Friday, 3 January 2014

Lost in Translation: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Ships are disappearing all over the world and it believed to be caused by a sea monster. Professor Pierre Aronnax, author of the book The Mysteries of the Ocean Deep, his companion Conseil and Canadian harpooner Ned Land are hired by the US government to help put and end to this mystery by joining an expedition on the Abraham Lincoln. After months of searching the Abraham Lincoln finds its quarry and in the ensuing collision, Professor Aronnax, Conseil and Ned Land are thrown overboard. In their efforts to survive, the trio find themselves on the surface of the “monster” itself, which turns out to be a submarine. Captain Nemo allows them to remain alive on board his submarine, the Nautilus, as his permanent guests, meaning he will never allow them to leave and reveal his secrets. The Captain uses this meeting with Professor Aronnax, whose book he has read, to begin a new cruise through the oceans and seas of the world, so that he can show Professor Aronnax where his book was lacking in details; meanwhile, Ned Land’s primary interest is in escape...

My enjoyment of science fiction is as much about the words as the pictures that draw my attention to a book on a store shelf or online shop front. For over 120 years, readers of English have known only a poor imitation of Jules Verne's classic French novel Vingt Mille Lieues Sous les Mers - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - and consequently relegated the writer to the category of a "boy's author". Since 1873 the standard English version has been Lewis Mercier's mangled "translation," a work that's filled with errors, mistranslations, and bogus additions, and missing nearly a quarter of Verne's original text.

Thanks to the life-long efforts of two Verne scholars, Walter J. Miller Frederick Paul Walter, the English-speaking world gained access to a definitive and highly recommended translation in 1993, the only English version based solely on the level of literary artist and scientific visionary, a category he has always enjoyed in Europe and Russia.

Mercier's act of literary vandalism went unnoticed until 1965, when New York University English professor Walter Miller discovered the missing text and began the restoration of the Verne masterpiece. After nearly thirty years of work, including rigorous examinations of his translation by experts in marine technology and biology, Miller teamed that Frederick Paul Walter in 1992 to create this landmark scientific and literary achievement.

While the cover of this much-praised translation is pretty dull, to be honest, restored to the volume along with the original woodcut illustrations are the entertaining and often prescient drams of Captain Nemo, widely considered the prototypical science-fiction character.

In this novel alone Verne has anticipated submarine diving planes, scuba gear, underwater laboratories, and marine ecological disasters. He also inspired large-scale underwater mining and farming of flora and fauna, and electricity from thermoclines, all currently in development.

Restoration of these visionary ideas and some twenty-three percent of the original text is certain to elevate Verne's standing in scientific and literary circles.

• 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, published by the US Naval Institute, is available from

 • If your perception of 20,000 Leagues is further coloured by the Disney film, then you might also want to check out this 1916 silent version:

North American Jules Verne Society, Inc.

(With thanks to Micheal Neno)

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