Monday, June 11, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaire #32: Deux ans de vacances

During the night of March 9, 1860, the clouds, merging with the sea, limited the view to a few fathoms. On this disintegrated sea, over which the waves broke beneath a livid gleam, a fragile vessel was driven, almost bare of sail. It was a hundred-ton yacht - a schooner - the name of schooners in England and America. This schooner was called the Sloughi, although in vain would one have sought to read this name on her back-board, which an accident -- a stroke of the sea or a collision -- had partly torn from below the crest.

(My translation.) By a freak accident, a group of boys, aged eight to thirteen, are alone on a boat in the middle of a raging storm that results in their landing, weeks later, on a deserted island, lost and on their own. Under the leadership of the big boys -- the resourceful Briant, the intelligent but haughty Doniphan, and the personable and diplomatic Gordon -- with the help of the younger cabin boy, Moko, they survive, as the title says, for two years, under dangerous conditions, for the adventure, and the vacation, of a lifetime.

Deux ans de vacances, often titled in English, Adrift in the Pacific, is a good opportunity to discuss briefly the problems with Verne translations. Early translators often translated with a rather free hand, in the belief that they were making a more exciting story; names were changed, passages abridged or cut, and, occasionally, passages added. The choices made in such translations were occasionally harmless -- nobody is really put out by the change of Verne's 'Cyrus Smith' in The Mysterious Island to 'Cyrus Harding'. Even in such cases something can be lost -- Verne chose names for characters very carefully -- but this is a minor thing, and one can imagine any number of cases in which it would be justifiable. Indeed, some cases -- like quoting the actual Ossian instead of Verne's French paraphrases in The Green Ray, could very well enrich the story. But this is not the general course of things, and the result is often shoddy work, with changes that cannot seriously be justified in terms of the text itself. The most famous work in which the English translation mauled the original French is Journey to the Center of the Earth, but even that notorious case pales beside the mauling received by Deux ans de vacances, to the material detriment of the story itself. (And Deux ans de vacances has nothing like JCE's volcanoes and dinosaurs to pierce through the gloom of a bad translation.)

It starts with the title itself. Titles were often changed in order (apparently) to make them more exciting; this hurts Deux ans de vacances much more than most others. Most of the story is, in fact, not about being 'adrift in the Pacific'; the boys are adrift in the Pacific for about three briefly described weeks, and then spend two years very much not adrift on a desert island. But the title was not just a label slapped onto the book; the last several paragraphs of the work in French are devoted to explaining, explicitly, why Verne chose that title in particular, so anyone who changes the title has already committed to changing how the book actually ends. But it is far worse than that. The dominant translation in English cuts out significant sections of the book, thus throwing off the structure, and sometimes takes the freest and most outrageous liberties with the text, nominally in order to make it more interesting to English-speaking boys. And worst of all is the fact that the translation (like not a few American translations of foreign authors in the nineteenth century) makes the work jarringly racist to read. Moko is black; he is also explicitly presented as one of the pillars in the boys' society because he is, next to Briant, the boy with the most relevant experience, due to his being a cabin boy. The boys mirror the societies of their parents, so Verne has explicitly put in a racial tinge on one or two points. Moko doesn't vote when the boys pick a leader, and the attitude of some of the boys toward him is a bit condescending (Doniphan most notably, although Doniphan is condescending in one way or another with everyone); but in the boys' society you can see the absurdity of Moko's lack of franchise. But that's the limits of Verne's engagement with racial issues. It is worlds away from the English translation. In Verne's tale, Moko calls Briant 'Mr. Briant' because he's a cabin boy, and that's how cabin boys speak to people who are in charge. In the English translation, Moko calls Briant 'Massa Briant' because Moko is black. That alone tells you everything you need to know.

So the only really available English translation of the work is atrocious. It's a pity, because the story itself is quite a good contribution to the genre of Robinsonade: a tale of how "order, zeal, and courage" can overcome in any situation, however dangerous.

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