Journey Without End: On Translating Verne

William Butcher

This article was first published in Babel, pp. 131-6, Vol. 40, No. II, 1994, under the title “Journey to the Centre of the Text”. This revised version appears here with acknowledgements to Babel.
Some sort of connection between Jules Verne’s poor reputation in the English-speaking countries and the generally inadequate translations to date would seem indisputable.1 The aim of the present piece is to provide a brief account of some of the problems and pitfalls of translating Voyage au centre de la Terre (Journey to the Centre of the Earth, OUP, 1992).

A first illusion is that there is anything simple about Verne. A prominent British paperback imprint said recently: “We’d like a critical edition, with a couple of pages of endnotes”. A tall order—Verne constantly makes implicit and explicit reference to real-world events, and 40 pages of critical introduction and notes to Journey to the Centre of the Earth hardly scratch the surface of what could have been done. All the Extraordinary Journeys are minefields of connotations and denotations, ambiguities and metaphors, poetic effects and scientific arguments. If traditionally translation has been either literary or technical, in Verne’s case it really has to be both at the same time.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (JCE) seems in fact to have been one of the few books of Verne’s to be published in Britain before the United States.2 Backwards to Britain (Edinburgh, 1992) has not yet been published in the US. But with the honourable exception of Baldick’s Penguin version (1965), most “translations” of JCE bear unmistakeable signs of haste, disrespect, and plain ignorance. The anonymous Griffith & Farran edition of 1872 (starring “Hardwigg”, “Harry”, and “Gretchen”) has remained the most reprinted.3 (It also provided the (very loose) basis for the otherwise not unpleasant Henry Levin film version featuring James Mason.)

Although Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov provided Introductions to further anonymous editions in 1959 and 1966 (both New York), the general record for JCE is undistinguished. Nor has the book’s compactness protected it from the criminal chapter-chopping so often perpetrated on Verne, for there are uncountable versions “retold by”, “rewritten by”, or “adapted by”. This volume has thus sadly contributed to Verne’s reputation in America and Britain as a second-rate writer for children—despite being one of the most appreciated adult literary works in France and elsewhere.

One problem in literary translation is to know what to do about errors in the original. Thus Verne describes Iceland as 90 miles away from Greenland, and its area as 14,000 square miles; and makes the polyglot Lidenbrock seem slightly incompetent in Italian. Baldick tinkers with some of Verne’s mistakes, but for some reason maintains these three. He also introduces a few mysteries of his own. He misses out whole sentences; he multiplies 200,000 by ten; and he writes “dragging his stick along the wall” instead of “firing at the walls with his walking-stick” (as in the OUP translation), “grappling irons” instead of “iron crampons”, “these little people” for “this microcosm”, “figure” for “face”, “Dutch” for “New Zealand”, and “Dane” for “Icelandic explorer”.4 But Baldick should be commended for a generally fluent translation.5

Von Hardwigg’s creator has infinitely more to answer for. Not that he does not sometimes display a poetic vocabulary and a fine Victorian turn of phrase. But errors also abound. Thus we read “manometer” for “chronometer”, “delebat” for “delibat”, an invented footnote reading “* (?) Nasal.” (sic), “sight” for “sigh”, and the slightly worrying closing words, “the five quarters of the globe”. Some howlers, then, but not up to those reported by Miller (1976): “the Passage of the North Sea” for “the Northwest Passage”, “jumping over the island” for “blowing it up”, and the marvellous “each square 3/16 of an inch”.6 And certainly not a patch on those I detected in the proofs of Verne’s Backwards to Britain: “mass” in a Presbyterian kirk, “Scotsmen, and the English in general”, “that brave, proud nation that now moans about English domination” (for “still suffers under”), “prunes” for “plums”, biblical “Galilee” for the astronomer “Galileo”, and a Lancastrian “St Helen’s” for a mid-Atlantic “St Helena” (undoubtedly making Napoleon turn in his newfound grave)!7

More curious is the nineteenth-century translator’s regular tendency to insert at least one invented sentence at the end of each paragraph. Thus extraneous growths appear like “This day, as on other Sundays, we observed as a day of rest and pious meditation.” or “The whole state in which we existed was a mystery—and it was impossible to know whether or not I was in earnest.” The opening paragraphs of the book are in fact an authentic Hardwiggian tumour from beginning to end, as can be seen from the following table:

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.

My uncle was a German, having married my mother’s sister, an Englishwoman. Being very much attached to his fatherless nephew, he invited me to study under him in his home in the fatherland. This home was in a large town, and my uncle a professor of philosophy, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and many other ologies.

