Jules Verne and the power of translation
Jules Verne, who died on March 24 in 1905, is the world’s second most translated author (that’s less than Agatha Christie and more than William Shakespeare) and widely known as one of the fathers of science fiction. In a series of more than 50 books – read mostly in translation – known as ‘voyages extraordinaires (extraordinary journeys), Verne created some of the most amazing stories of adventure and science that continue to inspire scientists and writers alike. So much so, that in 2008, an unmanned cargo resupply craft that was sent to the International Space Station was named the Jules Verne ATV, which carried two original manuscripts by Verne.
The cultural impact of the French writer, thanks to translations, goes much beyond a solely Francophone readership. In spite of the fact that early English translations of Verne’s work were widely known to be shoddy and even to have omitted some of the best passages, his legacy in English has managed to endure. In a rush to get what were seen as lucrative books out to more readers, publishers lost much of the nuance and beauty of Verne’s writing. It has since been found that different translated editions of the same book had widely different characters and sometimes even different plot-lines, leading one critic to lament that “the English-speaking world has never had a fair chance to know the real Jules Verne”. The importance of good and accurate translation becomes clear when it is noted that in English translations, Verne’s work was seen as being somewhat casual in its technical accuracy and had been relegated to being ‘children’s books’; while in European circles, his work was celebrated for its scientific rigour and his ability to incorporate romance and drama into authentic facts and figures.
Great figures of literature, from Verne to Haruki Murakami, have been read and enjoyed across the world in translation. It is only in translation that many great works are made accessible to people in different regions of the world. Responsible and accurate translations make it possible to bring to life an exotic French adventure under the sea to an obscure village school in Tamil Nadu, inspiring perhaps, a child to become a marine biologist. The power of literature and imagination is multiplied manifold by the efforts of good translators. As important as writers are, translators must also be given their due as those who manage to make adventure and inspiration accessible to more and more people.