There's been a renaissance in English translations of Jules Verne, which began slowly perhaps fifty years ago and lately seems to have picked up steam (appropriately enough). Verne has been subjected to bad, even horrible, translations perhaps more than any author of his stature and popularity, and perhaps because of that very popularity. An excellent overview of the problems is given in "Jules Verne's English Translations" (Science Fiction Studies, XXXII:1 #95 [March 2005]: 80-104), by Arthur B. Evans, French scholar and editor of the book under review.
Early on, English-language publishers seem to have decided Verne was a writer for boys. That, and haste, ignorance, and, apparently, sheer arrogance led many of them to "massacre" his work, as translator William Butcher describes it (quoted in Evans, p. 100). Evans sums up the problems thus:
Scholars now unanimously agree that the early English translations of Verne's Voyages Extraordinaires were extremely shoddy and often bear little resemblance to their original French counterparts. 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 from 20 to 40% of the original); they committed thousands of basic translating errors . . . 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). (p. 80)
Evans points out that, these grosser problems aside, Verne comes across much differently in the original French than the Verne of shoddy English translations: "The French Verne is intelligent, humorous, witty, theatrical, socially aware, and surprisingly self-reflexive as a writer. The English Verne, the one encountered in most of his translations, seems shallow, one-dimensional, melodramatic, and naive" (p. 96). We can add to that wooden, pedantic, and dull.
One of the successes of this new translation by Frederick Paul Walter of Verne's first novel (and one of his most successful), Five Weeks in a Balloon, is that it's a pleasure to read. Walter has translated at least a half dozen of Verne's other books, including some of his best known. The humor (at times a bit broad) comes through, and both writing and story are engaging. Examining the translation in detail, beyond its sprightly surface, we find a number of felicities, and alas, a few flaws; but overall, the book is a readily consumable steampunk romp, well-written and lots of fun.
The thrust of the story is that Dr. Samuel Fergusson, an English explorer, plans to cross central Africa from Zanzibar to Senegal. He wants to explore lands still undiscovered by Western explorers, linking up the territories reached by Heinrich Barth, who traveled from North Africa down to the region of Lake Chad, and Burton and Speke, who explored parts of (modern-day) Tanzania (and perhaps some nearby countries) looking for the source of the Nile. At the same time, he wants to ascertain the Nile's source. And he plans to do it all while avoiding the horrors met by previous explorers, traveling by lighter-than-air balloon.
Fergusson takes along his friend Dick Kennedy, a Scots hunter, and his man-of-all-work, Joe, the Passepartout of the novel: young, brave, vigorous, self-sacrificing, and a bit simple, the perfect proxy to have adventures and undergo dangers. We have the man of intellect, the man of action, and the comic relief (and also another man of action)—a common pattern in Verne's books, as Walter points out (although he characterizes the roles somewhat differently, p. xxi).
The book is both a travelogue and a picaresque series of adventures. By its nature, we keep moving, with always another goal to make or peril to avoid (a narrative driver Walter aptly calls "Will They Make It?" [p. xviii]). One of the intriguing aspects of the novel, and an indication of Verne's imaginative powers, is that he not only describes much countryside and even cities (Timbuktu) that he never saw and could only read about; he also describes them from the air, and some of the descriptions, in Walter's version, are well-written and convincing. Besides the excitement of discovery (in which we can at least take part vicariously, even if it's both imaginary and in our past), the book is filled with encounters and struggles with animals, natives (hostile or filled with superstitious dread, or both), and all the dangers and difficulties of wind, weather, terrain, and balloon travel, with the concomitant dangers of starving or dying of thirst or disease.
