Victorian Summer Reads, 1978: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  Book Reviews    September 2, 2016     Eric Larkin


Summer is over. Pretty much. Pumpkin Spice Lattes are brewing. Football is about to start. You’re thinking about your Halloween costume. Christmas decorations are going up.

And it sure as hell ain’t 1978 anymore.

And all my Moby Illustrated Classics are gone. Sad.

And yet…

Any damn time I want, I can pick up Sherlock Holmes or Mary Shelley or Huck Finn and have both a nostalgic and a totally new experience. That’s what great books are all about.



As promised in the previous post, we are now looking at one of the high quality translations of Jules Verne. But you know… I have the feeling that the 80 Days translation I read was not one of the hack ones. It wasn’t one of the super fancy pants ones, but it didn’t completely suck. However, in trying to figure out exactly which translation I read, I stumbled across William Butcher’s introduction at the top of his Oxford University Press translation. It points out a lot that I completely missed. So, check that out if you really want to dig under the surface of 80 Days. But you know… sometimes I just wanna eat my nachos and not worry about how much vitamin C is in the jalapeños.


Save this link, and you’ll be able to scan thru your local offerings for the best translations.


Anyway, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is definitely one of Verne’s titles that suffered mightily in its earliest English translations. So, I got myself the first of Walter James Miller’s lauded annotated versions. This was good on account of all the cool notes in the margins. I love that. On the other hand, though he restored chunks of text that had been straight cut by the nimrod who did the first translation, he otherwise kept it intact, and noted the correct translations in the margin notes. This meant that I had to look off to the side to read the real stuff. I cannot imagine why he did it that way. It really hampers the reading experience. I think it should have been the other way around, so you could read the book in its best condition, and then, as you have interest, note the ways in which it was botched before. Perhaps he switched it up in his more recent editions.

After about two chapters of that bullshit, I switched over to the Anthony Bonner trans from Bantam, and it gets pretty good marks.


And if you’ve read this far, congratulations, you are a book nerd.


A lot of what was lost in the initial English versions were scientific details and anything that didn’t jibe with the translator’s personal views. It’s pretty unbelievable that he got away with it. What a d-bag. That’s not to mention he apparently sucked at French.


Besides being an amazing adventure, that between plot and characters never releases its tension, this is a catalogue of the world’s oceans that would have blown the mind of its original readers. These were not people that could flip on Nat Geo or trot down to the local aquarium. I will admit that a few times I thought, “Ok – enough with the damn fish,” but still – I wouldn’t change a thing. And the whole idea of a man-made vessel doing what its submarine, The Nautilus, could do would be like us talking about going thru a wormhole. Like, maybe it’s possible, but… how the hell…?! And the visuals: fields of sunk treasure ships and lost cities and volcanoes at the bottom of the sea and underwater forests and and and – it’s hard to put the scope of the ocean in your mind’s eye. All of a sudden, I totally get James Cameron.

Captain Nemo has a really modern sense of environmentalism, with a kind of Victorian edge: these whales over here are harmless and over-hunted – ah, but those whales over there are assholes, let’s kill them. He might be the original Greenpeacer, but he’ll spear the odd manatee for Saturday’s cookout. He’s a pinnacle of anti-hero, too; you can neither judge nor justify his actions.


I have nothing new to say about it, but that it’s as great as its status on the Continent and twice as great as its status in the English-speaking world. Choose your version carefully, and you’ll finish with a head full of ideas and a heart full of awe.




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