16 January 2008

When a translation is not a translation

Having to read a book in translation is rotten. But you can’t know every language in the world, so sometimes you must settle for a mediator—and hope he or she manages to do justice to the original.

With older books, there’s often a bewildering variety of translations available, and that places the reader in a bind: which one to choose? The story will be the same, the general words the same, but a bad translation can change the entire feel of book.

Watch out, I’m going to talk about Jules Verne again.

Verne suffers from some creaky English translations that have infected book shelves since the days of Queen Victoria. New versions are finally getting out there, but the cobwebby translations refuse to go away. A good rule of thumb is to stick to the more scholarly looking versions from reputable publishers of classics, like Penguin and the Oxford World’s Classic series. For most Verne books, look for William Butcher’s translations. For Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, the restored and annotated version from the Naval Institute Press with a translation by Walter James Miller and Frederick Walter Paul is a major revelation. Avoid “bargain” copies or omnibuses, which often stick to Victorian translations that are not only outdated and flat-out incorrect, but that often shave off a quarter of the original manuscript.

But be especially careful about Journey to the Center of the Earth. Allow me to elucidate the dilemma around this classic.

For your perusal, here is a comparison of the first paragraph of the novel as it appears in some of the most commonly available translations. I’ll start with Verne’s actual French text to Voyage au Centre de la Terre as it appeared on original publication:
Le 24 mai 1863, un dimanche, mon oncle, le professeur Lidenbrock, revint précipitamment vers sa petite maison située au numéro 19 de König-strasse, l'une des plus anciennes rues du vieux quartier de Hambourg.
Our first Anglicization is the earliest one available in the public domain, done by Frederick Amadeus Malleson for publishers Ward, Lock, & Co., Ltd., London, in 1877, and published under the title Journey to the Interior of the Earth:
On the 24th of May, 1863, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, rushed into his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the oldest portion of the city of Hamburg.
I wonder why he dropped un dimanche, “a Sunday” from the date. I’m not fond of that double “oldest” either, since anciennes and vieux aren’t exact synonyms. Lidenbrock also “rushes” into his house, instead of “rushing back toward(s)” as the French indicates. And why does Malleson feel it necessary to identify it as “the city of Hamburg”? I think the suffix “-burg” sort of tells that on its own, and Hamburg is a well-known German city.

Some of these problems disappear as we move forward to the 1965 translation of that same paragraph by Robert Baldick, which appears in Penguin editions. This is the translation I first read in elementary school.
On 24 May 1863, which was a Sunday, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, came rushing back toward his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the old quarter of Hamburg.
Baldick has found the words missing from the earlier translation: “Sunday” and “rushing back toward.” There is still the double “old,” although now it’s “oldest” and “old,” which isn’t so obvious. Also, Verne’s French just says “a Sunday,” not “which was a Sunday.” I think it’s interesting that Baldick uses the American “toward” instead of the British “towards.”

Next, the the Oxford World’s Classics translation (using the very British “Centre” in its title) from William Butcher, the most recently published version to receive wide distribution:
On 24 May 1863, a Sunday, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, came rushing back towards his little house at No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the historic part of Hamburg.
This is why I like Butcher’s translations so much. He gets all the French literally right, keeps Verne’s word flow, and makes it sound crisp and readable in English. The contrast of “oldest streets” to “historic part” is right on the money, and it conjures up a far more vivid portrait than the “old quarter/oldest portion.”

And finally, another translation of this paragraph commonly found in modern paperbacks (such as Signet’s):
Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. They were truly so wonderful that even now I am bewildered when I think of them.
Hey, wait a minute! What in tarnation is this? That doesn’t sound like the other three translations. And you don’t have to know any French at all to figure out that it doesn’t match the original. It doesn’t even sound like Verne; it’s sort of “gee whiz” dopey. What in the . . . ?

Dear gods of high Olympus, it’s the “Hardwigg” version of the novel, still available on bookstore and library shelves to confuse poor readers into thinking they are actually reading Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. They aren’t; they are reading a complete revision of story. Same plot, mostly different text, and with the characters’ names changed. (“Lidenbrock” is now “Hardwigg.”) And I guarantee that the blurb on the book cover and introduction won’t bring up this unpleasant fact.

I first came across this version in a book store soon after I re-read the novel. I plucked up the Signet edition to see how its translation compared to the one I had read. I was curious because I had only recently become aware of the need for new “ground-up” English versions of Verne to replace the stodgy older ones, and I wanted to know if some of the mass market editions still had out-of-date translations. I discovered that the Signet edition seemed to have nothing to do with the one I had read. It couldn’t be translation error—the two editions had to to come from completely different sources. So which was one was correct?

I soon found out that I had, fortunately, read the correct version. Signet—and other publishers—for some reason were still using the 1871 Griffith & Farrar re-write of the book for English-speaking audiences. This re-write has been reprinted so many times with Verne’s name slapped on it that it still sits out there to lure the unsuspecting to it. Why do publishers keep putting it out there? Do they perhaps not know that it isn’t Jules Verne’s novel?

So if you ever buy a copy of Journey to the Center of the Earth, check the first paragraph before you lay your money down. If it mentions Hamburg, Prof. Lidenbrock, and Königstrasse—good. If not—bad. (Of course, with an actual translation, you’re still at the mercy of the skill of the translator. But at least he or she is looking at Verne’s writing.)