Le 24 mai 1863, un dimanche, mon oncle, le professeur Lidenbrock, revint précipitamment vers sa petite maison située au numéro 19 de Königstrasse, l’une des plus anciennes rues du vieux quartier de Hambourg.

La bonne Marthe dut se croire fort en retard, car le dîner commençait à peine à chanter sur le fourneau de la cuisine.

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.

Martha the maid must have thought she was running very late, for dinner had hardly begun to simmer on the kitchen range.

With time, our man gets bolder. Every word of Chapter XLI, describing “Harry’s” bird-nesting in the crags of an old castle, is invented from beginning to end.

Was the budding author perhaps paid by the word? Probably not: his scalpel is just as devastating as his transplants. He unfeelingly cuts the four-page “decoding” scene where Axel accidentally demonstrates his love for his cousin—Freud would have been fascinated, but generations of English-language readers have never suspected the depths of the young man’s passion. Also excised are Verne’s acerbic allusions to the theory of evolution. Was the progenitor of such subterranean monsters a suppressed clergy(wo)man? This might explain such gems as “his back raised like a cat in a passion” (for “buttressed on its enormous legs”), or the wonderful Freudian idea of a mastodon employing “his horrid trunk” to “crush the rocks to powder” (poor Verne could do no better than “uses his tusks to break up the rocks”). In sum, a massacre.

But how should one translate JCE? Faithfully, I believe—if only in reaction to the liberties previously taken. Verne’s mock-learned footnotes should be retained, but chapter titles should not be inserted, as commercial publishers have tended to do. The distinction between the voices of the characters should be conserved, especially between the precise, academic-sounding Lidenbrock and his sometimes provocatively populist nephew, but also between Axel-the-wiser-narrator and Axel-the-youthful-character. The book’s rhythm must be carefully maintained at both sentence and paragraph level, for Verne has a careful structure: slow build-ups leading to explosive, all-encompassing crescendos.

On the other hand, it would seem legitimate to reduce repetitious tics like the exclamation marks, the semi-colons in ternary sentences, and the superfluity of he said’s and he replied’s. Also, Verne (or perhaps his publisher Hetzel) is sometimes cavalier with his spelling. For this reason, in the OUP version, Sneffels has been amended to “Snæfells”, Graüben to “Gräuben”, Snorri Sturluson to “Snorre Turleson”, and “southwest” to “southeast” (as otherwise Lidenbrock cannot calculate his position). Again, the apparent non-existence of some of Verne’s geographical entities and inconsistencies in some of the dates and locations have been indicated in the endnotes.

Another challenge in translating Verne is the plays on words and other insidious tricks. Metaphors often run through the simplest vocabulary.8 Phrases like le mal de l’espace can be simply translated by “space-sickness”, existence “terrestrielle” by “ ‘Earthman’ existence”. Extumsescence, with its connotations of “ex-tumescence”, either gives simply “extumsescence” or the safer but perhaps sufficiently suggestive “bulge”.9 Gouverneur, l’Averne, caverneux can retain the authorial self-publicity of containing the letters v, e, r, and n as “Governor”, “the Avernus”, and “cavernous”; but it is difficult to attain perfection with anagrams like à l’ENVERs (“backwards” or “reversed”).10 Un savant égoïste probably has to be translated as both “a scholarly egoist” and “a selfish scholar”; Lidenbrock’s slip of the tongue Fessel is a play on fesses (“backside”): the pun doesn’t work in English, but others, more daring, can be improvised (“Snyfil” and “Feless”). One of my favourite examples of underlying meaning is the OUP copy-editor’s tactful enquiry whether the electrified waves like “fire-breathing breasts” (mamelons ignivomes) on the Lidenbrock Sea ought possibly to be “fire-breathing beasts”!

The problem of ambiguity re-emerges in Verne’s delight in reactivating meanings, either by subtly undermining them or else by re-activating their literal sense. Depending on the context, antédiluvien should be translated as “antediluvian”, “prehistoric”, “from before the flood”, or “from before the Flood”. Sauvé gives “saved” in both adventure-story and religious senses.

