Redeeming a Mistranslated Jules Verne

Published on July 23, 2018

By Kali Faulwetter

Jules Verne
8 February 1828 – 24 March 1905

“Man is never perfect nor contented.”

  Jules Verne

Coming in second after Agatha Christie as the most professionally translated author in the world, Jules Verne, who died on March 24th in 1905, is known as one of the “father’s of science fiction.” His works are originally written in French, and translation of Verne into English began in 1852. The professional translation and localization of these works into English is extremely poor quality, however. The Guardian especially calls for “a better translation service” for Verne, and what better service than the The World's Fastest Translation Platform? Jules Verne’s work as it is translated into English is riddled with inaccuracies, and many English readers are calling for a “full reappraisal” of his work. Since his emergence in the 19th century, Jules Verne has been popular around the globe. The English versions were translated so badly so soon after their initial publications that many who claim to have read his novels haven’t scratched the surface of what Verne has to offer as an author. 

  • A Voyage in a Balloon (1851) was Verne’s first work translated into English by Anne T. Wilbur, published by the American Journal Sartrain’s Union Magazine of Literature and Art. The English translation of Five Weeks in a Balloon, done by William Lackland closely followed in 1869. Verne’s early popularity was extremely lucrative, and although English translations were steadily produced throughout Verne’s lifetime, they were done in great haste by publishers and hired translators rushing to expand Verne into the English market.

  • Contrary to popular belief in the English speaking community, Jules Verne’s work was not originally intended to be exclusively for children. British and American publishers of Verne decided to market his work as “children’s literature” because they thought the work would be more popular and make more money that way. This business move had a lasting effect on Verne’s reputation, and on the quality of his work in English. These translators that were committed to translating Verne for children were not concerned with the quality; they only wanted to make money. The text was chopped up in French, chewed, and spit out in English and the gaps were filled with completely original writing.

  • Original English translators would alter descriptions, simplify or remove content entirely, and even alter Verne’s carefully conducted measurements by oddly changing the units to imperial but keeping the numbers the same. Scientific research done by Verne was horribly mistranslated in the 19th century English versions. Much of the humour intended in the original French was taken out, the dialogue was compressed into a mere summary, and anything remotely offensive to the United Kingdom was completely censored. Most, if not all, of these early English translators, were committing ideological censorship. Unconcerned with quality, these poorly done translations were not due to linguistic incompetence, but many of Verne’s texts were re-written to reflect a “pro-anglo” political agenda. For example, under the guise of “localization” for the English speaking community, any criticism of British colonialism was glazed over with |glowing praise for the civilizing influence” of Britain.

  • Now, with these awful 19th century translations in the public domain, they are sadly considered to be the standard translations of Jules Verne. However, beginning in the 1960s, translators and Verne fans began to catch on to this literary crime. Since then, a type of Jules Verne renaissance has undergone numerous updated versions of his beloved work. With these updated, quality translations, Jules Verne is now taken more seriously as an all-ages literary figure.


Why does quality professional translation matter? Clearly, these poorly done translations have not affected Jules Verne’s popularity or fame, so why should today’s readers and translators be concerned about the faithfulness of Verne’s translations to the original French? The injustice lies in style. A good professional translator remains meticulously faithful to their source language. Ideological censorship has no place in localization. In the case of Verne’s work, as translated before 1960, different translated editions of the same novel differed wildly in terms of characters and even plot-lines, leading one critic to say that “the English-speaking world has never had a fair chance to know the real Jules Verne”. With the “standard” translated versions now in the public domain, free and low-cost copies of these ideologically censored are circulated without regulation. The more quality professional translators interested in translating Verne from the original French, the more likely it is that his words will touch any community of readers in the way he originally intended.
   
Could MotaWord translators be up to the challenge? Definitely.

Jules Verne in numbers:

Number of movies, T.V. shows and plays that have been adapted based on the work of Jules Verne.


Number of books in Jules Verne’s series “Voyages Extraordinaires”. The series includes such titles as Journey to the Center of the Earth, Five Weeks in a Balloon, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and many more.


In 2008, two original manuscripts by Verne were included in an unmanned cargo supply craft that was sent to the International Space Station. The craft was christened as the “Jules Verne ATV”.


For a complete bibliography of Jules Verne’s English translations that need to be redone, click here.

For more on translating science and science fiction, check out MotaWord’s obituaries for Stephen Hawking and Ursula K. Le Guin.

 

About MotaWord

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About This Article

Famous Translators is a MotaWord segment showcasing notable professional translated works and famous linguists from history to the present. We will be researching, compiling and sharing stories that matter to every translator on our blog.

You, too can be published right here on the MotaWord blog site. To help us make this segment more tailored to our community, contribute any comments, ideas for articles, or share your story please contact kali@motaword.com.

Citations: TheGuardian, EscapistMagaizine, HindustanTimes, Gizmodo, TheNewsMinute, St.OlafCollege