Tuesday, 6 August 2013

From the Earth to the Moon

Jules Verne From the Earth to the Moon (1865)

I was left massively underwhelmed by Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a novel seemingly so dry and plodding as to leave me with the impression of Verne as an overrated institution, particularly when compared to the eminently more readable H.G. Wells with whom he so often shares a sentence. Shortly after forming this impression, it was pointed out to me that I had most likely read a poor translation, so I picked up From the Earth to the Moon to show Verne's disembodied spirit there were no hard feelings, and in hope of a good read. Alarm bells began to ring around the chapter in which one retired colonel type delivers a series of announcements comparing the strength to weight ratio of iron and aluminium, each droning suggestion prefixed by his friend exclaiming hurrah!, which becomes annoying after seventy pages.

Two dud translations in a row, I sneered to myself, rather a coincidence, wouldn't you say?

'Or could it simply be,' I replied out loud for the sake of a faintly amusing image which could later be incorporated into a review, 'that Jules so-called Verne was just a bit shit?'

Apparently not according to Arthur B. Evans whose 2005 essay  Jules Verne's English Translations makes for slightly depressing reading, presenting the possibility that you're actually very lucky to pick up a random Verne translation which hasn't made a complete pig's ear of the original; and my From the Earth to the Moon it turns out, as translated by Lowell Bair, isn't among the good ones. Knowing this actually rendered it a little more readable for me, allowing for some focus on what may have been said in the original rather than the somewhat cak-handed means by which it has been reduced to English. Even knowing as much, this apparently hobbled version does pick up somewhat after the chapter in which a man wearing a top hat says hurrah! over and over, thus unwittingly inspiring another four-thousand trilogies in Worthington P. Bonio's The Penny-Farthing Interface series of generic steampunk landfill moneyspinners; and it was impossible to resist the charm of the following paragraph:

Among the groups of all kinds which assailed him, the "lunatics" were particularly aware of what they owed to the future conqueror of the moon. One day several of these poor people, rather numerous in America, came to him and asked to be allowed to return to their native land with him. Some of them claimed to be able to speak the lunar language and offered to teach it to him. He good-naturedly indulged their innocent mania and agreed to deliver messages to their friends on the moon.

From the Earth to the Moon seems admittedly dry in terms of its story, a clear precursor to the hard science-fiction of Asimov and others, being mostly concerned with the mechanics of building something capable of hurling nineteenth century people into space. The incredible thing is that for the most part, Verne's calculations seem to have been on the mark, right down to Florida as a good place from which to launch such a mission, the practicalities of a renewable air supply, and so on; and even told as a series of conversations about gravity, escape velocity, thrust and the like, once over the potholes, it's still quite readable even given the presumably mangled narrative.

I suspect I've thus far been quite wrong about this author, so next time I'll make certain it's one of the better translations.

No comments:

Post a Comment