Adventures aside, Verne writes geek fiction—filled, in this case, with details of a technical contraption and of a body of knowledge in which the reader is also caught up, by means of the fiction. There isn't really a science fictional element, other than the setup of the balloon—how it can rise without losing ballast and fall without losing gas, and how it can be steered, or at least directed. As the solutions are withheld at first, I won't spoil them here. Indeed, as Walter notes, it takes about a quarter of the book to set up the journey (p. xviii). But the slow reveal of details, the introduction of characters, their interaction, and the nature of the technical details, isn't tedious; Verne manages to vary the material and work his exposition into the story, rather than having it sit like a lump in the way of the story. Not that he wasn't willing to stop the action to give a lecture.
Verne's main subject, however, the body of knowledge of most interest to him, is geography and the exploration of the geographical unknown. His explorers start in modern-day Tanzania and fly over parts of Uganda, possibly Rwanda and Burundi and southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Mali, and Senegal. It's difficult, at times, to follow the journey in detail because many place names have changed, and Verne seems, at different times, to use Greenwich or Paris as the location of his prime meridian for giving longitude. And of course, much of what he describes, as far as features of the terrain, he has made up, though it's based on his reading and research.
By taking on the topic of African discovery, Verne put himself in the midst of an actively developing field. He has Fergusson declare the source of the Nile (and he's essentially correct) before the explorer Speke's identification of the source was ever confirmed (pp. xxiv-xxv); it's like publishing a book in which space travelers describe Pluto accurately just before the New Horizons fly-by.
With work of the past we also often get the baggage of the past, and most readers will come to a nineteenth-century fictional depiction of Africa with some apprehension. But Verne is generally more ethnocentric and ethnically chauvinist than viciously racist. He depicts Africans, especially blacks, as primitive, at times barbaric, ignorant, and superstitious, and Africa as in need of civilizing; but he doesn't necessarily treat Africans as subhuman or naturally inferior, lines of thought easily available to him at the time (even more so than now).
Still, his portrayal of blacks and other African natives might give real offense to some readers. But along with some deplorable attitudes and beliefs about race, Verne also ascribes fever to bad air, speaking of "unsanitary regions" and "infected air" ("malaria") (p. 68), and (very minor spoiler here) helps Kennedy get over a high fever simply by moving to an "uninfected" area. Perhaps the least troubling way to read this book would be to take Verne's views on race, odious as they can be, the way you would take his views on medicine, as a relic of ignorance and misguided belief, and not let them spoil the whole. Those who choose to read the novel will probably need to do something of the sort. Rejecting it outright would be, to my mind, a regrettable, though understandable, decision.
The worst of the racism comes in a passage (another minor spoiler coming) when Kennedy and Joe are away hunting and they return to find the balloon surrounded by what they take to be a group of blacks. In fact, it's a tribe of baboons. When the animals are driven off, we have this interplay:
"We thought the natives had you surrounded."
"Fortunately they were only apes!" the doctor replied.
"We couldn't tell from far away, my dear Samuel."
"Or even closer," Joe remarked. (p. 83)
Unfortunately, it's even worse in the French, where it's not that they couldn't tell the difference, it's that there isn't much difference:
—De loin, la différence n'est pas grande, mon cher Samuel.
—Ni même de près, répliqua Joe.
"From far away, the difference isn't great, my dear Samuel."
"Nor even from nearby," replied Joe.
There isn't enough lipstick to pretty up that pig.
Still, Verne was not benighted for his time, despite this little "joke," and there's very little of this kind of outright racism. Though some translations in the past used terms for blacks that are now considered hateful, Verne himself almost always simply says "Negroes." Even though he has the narrator refer to Africa as "This country of barbarians and fanatics"—essentially covering blacks and Muslims—Verne can be fair-minded. When Joe notes that the appearance of their balloon has startled a village of "Negroes," Fergusson replies, "Perfectly understandable . . . When balloons first arrived on the scene, French peasants fired at them overhead, thinking they were sky monsters; so it's acceptable for a Sudan Negro to look wide-eyed" (p. 130).
