Science Fiction Studies

#95 = Volume 32, Part 1 = March 2005

Teri J. Hernández

Translating Verne: An Extraordinary Journey

When I began translating Jules Verne’s 1903 novel Bourses de voyage (Travel Scholarships),1 I was not yet completely aware of the magnitude of the project or of its importance. What I knew about Verne came mostly from reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and, of course, Around the World in Eighty Days. I was, for example, unaware of Verne’s fourth-place ranking among the most translated authors in the world.2 I subsequently learned that his reputation as an author had consistently been undermined by poor English translations and that Verne scholars were on a mission not only to educate his reading public about the real Jules Verne (the one that appears in the original unabridged French texts), but also to publish new and faithful translations of Verne’s texts in English as well. Vernian scholars agree that the majority of the early English translations of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires were severely abridged and often censored by British and American translators who, in order to turn out quick English publications, left out entire passages, made basic errors, or deliberately altered anti-British or anti-American references, creating texts that sometimes had very little in common with the French originals.3

My Verne project involves a text that has never been translated into English before. This makes my job simpler since I do not have to contend with already-existing corrupt versions. Nevertheless, I must be vigilant to create a version that is faithful to Verne’s style as well as to preserve its accuracy and completeness. In pursuing this translation project, I have encountered many challenges that have led me on a personal voyage of (re)discovery both of Verne and of my own Caribbean roots.

For those who may not be familiar with the storyline of this particular Verne novel, allow me to digress momentarily in order to summarize the plot. The story begins at a boarding school in London, the Antillean School, where nine students have been awarded travel scholarships to the Caribbean. These students have placed the highest among those who took a competitive exam covering questions not only in science and literature, but also in the ethnology, geography, commerce, and history of the Caribbean islands and their European colonial rulers. Verne is very careful to have a tie for first place between an Englishman and a Frenchman, as well as to have another British subject and another Frenchman as the next-to-last and last place winners. In between, there are students from the Danish, Dutch, and Swedish Antilles, as well as others from the French and British West Indies. He is also very careful to explain why some of the other islands are not represented among the scholarship winners (the students representing those islands were too young to participate in the contest). Along with their mentor, Mr. Horatio Patterson, the school’s bookkeeper and a Latinist, they will each receive a substantial sum of money to travel to the islands of their origins where they will reconnect with their respective heritages. The voyage will end in Bermuda at the home of their generous benefactor, Mrs. Kethlen Seymour. The ship that she has chartered to take them on this most fabulous adventure is waiting for them in Cork, Ireland. Through an amazing twist of events, however, the ship is taken over by a crew of criminals (pirates) who welcome aboard the unsuspecting group of young men and their mentor. The adventure begins as soon as they set foot on the three-mast schooner, The Alert.

In Part I of the novel, the students visit four islands: St. Thomas and St. Croix, both Danish colonies at the time; St. Martin, which is half Dutch, half French (although the stop is made for a Dutch student); and finally, St. Barthelemy, a Swedish colony when the trip began, but returned to French control by the time poor Magnus Anders arrives there with his classmates.4 In Part II, the students explore all British or French colonies—Antigua, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, and Barbados—before setting sail for an even more challenging and perilous return voyage. Without going any further into the details of the story, let me just add that Verne builds a great deal of suspense throughout the episodes and that the narrative unfolds in cadences that echo the inner voyages of the characters.

At the outset of this project, I thought that it would be quite interesting to read this turn-of-the-century account of a voyage to the Caribbean. Since my own expertise includes nineteenth-century French and Francophone Caribbean literature, I expected the narrative to be presented from a colonial perspective, with all the exoticism and imperialistic rhetoric that was common at the time. Instead, I found a very smart and insightful text from an author who is challenging the views of his contemporaries (which may be one of the reasons it was never translated into English).5 Verne is very critical of the idea of empire-building, for example, and especially that of the British.6 I have also appreciated Verne’s delicious sense of humor (e.g., when Mr. Patterson compliments Ranyah Cogh, the cook of the Alert who is Indo-Saxon, for the “beauté de son type africain”7), as well as his tactful sarcasm as he criticizes his contemporaries’ ideas and practices. He denounces the different European powers that have, at the price of bloody wars and massacres of natives, fought to gain control of the individual islands in the Caribbean. When portraying the Danish, for example, Verne condemns Denmark’s involvement in the clandestine slave market in St. Thomas,8 and he discusses the freed blacks and overall race relations in St. Croix.9 Furthermore, he does not hesitate to present an exact listing of European powers holding colonies in the area:

Independent island: Haiti-Dominican Republic;
Islands belonging to England: seventeen;
Islands belonging to France: five, plus half of Saint-Martin;
Islands belonging to Holland: five, plus the other half of Saint-Martin;
Islands belonging to Spain: two;
Islands belonging to Denmark: three; ...
Islands belonging to Sweden: one. (189)

The United States is not exempt from this censure of imperialistic ambition, as Verne discusses the Monroe Doctrine and its manipulation to promote the American agenda.10

I have also been impressed with Verne’s meticulous research and attention to detail. Both his terminology and his references to Caribbean culture are precise and carefully developed. While describing the indigenous populations of some of the islands, for example, he points out the fact that the Arawak women spoke a different language from the men (a fact that many Caribbean scholars ignore even today). Further, when explaining the origin of the school’s name, the “Antillean School,” he notes the current use of the term Antilie11 and goes on to explain the choice of this particular designation:

