A couple of months ago, I went to the book market at Bredevoort. I found a version of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea published in an English translation with annotations by Walter James Miller. It is a large (almost A4-sized) book, profusely annotated in the margins of the text and containing many illustrations sourced from old engravings – some of which come from the original French edition of the book.
Intrigued, I bought it, and have now finished reading it. It’s been a revelation. I knew of the story, of course, along with others by Verne, but I have never actually read any of them. I had always thought that they were books written for children, but it turns out that my view was probably formed by osmosis from the reactions of the English-speaking literary establishment to the English translations.
Miller takes as his starting point the standard English translation produced in the 1870s by one “Mercier Lewis”. This turns out to be Lewis Page Mercier, a theologian. This “grim parson” (Miller’s description) thought nothing of excising 23 percent of Verne’s original text, often where he apparently disagrees with Verne’s views (e.g. on Darwinism). The remaining text is subject to hundreds of errors of translation, and he destroys many of Verne’s character sketches and jokes. What remained, and has formed the basis of the English translations ever since, is a travesty of the original novel.
Miller restored the missing 23 percent with his own translation, and provides annotations to show where Mercier, either unknowingly or deliberately got it wrong. Some of the translation howlers seem unbelievable, as where Mercier translates lentille (French for either the lentil or a lens) and has Verne write that Ned Land (the harpooner) could light a fire by holding a lentil up to the sun…
The restored and annotated translation thus becomes a completely new and powerful story for adults containing Verne’s scientific, social and political predictions. To quote from the dust-jacket:
In an imperialist age, Verne was concerned not only with the treatment of primitive peoples, but with the burgeoning power of what today we call the military-industrial complex; Nemo himself lives out the principles of philosophical anarchism. Verne also foresaw the smouldering of French separatism in Canada, the rebirth of China, and the rise of the American Goliath – all this in addition to his scientific prophecies, ranging from the use of electric “stun guns” to the ecological problems that would be caused by hunting the whale and other sea creatures to extinction.
What adds another layer of resonance to this tale is that the copy of the book I have is stamped with the imprint of the library of the merchant ship Royal Viking Star. So perhaps this book, before coming to rest in my library for the moment, has travelled twenty thousand leagues over the sea…