Indeed, Verne often reflects liberal and "modern" values and ways of thinking. He has Fergusson decry militarism and the cruelty and waste of life in warfare; while looking down at a battle between two tribes, he says, "Let's get away from this repulsive sight as quickly as possible! If our supreme commanders could look down on their fields of operation as we're doing now, maybe they'd ultimately lose their stomach for blood and conquest!" (p. 134) He also decries the pointless slaughter of animals, the kind of killing that, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nearly or actually wiped out entire species, a problem he touches on more explicitly in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (p. xxviii).
While some aspects of the past get in the way of modern readers, some give a period work their appeal. Certainly a period "feel" is part of the charm of steampunk. Of similarly ambivalent weight is period language. But authors of contemporary steampunk, as far as I know, write modern, readily readable prose, not an imitation of Victorian writing, including some terms and turns of phrase that give a period feel, while avoiding painfully jarring modernisms. I can't say if Verne's prose would appear stiff or archaic to a contemporary Frenchman, but in any case Walter is determined to write in a contemporary English appealing to an American readership. He describes his translation as "intended for the U.S. public" and "both faithful and communicative" (p. 293). This is modest. The combination of Verne's prose and Walter's translation results in a pleasing, engagingly readable prose.
A lot of the credit has to go to Walter. I read part of the earliest translation (and generally acknowledged as the best, until now), by "William Lackland" (evidently a pseudonym, but I've been unable to discover if anyone knows who he really was), from 1869 (I have an 1882 reprinting), for comparison. It's not bad, but it is a bit stiff, the prose a bit unwieldy; some of the sentences fight back when you attempt to read them. Here's the beginning of the fourth chapter in Verne, Lackland, and Walter:
La ligne aérienne que le docteur Fergusson comptait suivre n'avait pas été choisie au hasard; son point de départ fut sérieusement étudié, et ce ne fut pas sans raison qu'il résolut de s'élever de l'île de Zanzibar.
The aërial line which Dr. Ferguson [sic] counted upon following had not been chosen at random; his point of departure had been carefully studied, and it was not without good cause that he had resolved to ascend at the island of Zanzibar (p. 31).
The course through the clouds that Dr. Fergusson intended to follow hadn't been chosen by accident; he had put serious thought into his starting point, and it was with good reason that he decided to launch his balloon from the island of Zanzibar (pp. 18-19).
Walter avoids that archaic annoyance "it was not without," even though Verne uses it; in general he seems less literal and more readable than Lackland.
Beyond the easy pleasure of the prose in general, for certain passages containing multiple shades of meaning or even a play on words, Walter has come up with imaginative and clever solutions. On the first page, when Fergusson is being introduced to a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, its president says: "L'Angleterre a toujours marché à la tête des nations (car, on l'a remarqué, les nations marchent universellement à la tête les unes des autres)." This can be literally translated as "England has always marched at the head of nations"; but while the literal meaning of the narrator's parenthetical comment is, "Because, one notes, nations universally walk at the head of one another," the actual meaning is, as far as I understand it, that nations are all topsy-turvy, or seem foolish ("walk on their heads"), to one another. Lackland's not very illuminating version is "England has always marched at the head of nations (for, the reader will observe, the nations always march at the head of each other)" (p. 9). Walter doesn't keep Verne's joke, but gives another in its place, "England has always marched in front of other nations (because, mind you, nations are always marching on each other's fronts)" (p. 1), which keeps the tone of the original joke, and is true not only to Verne's sense of humor but to his opinions and concerns.
Similarly, in his description of Samuel Fergusson, Verne writes, "ses bras étaient longs, et ses pieds se posaient à terre avec l'aplomb du grand marcheur." He's speaking of Fergusson's solidity, perhaps alluding to his abilities as an explorer, his physical state, but, in the use of "aplomb," also telling us about his character. Lackland just gives us part of that: "His arms were long, and his feet were planted with that solidity which indicates a great pedestrian" (p. 11). Walter, however, finds a clever solution to give us all the French does, with the same kind of double use of words: "his arms were long, and he planted his feet on the ground with the confidence of somebody who takes everything in stride" (p. 3).
