Saturday, July 07, 2018

Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth


Opening Passage: Since, as noted in the introduction, I deliberately read the work in two different translations, and the difference is considerable, I present them both here for comparison. The (often loose and sometimes modifying) 1871 George & Raffan, used by the Heritage Press edition and the most widely read version:

Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. They were truly so wonderful that even now I am bewildered when I think of them.

My uncle was a German, having married my mother's sister, an Englishwoman. Being very much attached to his fatherless nephew, he invited me to study under him in his home in the fatherland. This home was in a large town, and my uncle a professor of philosophy, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, and many other ologies.

One day, after passing some hours in the laboratory -- my uncle being absent at the time -- I suddenly felt the necessity of renovating the tissues -- i.e., I was hungry, and was about to rouse up our old French cook, when my uncle, Professor Von Hardwigg, suddenly opened the street door, and came rushing upstairs.

The more faithful 1876 George Routledge and Sons, used by the Dover Thrift edition:

It was on Sunday, the 24th of May, 1863, that my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, came rushing suddenly back to his little house in the old part of Hamburg, No. 19, Königstrasse.

Our good Martha could not but think she was very much behindhand with the dinner, for the pot was scarcely beginning to simmer, and I said to myself:

"Now, then, we'll have a fine outcry if my uncle is hungry, for he is the most impatient of mortals."

You'll notice that, while they describe exactly the same event, they are in some ways not the same story at all. This is typical all the way through: the events described are the same, and the structure of the plot thus the same, but the differences of the George & Raffan continually accumulate to make it a rather different tale.

Summary: Professor Otto Lidenbrock is a great scientist in an age of great scientists, a corresponding member of scientific societies throughout the 'five parts of the world' -- a French expression meaning all the inhabited continents. He is a genius of geological classification and notable scientific names from all over the globe send him samples to classify. Nor is geology the limit of his interests; he is a true nineteenth century scientist, a specialist, yes, but with generalist interests. He is excited because he has just managed to get a rare edition of the Icelandic saga, Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson. He is yet more excited when he discovers in it an encoded message by the sixteenth century alchemist, Arne Saknussemm, which claims that Saknussemm had discovered a path, through the dormant volcano Snæfellsjökull, to the center of the earth. Lidenbrock believes it, and drags his nephew Axel off to Iceland to see if they can follow in Saknussemm's footsteps.

There are many admirable features of this story that can show up even through the most defective translation. The handling of the message at the beginning of the tale is probably the most effective narrative use of basic cryptography ever written, and the ancient-message trope is probably only rivaled by H. Rider Haggard. The itinerary element inevitable in a standard tale by Verne, in this case to Denmark and Iceland, blends seamlessly with the larger voyage promised by the title. The foreseeable dangers of such a descent -- lack of water, lack of food, the difficulty of not getting lost, the danger of losing one's head -- are each handled in turn, and the adventure is spiced with plentiful unforeseen dangers -- surely there are few scenes more striking than primitive monsters battling in a sea far underground. The twist with the compass is splendidly done, and the problem of where they could possibly come out (and how they would manage to get there in a bearable amount of time) is handled well.

But Verne was not just sketching a story, and there are features of the tale that can easily be lost in translation. One of Verne's standing interests is what might be called the 'poetry of science', which he interweaves with the 'poetry of scenery' provided by his itinerary-plots. Verne likes going a bit into the scientific classifications and terminology, the natural history, and the discussions of the big scientific theories of the day, because he has a good sense of how these things enrich the language of the tale. This comes out very clearly in comparing the two translations I read: the George & Raffen version, which regularly simplifies and sometimes cuts out the scientific lists and technical terminology, often comes across as vague in its descriptions, whereas the George Routledge and Sons version, which usually keeps them, stands out as clearly and vividly and richly described.

