Jules Verne and Amazing Stories

Capt Hatteras_front_coverAs a writer whose work exerted a mighty influence on science fiction, it is entirely appropriate that Jules Verne and Amazing Stories had a tight relationship.

That relationship began, of course, 21 years after Verne’s death (1905), because Amazing Stories’ first issue was dated April 1926 — two years short of Verne’s centennial. Nonetheless, Verne was represented in that first issue and received cover-featured honors for Off on a Comet, or Hector Servadac (originally published in France as Hector Servadac in 1877). Verne appeared in the first dozen issues of the magazine, and through 1934 appeared in 21 issues of Amazing Stories. (For more information about Verne’s appearance in the magazine, see Andrew Nash’s site on Verne by clicking here.)

Verne has been called the Father of Science Fiction for generations. That title really isn’t accurate. Verne strenuously pointed out in interviews that he didn’t fabricate speculative explanations for the fantastic elements of his stories, as did his rival, H.G. Wells; instead, Verne chose to extrapolate from existing and known scientific facts. For this reason, it may be more appropriate to consider him the Father of the TechnoThriller, although it may be difficult for today’s readers to imagine cataloging Verne alongside Tom Clancy.

But in the popular press, there will be no shaking free Verne from his Father of Science Fiction honors. The title and its association will outlast us all.

However, something that may improve is Verne’s legacy in the English-reading world. Despite being one of the most-translated authors in the world, and despite the renown he experienced during his lifetime, Verne’s work has suffered greatly at the hands of translators who brought his words into English from the original French. In some cases, it is more accurate to say they minced, mangled, and mutilated instead of translated his works.

Some of the first translators — who performed their work while Verne still lived and wrote best-selling books — cut his novels by as much as one-third and one-half their original lengths, removing passages and chapters willy-nilly. In other cases, Verne’s words were replaced with others that might have been more politically or socially correct for the British or American publishers releasing the newly translated works; in some instances, Verne’s carefully researched scientific or geographic references were replaced with wildly incorrect information.

Perhaps strangest of all, the names of characters were inexplicably changed. And it is not merely the lesser-known of Verne’s stories that suffered these treatments. For example, the 1872 translation of Journey to the Center of the Earth, one of the author’s most famous tales, most famously — or infamously — renames Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel as Hardwigg and Harry, respectively!

Why? Who knows?

The good news for readers today is that this state of affairs is being corrected.

Beginning with the publication in 1965 of Walter James Miller’s fresh and authentic translation into English of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a new generation of translators began repairing the damage to Verne’s work and his reputation by presenting new editions of famous works and translations of works that had never made it into English. Thanks to scholars such as Miller, William Butcher, Stanford Luce, Arthur Evans, Sidney Kravitz, and several others, English readers are now able to experience the best-known of Verne’s fictional journeys and lesser-known but still-entertaining works in translations that accurately capture the author’s intent.

The bad news, of course, is that new editions of the mangled translations continue to be published every year. So there are plenty of readers whose first encounters with Verne’s extraordinary imagination continue to be hindered by sloppy and just plain bad work.

Miller presents the history of Verne’s mangling and of his ongoing recuperation in a delightful essay, “The Rehabilitation of Jules Verne in America: From Boy’s Author to Adult’s Author, 1960-2003.” It’s available online for your reading pleasure at the North American Jules Verne Society’s site.

Verne’s French publisher, Pierrre-Jules Hetzel, christened his famed author’s novels with an umbrella title, Extraordinary Journeys in the Known and Unknown Worlds with the publication of his second novel, The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Hatteras (serial publication 1864, book publication 1866). Usually shortened to just Extraordinary Journeys (Voyages extraordinaires), these fictions of geographic and scientific exploration continue to provide entertainment and thrills for the adventure-loving reader. Even in the 21st Century.

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  1. I'm just speculating here, but I suspect that the publishers in earlier times exerted more control over what they thought the public would accept. Thus, Anglicizing names would have been an editorial activity they felt was firmly within their rights to do … to sell more books.

    They also had far less respect for an author's legal rights, in general. Samuel Clemens once had one of his manuscripts stolen and then published in Canada. He sued, but the court ruled that since he hadn't published in the United States yet, he had no rights to sue. Since his work had already been published, no US publisher wanted to touch it, especially after he had lost his suit.

    Not surprising that Verne's original works were so mangled, given the nature of the publishing industry of his times.

  2. Thanks for an excellent article, Duane. Translators have a tough job, and one unsuited for the spirit of the original work easily can turn a piece of gold into dross.

    I read Verne's "greatest hits" as a kid — 20,000 League, Around the World, Mysterious Island, Off on a Comet and From the Earth to the Moon — and how the writing in one book could be so exciting and another so clunky always puzzled me. Only as an adult did I realize the fault (probably) fall on the translator, not the author.

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