Friday, December 16, 2011

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Almost a week ago, I finished the English translation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which chronicles the adventures of Professor Pierre Aronnax, his faithful assistant Conseil, and the Canadian whaler Ned Land, who find themselves prisoners on Captain Nemo's Nautilus. This was my first time reading any Verne whatsoever, and I came away from the experience entranced. Did Verne get a lot of the physics and oceanography wrong? Undoubtedly; he was a product of his time (the original French-language novel was published in the latter 1860s, only a few years after the American Civil War). But clunky science aside, the story was an immense, sprawling adventure.

Unfortunately, a glance at the Wikipedia entry on the novel showed me that a reading of the translation in my possession might not have been the best approach to Verne:

The novel was first translated into English in 1873 by Reverend Lewis Page Mercier (aka "Mercier Lewis"). Mercier cut nearly a quarter of Verne's original text and made hundreds of translation errors, sometimes dramatically changing the meaning of Verne's original intent (including uniformly mistranslating French scaphandre (properly "diving apparatus") as "cork-jacket", following a long-obsolete meaning as "a type of lifejacket"). Some of these bowdlerizations may have been done for political reasons, such as Nemo's identity and the nationality of the two warships he sinks, or the portraits of freedom fighters on the wall of his cabin which originally included Daniel O'Connell. Nonetheless, it became the "standard" English translation for more than a hundred years, while other translations continued to draw from it and its mistakes (especially the mistranslation of the title; the French title actually means Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas).

A modern translation was produced in 1966 by Walter James Miller and published by Washington Square Press. Many of Mercier's changes were addressed in the translator's preface, and most of Verne's text was restored.

In the 1960's, Anthony Bonner published a translation of the novel for Bantam Classics. A specially written introduction by Ray Bradbury, comparing Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab of Moby Dick was also included. This version is still in print.

Many of the "sins" of Mercier were again corrected in a from-the-ground-up re-examination of the sources and an entirely new translation by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter, published in 1993 by Naval Institute Press in a "completely restored and annotated edition."[7]

My e-book novel, a scanned and OCR'ed* copy of a 1917 edition, featured many of the problems noted above, especially the "cork-jacket" reference. I was also left to wonder just what I'd missed, assuming my copy of the novel was lacking a fourth of the original text. At some point, I'll need to check whether Google Books has the French original.

All that aside, I came away feeling that Jules Verne was the Michael Crichton of his time: 20,000 Leagues is filled with rich technical detail: the specs of the Nautilus, an extensive catalogue of sea creatures, and detailed descriptions of diving equipment and the experience of chopping one's way out of an overturned iceberg. Were I a reader in the late 1800s, I'd be amazed at the fantastic and tantalizing plausibility of the story unfolding before me.

My first experience with this story was through the Disney movie featuring Kirk Douglas as Ned Land. As a kid who loved ugly creatures, I was probably most impressed by the giant squid attack (the term "poulp" is used in my e-book's version; la poulpe is the French expression for "octopus"**). As I discovered, however, the novel differs from the movie on several points. One point is that Verne's Nautilus runs on electricity, whereas in the movie it runs on nuclear power. A person who had only seen the movie might assume that Verne was even more ahead of his time than he actually was. Another difference is that the mollusk attack involves more than one creature (see note below). A third is that Nemo doesn't die at the end: his fate is left uncertain when our three protagonists are ripped away from the Nautilus by a "maelstrom." (And in the book, Nemo is never shot.)

I do think, though, that James Mason's prickly version of Nemo is faithful to the paradoxically compassionate, intellectual, driven, and vengeful man we meet in the novel. The captain is as loyal to his men as they are to him. His motives are complex, but in the end he reveals himself to be primitive and barbaric, a consequence of the tragedies he had suffered.

Professor Aronnax, our narrator, ultimately views his captor with a mixture of admiration, fear, and pity. Aronnax's childlike wonder, the wonder of a naturalist, propels us through the narrative as we, along with him, make discovery after discovery. Nemo hovers always in the background-- a smug, confident presence, always two steps ahead of the professor, whose landlubber's knowledge of the sea is overturned with each new revelation about the undersea world. Unlike in the movie, however, the novel's Aronnax is not merely a timid bookworm who loses himself to the enchantment of Nemo's lifestyle; he wields an axe against iceberg and poulp just like the rest of Nemo's hardy crew.

If you've never read this novel, I highly recommend it. While its scientific notions are embarrassingly dated (Aronnax complains of the buildup of "carbonic acid" in the air as the Nautilus becomes stuffy from remaining undersea too long, with no chance to ventilate), the novel still retains its power to entertain and enthrall. The story takes us across the entire world, almost literally 20,000 leagues, most of it while under the sea.

*I read this on my Droid X phone via Google Books, which has a whole library of books in its vast stock. Unlike the Amazon Kindle, Google Books uses OCR (optical character recognition) to render scanned originals into modern fonts. The results are a bit dodgy at times; nonsense characters often make an appearance, and serif character pairs like "11" are sometimes fused into single characters like "n." This is yet another reason why I'm still leery of buying an e-reader of my own; the tech is far from perfect. While I was able to enjoy the general flow of my copy of Verne, it did bother me to be stumbling over weird typographical quirks every third page.

**The novel also refers to "calmars," le calmar being the proper French word for "squid." It's not obvious to me, though, that Verne meant the Nautilus had been attacked by giant octopi; the description of the attack that took one sailor's life seemed to imply that the creatures (yes, plural-- not just one giant squid, as in the movie) were indeed squids.



hahnak said...

i may give this book a try. but ill probably try to find the most recent translation.

i am most impressed that you read this on your phone.

i have heard news reports on the radio about schoolchildren in other parts of the world (i dont recall where) where they eschew physical textbooks bc of the cost and bc of how "outdated" they come (creating new versions of textbooks is a scam [imo], meant to generate more $$$ from nothing) and the schools have students learn on their phones.

i have also read online reports that in japan novels that are written on the phone are popular. the novels are written a tiny section at a time when the author has a moment to tap something in; there are websites that makes publishing by phone convenient; people follow along, just as they do with blogs. the really popular ones get published into physical books and earn some modest amount of $$$. of course such novels are probably completely fluffy but maybe it would be fun to read one and see if it actually makes any sense. and if i read one, id have to read one on the phone.

it all seems unreal. phone screens are so tiny. my husband regularly uses his ipod touch and i CANT STAND using it, i feel so trapped by the size of that thing. i think youre the first person i "know" of who has read a novel on his phone. i guess it can be done and maybe its not such a big deal. for most people, that is. i am just not a fan of reading on a phone i guess.

i do have a kindle. i love it. its very portable but not tiny.

Charles said...

Project Gutenberg is your friend.

The French original:

Walter's translation:

(I must confess that, although I was a fan of Journey to the Center of the Earth when I was younger--and I still have a copy on my shelf--I have never read this work.)

Surprises Aplenty said...

Amazon and Kindle might not use OCR, but my understanding is that they use different editing paths for their e-book and paper products. I don't know if there are errors 'every third page' but perhaps every tenth page.

In one book, originally published in the 80's, the automatic editting found the word 'chapter' and automatically ended the sentence (without a period) and started the next page with "CHAPTER" and the next line continuing the sentence.
It's been a while since I read Verne. Perhaps I shuold look into the new translation.

John from Daejeon said...

It's a shame that this new version of his work did not take off. I definitely enjoyed the first, and only, season.