Thursday, January 10, 2019

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Jules Verne in the 1890s and the Airmont Paperback
Jules Verne had been dead for forty-nine years when Walt Disney premiered his live action feature film based on Verne’s novel. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason. (NOTE: the film uses the numerical variant title while the novel employs the text). The English translations of Verne’s many novels needed no introduction, but Disney did something with that film that struck a chord with film fans. The Disney production team created a set-piece of memorable images that moviegoers have never forgotten. The giant squid attack on Captain Nemo’s submarine, Nautilus, remains an exciting action scene and is perhaps the film’s best known moment.
Scene still of James Mason in the Disney Production
Naturally as a child growing up in the Sixties I was quite familiar with this film. It played on television regularly, and our local elementary school even ran a screening for a dime. My introduction to Jules Verne’s books was an obvious extension of this interest. The first copy I owned of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was the 1963 Airmont paperback. The fantastic cover art mimics the colorful Nautilus design from the Disney film. As you would expect, the film version of Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) starring James Mason and Pat Boone, and the 1963 release of The Mysterious Island with stop-motion animation by the great Ray Harryhausen, all added to Verne’s appeal. I was hooked.

Jules Verne has been called “the father of science fiction” and the first steampunk novelist. Those distinctions are debatable, but Verne’s talent and universal appeal can’t be denied. His books have been translated from their original French into numerous languages and his English language editions remain perennial best-sellers. This is also where things get a little murky. The translations are often hatchet-jobs and according to numerous scholars, the French editions all contain scenes and details excised from the English editions.
Ideally, what’s needed is a concentrated translation program, perhaps funded by a University, that will translate and make available all of Verne’s bibliography, thus creating a definitive English language library for Verne’s readers. History teaches us that interpretations are based upon the translator’s agenda, and Verne’s translators were certainly intent on discovering the fastest route to a dollar. They routinely excised long descriptions, dialogue, and shortened sections to achieve their end swiftly. What’s truly amazing is that these translations somehow retained enough of Verne’s tales to keep them not only palpable, but became popular best-sellers. This is not a confirmation of the translator’s skill, but rather a testament to Verne’s extraordinary talent.
In fact, there is progress on this front, especially concerning Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, my favorite of Verne’s books. I first read the flawed Lewis Page Mercier version, but the current preferred translation is by Walter James Miller. Other substantial efforts at reliable translations are ongoing. Jules Verne’s novels are thriving in their after-life.

I re-read the Airmont paperback recently, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea has not lost its allure. Captain Nemo and Ned Land and the submarine, Nautilus seem forever fixed in my imagination, and the marine biologist Pierre Arnonax’s narration is just as exciting when I first read it. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is impossible to ignore. Multiple English language versions exist, including newer, accurate translations. It’s a marvelous book, and recommended for readers of all ages.

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