Up Late    June 20, 2015     Eric Larkin


Arthur Evans and Frederick Paul Walter recently published the first complete translation of Five Weeks in a Balloon: A Journey of Discovery by Three Englishmen in Africa, the first published novel from Jules Verne and the beginning of his Extraordinary Voyages series. This series would include some of the most influential stories of the 20th Century… and beyond! [add echo effect here]. There are 54 books in this series, including such familiar titles as Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon. He has been translated more than any other fiction writer except Agatha Christie. Think about that. More than Dickens. More than Cervantes or Tolstoy or Austen or EVEN DAN BROWN. And this was his first.

He took a side street after this and wrote Paris in the 20th Century – but his publishers rejected it. You can check out a detailed examination on this podcast from superfun website Futility Closet.

It was labeled as too dark and unrealistic (it was scarily accurate on many counts), but thwarted as he was in this direction, he went on to write Journey to the Center of the Earth. Maybe you’ve heard of it. These adventures would come to be classified as science fiction. He is at minimum one half the father of science fiction, at least in Hollywood.

Yes, there are HG Wells, Orwell, etc. but those guys had a primarily dystopian vision. They can share that half. The utopian (or at least… okay-topian) half is Verne. He did doubt the direction of technology – the way he envisioned Paris in the unpublished novel – but he foreshadowed scientific advancements of exploration, adventure and utility, not inevitable decay.  He didn’t deny the Blade Runner, but he held out hope for The Jetsons.

And it’s obvious that aside from his influence in film and genre circles, he profoundly affected science and technology, in a way analogous to Star Trek’s influence more recently. Take a kid with no interest in math and no awareness of the night sky, show him a space ship having adventures – next thing, he’s doing trigonometry in his head. (There are prob a few interim steps. I’m summarizing.)

photo Adrigu, cc

photo Adrigu, cc

Anyway, you probably knew most of that already. Here’s what’s significant – or at least, totally new to me. Until relatively recently, most English translations of Jules Verne were supremely shitty. Either truncated, inept or deliberately changed to fit socio-political biases. In France, he is not just a sci-fi or children’s author – he is a first-rate literary powerhouse (that’s a technical term right there), and these pathetic translations are somewhat to blame for his relative lack of stature in the English-speaking world. That has changed a bit for the better recently (starting in the 60s, if I understand it), but only because fresh translations have become available.  If you read him when you were younger – or as I did, in those awesome pocket classics they used to give away at McDonald’s – you missed a few things. Here is the best list I’ve found of the more recent and – heaven forbid – accurate translations.

Get your diving suit on, English-user; Verne’s waters are deeper than we thought.

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