that Verne’s early English translations were “extremely shoddy” and “often bear little resemblance” to their originals.

“In a rush to bring his most popular (and profitable) stories to market, British and American translators repeatedly watered them down and abridged them by chopping out most of the science and the longer descriptive passages (often 20 to 40 per cent of the original); they committed thousands of basic translating errors, mistakes that an average high-school student of French would have managed correctly; they censored Verne’s texts by either removing or diluting references that might be construed as anti-British or anti-American; and, in several instances, they totally rewrote Verne’s narratives to suit their own tastes (changing the names of the characters, adding new scenes, deleting others, relabeling the chapters, and so on),” he says in “Jules Verne’s English Translations”, journal ‘Science Fiction Studies’ , 2005.

Two examples are telling.

Take Verne’s playful use of Newtonian laws for a lovelorn woman: “These scientists appeared worthy of her admiration and fully justified a woman’s feeling attracted to them proportionally to their mass and in inverse ratio to the square of their distance. And indeed J.T. Maston was corpulent enough to exercise on her an irresistible attraction….” , disappears in one American translation: “.. these wise people seemed to her worthy of all admiration and support. She felt herself drawn strongly towards them. And J.T. Maston was exactly that kind of man and one she adored….”

In “The Mysterious Island”, where we learn the truth about Captain Nemo and his Indian origins, Evans translates the original as: “The British yoke had weighed perhaps too heavily on the Hindu population. Prince Dakkar became the spokesman for the malcontents. He instilled in them all the hatred that he felt for the foreigners….”

However one English translation goes: “Instigated by princes equally ambitious and less sagacious and more unscrupulous than he was, the people of India were persuaded that they might successfully rise against their English rulers who had brought them out of a state of anarchy and constant warfare and misery, and had established peace and prosperity in their country. Their ignorance and gross superstition made them the facile tools of their designing chiefs..”

It is such translations that we have read, and are also available online, that form our views of Verne, while obscuring his universalism and ambivalence about progress and technology. Corrective action is under way but many are even not aware anything was wrong.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in <mailto:vikas.d@ians.in> )



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