Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jules Verne needs better English translations

Just because a body of work is a venerated classic doesn't mean the translations we have are necessarily good. From an article by Adam Roberts in the Guardian:
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 [...] 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.

His publishers decided to put out one of Verne's lesser-known titles, Off On a Comet (Hector Servadac), in conjunction with Mr. Roberts's new book. He describes what happened next.
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.

Hector Servadac is by no means an unusual case. Whilst a few of Verne's most famous titles have been retranslated by proper scholars (for instance, William Butcher's recent Oxford University Press translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is very good), in most cases the only editions we have of these works are the hacked-about, disfigured, and in some places rewritten versions originally published in the 19th century.

It's a bizarre situation for a world-famous writer to be in. Indeed, I can't think of a major writer who has been so poorly served by translation.

Mr. Roberts proposes a mass effort to retranslate Verne's work properly.
This would be the way to address the common misconceptions about Verne's writings that so infuriate Verne specialists - that he is nothing better than a jumped-up author of two-dimensional juveniles; that he can't do character; that his stories are ineptly handled or clumsily put together. None of these things is true; but until we have a full range of properly translated titles these, and like accusations, are going to continue to dog his reputation. We need more and better translations of Verne.

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At September 19, 2007 10:18 p.m., Blogger Jim's Words Music and Science said...

Hmm. I always liked Jules Verne in English, but I only read him as an adolescent. I also have one volume in Spanish by Julio Verne- Invasion del Mar- picked up on a 7th grade trip to Hermosillo. In about 1971.
I look forward to following you site and have linked back to it.

I just wrote a few words about Carlos Fuentes last night (The Hydra Head). My greatest adventure in Spanish, at least with a book, involved trying to read Tres Triste Tigres por G. Cabrerra Infante. Later, switching to English, I began to understand my difficulties.

Y ahora se me olvido' casi todo de Espanol. Que Lastima.

Best wishes, Jim

At September 20, 2007 10:15 p.m., Blogger Mago said...

Now you've got me wondering whether Verne's Spanish editions were translated directly from French or (as sometimes regrettably happens) from the English versions. And if they were translated directly, do they share any of the defects of the English ones?

Surely some reader has access to some given Verne book in all three languages, and can check and report back.

On another subject, for quintessentially Mexican crime/detective/mystery fiction, may I recommend Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Quite a number of his novels have been translated into English, so you can enjoy his work without struggling with Spanish. He not only writes masterfully and devises excellently convoluted yet plausible plots but, in some of his books, he toys with literary conceits that add an extra dimension without detracting in the least from the readability of his novels.

At September 25, 2007 3:16 a.m., Blogger BBTurpin said...

"Indeed, I can't think of a major writer who has been so poorly served by translation."

It happened to Jack London, for example. Practically all his German translations were made by one Erwin Magnus in the late 1920s, and a good part of them is godawful. There have been a few attempts at retranslation, but most of London's work still in print in Germany is the old version.

At September 26, 2007 11:35 a.m., Blogger Mago said...

Good point, BBTurpin. Quite probably Mr. Roberts was thinking of translations into English, but if we open the field to all languages, no doubt many more examples can be cited.

At October 11, 2007 3:28 p.m., Anonymous Kara said...

I like the idea of modern versions of Jules Verne's works. I enjoyed the recent retranlations of such classics as Mysterious Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues under the sea.

However, I don't know how viable a re-issue of these works would be for a major publisher. It's not like the above titles have appeared on bestseller lists.

Wesleyan Press issued a new translation of the Kip Brothers and I am unable to find it in bookstores in Canada. Nor can I find the restored version of Mathias Sandorf issued by ROH Press.

Still with the Jules Verne society in the US pushing to make more new versions of his work available, it may just be possible for fans to get their wish.

At October 16, 2008 10:29 p.m., Anonymous Hunter Hutchinson said...

One of the best translations of a major work of literature is Gregory Rabassa's Translation of García Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude. I have read the work in both languages, as I am totally fluent in Spanish, and the Rabassa Translation is superb. One of the best translations of a major work written in the Spanish language. On the other hand, the translation of Agusto Roa Bastos'novel,"I the Supreme" is a poor translation. I have read the novel in Spanish. the English translation is lousy.


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