More than that, the George & Raffen translation makes modifications that are materially detrimental to the story. (As I've mentioned before, it was once very common for translators of popular works to make whatever changes in translation they thought would make the story more popular with the target audience.) It changes, as I mentioned, the character names, which is relatively minor, and it makes the narrator English rather than German -- one presumes on the assumption that readers would have difficulty accepting a German Everyman. But, far more than this, it also elides and simplifies parts of the story that are important for understanding the characters involved. In the George & Raffen story, Professor Hardwigg regularly comes across as something of a crackpot: he is stubborn beyond all reason, he refuses to take obvious arguments seriously, and he insists on elaborate theories for which there is no evidence. This is like a parody of the actual scientist that Professor Lidenbrock is. Lidenbrock is portrayed by Verne as stubborn and impatient, but Verne puts an immense amount of effort into portraying him as fundamentally rational. Verne's professor is not following an alchemist's tale on some personal conviction of his own, nor even on Saknussemm's reputation alone. Lidenbrock is an associate of many scientists; he has discussed the interior of the earth with Sir Humphry Davy, the great chemist, and the theory he is upholding is Davy's. Davy convinced him that it had some superiority over the common scientific view by a cleverly designed experiment. So when Lidenbrock discovers Saknussemm's message, he sees it as a possible further confirmation of a theory he has independent reason to think might be right, even if it is not widely accepted. And, of course, the only way to make sure that the possible confirmation is a real confirmation is to go and see. He is out to turn a testimony into a scientific fact to consolidate a theory that so far has only indirect evidence for it.

Lidenbrock is therefore presented by Verne not as chasing a crackpot theory, but instead a minority theory seriously discussed by major scientists, who recognize him as a colleague of considerable talent, and that is championed by at least one other scientist of impeccable credentials, indeed, no less than Humphry Davy, one of the most respected scientists in the world; and Lidenbrock's own inclination to believe it is based on experimental evidence and careful argument from it. But the experiment, being indirect, only really establishes a sort of likelihood; if the Saknussemm lead turns out to be right, though, he can add incontrovertible proof. Moreover, Lidenbrock's view of science, which comes out more clearly in the George Routledge and Sons than in the George & Raffen, is that scientific theories are approximations based on limited evidence, increasingly refined over time. He is the ultimate falsificationist, willing to go literally to the center of the world at risk to his own life in order to test a scientific theory, no matter how accepted it might be, because he thinks of science as something always to be improved. This fits very nicely with a theme that is common in a lot of Verne's early works: that the grand scientific theories are fascinating food for thought, but the real heart of the scientific adventure only comes about when you go and see. Lidenbrock is indeed stubborn and impatient -- but he is a scientist to the core.

There is a curious twist in the George Routledge and Sons translation that I think is interesting. The ending sentence of the book is translated:

I need not add that her uncle was the illustrious professor Otto Lidenbrock, corresponding member of all the scientific societies, geographical, and mineralogoical, in the five quarters of the globe. (p. 155)

'Five quarters of the globe' is a curious phrase that reminds one of the joke about trying to translate on the basis of etymology, that if you translated the first sentence of Caesar's Gallic Wars entirely by etymology you would get "Undivided Gaul is halved into three quarters." The French has nothing so curious; it just uses the phrase I mentioned before, cinq parties du monde, an idiomatic expression for the inhabited world. But the oddity is a happy twist of translation, I think. 'Five parts of the earth' is not a particularly English phrase; we would indeed expect 'four quarters'. But, of course, Lidenbrock has gone beyond the four quarters of the surface of the globe to an entirely new realm beneath; there is, indeed, in a certain sense, a new quarter. I don't know if it was deliberate, but it's a rare case of a translation improving on the original.

Favorite Passage: A good passage for capturing the 'poetry of science' that a good translation of Verne needs to capture (from the 1876 George Routledge and Sons edition, of course):

The electric light made the schists and limestone and old red sandstone sparkle magnificently. We might have thought ourselves examining some excavations in Devonshire, a county which gives its name to the series. Specimens of magnificent marbles clothed the walls, some of a grey agate, fantastically streaked with white; others of rich crimson or yellow, with red patches. Then came specimens of speckled marbles in dark colours, relieved by the light shades of the limestone.

The greater part of these marbles bore the imprint of primitive animals. Since the day before, creation had made evident progress. Instead of the rudimentary trilobites, I noticed the débris of a more perfect order: amongst others of fishes, the Ganoids and the Sauropterygia, in which palaeontologists have sought to discover the earliest forms of reptiles. The Devonian seas were people with a large number of animals of this species, and they deposited them by thousands in the rocks of the new formation. (pp. 72-73)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Dover (Mineola, NY; 2005).

Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Heritage Press (New York: 1966).

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