Again, the present tense is used throughout the logbook section (chaps. 32-5) (“At midday Hans makes a hook at the end of a line”, etc.). As Weinrich (1973) points out, this question of interaction between tense and time, literal form and allusive referentiality, is one of the most challenging in modern literature. Verne is again a consistent innovator. His Le Chancellor (1874) apparently constitutes the first novel ever written in French in continuous prose and in the present tense; and his L’Ile à hélice (1895), the first in the present and in the third person.11 JCE is, then, the precursor of a major stylistic experiment with consequences for the whole narrative process in the twentieth century. For some unfathomable, submarine reason, previous English translations have employed the past tenses. In the OUP edition, it was decided to use the present tense throughout this section.12 As a sign of the hard-to-break habit of narrating everything in the past tense, a few preterites did creep in—but were spotted by the ever-vigilant OUP editor.

In sum, puns, literal expressions, and underground devices run through the whole of Journey to the Centre of the Earth. All three involve a degree of “demetaphorisation” or “remetaphorisation”. Half tongue-in-cheek, Verne warns us in Captain Grant’s Children that metaphors are one of the most dangerous things in existence, that they should be employed only in the direst emergency—and then persistently employs them himself, making them however so empty or so full as to transcend their original state.

The complexities of Jules Verne should never be underestimated. Translators, above all, are the Vernian rockface-workers par excellence; they are perfectly placed to understand the density of the text and the many layers of meaning of the Extraordinary Journeys. They must be a bit of a wheeler-dealer, a shifter of both scenery and preconceptions. (Perhaps our clergyperson was on the right track after all?) They should also admit more often how arduous they find their task. It is probable that the difficulties of transmuting Verne into English are as great as those of “transducing” Poe or Proust into other languages. The battle for recognition will only be won when a Verne novel wins, say, the Scott-Moncrieff prize for literary translation. Perhaps in time for the centenary of his death, in 2005?

William Butcher Institute of Education, Hong Kong


A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, no translator acknowledged.
London: Griffith & Farran, 1872
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, trans. Robert Baldick. 1965.
London: Penguin (reprinted by Dent in 1970)
Backwards to Britain, trans. Janice Valls-Russell. 1992.
Edinburgh: Chambers
Butcher, William. 1983.
“Le Verbe et la chair, ou l’emploi du temps”, Revue des lettres modernes. Jules Verne 4: Texte, image, spectacle, edited by François Raymond. 125-48
Verne, Jules. 1976.
The Annotated Jules Verne: Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. Edited by Walter James Miller. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.
Vinay, J. P., and Darbelnet, J. 1954.
La Stylistique comparée de l’anglais et du français: méthode de traduction. Paris: Beauchemin
Weinrich, Harald. 1973.
Le Temps. trans. from German by Michèle Lacoste.

  1. Such an argument formed a small part of the conclusion of a doctoral thesis I presented to the University of London in 1983: it caused the majority of the examiners apoplexy—and the thesis not to be accepted.

  2. Although often the British and American editions came out in the same year, making it difficult to know which was the earlier one.

  3. A rather random list of a few of its successors would include separate anonymous New York and Boston editions in 1874 (respectively Scribner Armstrong & Co. and H. L. Shepard & Co.), another anonymous one (Routledge, London and New York, 1876), an F. A. Malleson one (London, Ward, Lock, & Tyler, 1876), another anonymous one (Blackie, London, 1925), an I. O. Evans one (London, 1961), and another anonymous Blackie one (London, s.d. [1960]).

  4. Respectively tirant au mur avec sa canne, crampons de fer, ce microcosme, figure, zélandais, and explorateur islandais.

  5. Although, when some of these slips are reproduced wholesale in another edition in the 1960s, then, as one has the habit of saying to one’s less scrupulous students, it is a most remarkable coincidence!

  6. le Passage du nord-ouest, faire sauter l’île, chaque centimètre carré.

  7. le sermon, les Ecossais, et les Anglais en général, gémit encore, prunes, Galilée, Sainte-Hélène.

  8. The part-time editor of the Bulletin de la Société Jules Verne pedantically replaced Verne’s “personne de Dickens” (person in Dickens) in my translation into French by “personnage de Dickens” (“character in Dickens”), ignoring my repeated protests on the subject: he did not understand that for Verne art can have a higher reality than reality itself, that people in literature are more alive than some characters in real life.

  9. The classic work on the problems of English-French translation, Darbelnet and Vinay (1954), presents such “displacements” as an integral part of any translation.

  10. “VENtilatoR” (rather than “fan”) for ventilateur could have survived if it had been thought of in time!

  11. Butcher (1983).

  12. Darbelnet and Vinay’s theory, which can be very approximately translated as “you win some, you lose some”, is well illustrated here, for the “je vais prendre” ambiguity in French (“I am about to take” vs “I move to take”) is neatly compensated for bitten by the existence of two present forms in English (“I take” vs “I am taking”).
Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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