‘Lighthouse’ – how not to read Jules Verne

For starters, this is not a review of the book The Lighthouse at the End of the World, by Jules Verne.  Rather, this is about the specific version I ordered (and am returning), which is translated by William Butcher and published by Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press).

There were three types of Verne translations which I read, back in the day.  One type was old and Victorian-esque, probably the first English translation and perhaps modified by Michel Verne (Jules’s son).  Another type was the rarity – a thoughtful modern translation, often by some large publishing house.  The third type was a modern translation (usually first English) of an obscure Verne novel, with such freedom of editorial interpretation that I wish I had never read it.

Getting back to Lighthouse.  I feel positively certain the first version I read (eons ago) was the Michel Verne version, with more old-timey English.  Ok, fine.  This 2007 Butcher translation, on the other hand, was the first to translate the unedited Jules Verne version of the story.  I was naturally excited and ordered the book.

I observed three things up front:

  1. bountiful endnotes like you wouldn’t believe
  2. anachronistic vocabulary – how I hate reading “Okay” when we’re in 1859
  3. typos – things like a missing article, or characters’ names reversed in dialogue.  (I realize this is Verne’s text…it just seems hard to believe they would have purposefully published his missing an ‘a’.  If it was intentional, an endnote, in this case, would have been fitting.)

My practice is to skip introductions and avoid notes as much as possible.  However, the little asterisks were scattered like snowflakes, so at times I felt compelled to find out why there was an endnote for some sentence that was perfectly unambiguous.  Between that and glimpses of the introduction, it became clear this was one of Those Editions…those crap ones…

In one instance, the translator annotates a religious reference (by one of the characters) with handwaving to the effect that Jules Verne “resents organized religion” yet “seems to have been moderately Catholic” (p. 160), and that this book is unusual in that sense.  The translator expands upon his thesis by more derogatory remarks, regarding the character’s Christian faith, in the introduction.  I am no Verne biographer or expert, but from reading eleven of his other novels, I can’t recall such purportedly frequent cynicism – indeed, any – that the translator claims Verne shares.  The translator offers no sources to back up his claim.

In another instance, Butcher asserts that the actions of one character saving another character’s life “contains homosexual innuendo” (p. 161).  He seems to have pulled this out of a hat – the characters at this point are still complete and utter strangers, and, without the ability to build a fire, it seems nothing but sensible to change a half-drowned man (or woman) out of their wet clothes into dry clothes.  I take it the translator also finds sexual undertones in cases of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?

It should be said again – the story itself is really good.  Verne was a great author, and his writing is characteristically straightforward.  Even from French to English, it seems hardly possibly to misinterpret his meaning.  The laudable feature of this translation is its fidelity to the original text, yet the edition as a whole has added so much on top of it that it gets in the way.  Good-bye, Lighthouse…there’ll be more translations, I hope.

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  1. Lemon Tree Avatar
    Lemon Tree

    Wow! I don't remember which translation I read when I read 20000 Leagues but I am sure it was pretty old. Funny I usually prefer old translation for almost everything. Aside from being mostly free, the vocabulary usually fits me better. Next time reading Verne, I'll surely check the translator.


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