Occasionally Walter's cleverness gets away with him, however. In the heading to Chapter 5, he translates the bland French "Ce qui reste entre les deux pointes du compass" (what lies between two points of the compass) into "what lies between two legs of a pair of compasses" (p. 23). (Surely that's between the two legs of a compass?) And there are minor flaws, too, that arise from his sometimes too-enthusiastic determination, in writing for American contemporaries, to use slang that smacks too strongly of the moment or of the recent past; the effect is to temporarily knock readers out of the illusion of the story. He translates "un déjeuner substantial" as "a quality lunch" (p. 67), a painfully contemporary (and simply painful) usage (which doesn't really translate the French). In a bland listing of foodstuffs he translates "patates" as "spuds" (p. 87); the French word isn't slang, and "spuds" doesn't fit the narrative voice. On page 114, he tells us that "Kennedy did enough eating, drinking, and babbling for four people; he was feeling no pain." The French has "il était enivré." While "intoxicated" would be too flat a term—he's not only that, he's also carried away a bit—the expression jars.
The object of a period translation, I think, is to engage and entertain modern readers (who mostly want modern writing). This Walter does. But a translator must also avoid throwing those familiar with the period out of the story. If you're writing a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, you don't have Holmes address Watson as "Dude!"
Besides these contemporary eruptions, in one instance Walter inadvertently gives a translation that reflects badly on Verne, making him seem, even allowing for the blind spots I have already discussed, less enlightened than he was. In a descriptive passage (pp. 87-8), Walter translates: "In the Land of the Moon, Unyamwezi is the community beyond compare, Africa's garden spot, fertile and magnificent; the district of Unyanembé lies in its center, a delectable area where a few Omani families lead lazy lives, being authentic pureblood Arabs." Verne simply says, "une contrée délicieuse, où vivent paresseusement quelques familles d'Omani, qui sont des Arabes d'origine très pure"—that is, "where live lazily some Omani families, who are Arabs of a very pure origin." Or, as Lackland puts it, "a delicious region, where some families of Omani, who are of very pure Arabic origin, live in luxurious idleness."
Unfortunately, Walter's formulation falls into the English idiomatic pattern of A does B, being C, where C is understood as causative: Even at parties, Bob noticed the state of people's teeth, being a dentist. In this way, his translation introduces an implied bigotry that isn't in Verne and is surely unintended.
While these examples bear mentioning, it's important to note that they're minor detriments and hardly detract from the overall experience of reading the novel. The impression left by the translation is of easily consumable prose comfortable for moderns and only rarely spoiling the illusion of the period.
Remarkably, Walter has kept his paragraphing the same as Verne's, which may seem minor but is a notable sign of respect for the original (and helpful for anyone who wants use this translation to try the French). At times, he corrects errors that appear in current French editions (he points out that there is no critical edition of Cinq semaines en ballon)—a real service.
Indeed, the book as a whole has many other notable aspects and extras besides the translation itself. The original illustrations, quite charming, are included (though the balloon's gondola, as drawn, is far too small!). Walter's introduction is solidly helpful. There's a brief biography of Verne, an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary works, and even a list of "Heroes," explorers, and other notable persons. The only thing lacking is a table of contents for the novel per se (there is one for the book as a whole), but all the chapter headings are included, so nothing is missing.
This book is clearly a labor of love more than of commerce, and returns Verne's first novel, an interesting and amusing one, to English readers—a valuable, even key, contribution to Verne's English-language renaissance. Despite the practice of early translators, the golden age for reading Jules Verne in English is not, and never was, age twelve; it's now.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published two dozen short stories with more forthcoming, and over three hundred nonfiction pieces; he currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. His fiction appeared most recently in Best of Talebones. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book export business.
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