Time for an explanation about the word Antillean that appeared over the door of the institution. No one doubts that it was created on purpose. Indeed, in the terminology of British geography, the Antilles are called Carribee Islands.12 On the maps from the United Kingdom as well as on those from America, they are called only that. But Carribee Islands means islands of the Caribbean, and that word recalls rather too vividly those fierce original natives of the archipelago and the scenes of massacre and cannibalism that once devastated the West Indies.13 How could one imagine such an abominable title—“Caribbean School”—on the prospectus of an establishment of learning? ...
    Would it not make the reader think that students there were taught the art of killing each other and learning recipes for cooking humans? Accordingly, “Antillean School” had seemed more appropriate for the young men coming from the Antilles for whom it was a matter of providing a purely European education. (12)

In addition, Verne establishes precise routes for the ship to arrive at each island, describes the prevailing weather conditions, calculates the exact time required to get from one island to another, identifies their specific coordinates, and so forth. Once the students begin visiting the individual islands, he presents detailed information about each area visited—its population, its history, its economy, and its political relationship to the European powers, for example. In some instances, there are even footnotes to clarify an event that has not yet taken place within the novel’s time frame but which would have been well known to his contemporaries, such as the eruption of Mt. Pelée in 1902.14

As my own experience with the text has grown, I have discovered complex details in the storyline that continue to excite me. And while this has been one of the most stimulating projects I have ever done, the translation work itself has been extremely demanding for many reasons. First of all, there are questions of the language transfer at multiple levels: of idiosyncrasies in the French syntax, of specific maritime technical terminology, of appropriateness of proper names, and of choosing footnotes, just to name a few.

As is true of the work of any translator, I have to be extremely vigilant to make sure I don’t overlook idiomatic usages or more natural syntax constructions in English. The process itself, for me personally as for many people who do translation, takes place in various steps. I usually translate with the original French text in front of me, verifying technical vocabulary. Then, I distance myself from the text and come back to it later to reread it and see if it makes sense. I then make corrections and adjustments. I reread it again to make sure it flows well, that there are not any awkward phrasings, and that there is not a more authentic (i.e., natural) way to express it. This is where the first and second language levels merge. The text is, of course, a product of a nineteenth-century writer. While I have to keep this fact in mind in order to avoid modernizing it too much, I will never be able to do a nineteenth-century English translation of the text, and I don’t even try.

This question of language choice and style is even more significant because Verne himself was very conscious of certain language developments and the introduction of new vocabulary terms during his time. The novel is filled with plays on words, double entendres, hidden meanings, and even references to contemporary neologisms, as in the following passage:

And then, the boarders who did not benefit from the rewards of the competition, naturally jealous of their classmates’ success, began to mock them, “to scoff” them,15 to use an expression that will soon appear in good standing in the dictionary of the French Academy. (14)

Another challenge is how to render the particularities of French syntax, as exemplified for instance by the use of the subject pronoun on. In English, it can mean one, you, or we. It can also replace the passive voice, which is very useful when translating from English to French; but when translating from French to English, I have often had to create a subject or change the structure of the sentence entirely:

Example 1: On n’est pas sans avoir remarqué la diversité des noms des neuf lauréats...
Translation: One cannot help but notice...
Example 2: On ne négligeat pas non plus, à Antillean School, ces entraînements physiques...
Translation: The Antillean School did not neglect...
Example 3: En effet, le concours avait porté non seulement sur les matières scientifiques et littéraires, mais aussi,—on ne saurait s’en étonner—sur les questions...
Translation:—to nobody’s surprise
Example 4: Il faut remarquer, d’ailleurs, qu’on en était à la mi-juin, et, si le temps...
Translation: It is necessary to remark that it was only mid June...
Example 5: On ne travaillait plus ni dans les classes ni dans les salles d’études.
Translation: No one studied anymore...
Example 6: Pure exagération, on en conviendra.
Translation: Pure exaggeration, you will all agree.

In addition to general language concerns, the translation of this text is made unusually technical by Verne’s use of very precise maritime terminology. I have had to acquaint myself with every part of a three-masted schooner (e.g., the mainmast, the starboard side, the forecastle, the forestay, the poop deck), with the posts the various sailors held (e.g., the boatswain, the sailor on guard, the captain), and even the kind of clothing and gear a turn-of-the-century sailor wore, beret included. Verne’s meticulous attention to detail even carries over to the proper names he gives to his characters. As I began this translation, I found it interesting that he always referred to each character by both first and last names. I was never tempted to anglicize the characters’ names, especially because the originals are so interesting and revealing, and because in so many other translations of Jules Verne’s works, the names have been changed to such an extent that they are unrecognizable.16

Jules Verne’s impeccable research and eye for detail pose a further challenge to his translators since he created novels that were not only entertaining but also strongly didactic, attempting to educate his public as well. As William Butcher indicates in his article on translating Verne:

All the Extraordinary Voyages are minefields of connotations and denotations, ambiguities and metaphors, poetic effects and scientific arguments. If traditionally translation has been either literary or technical, in Verne’s case it really has to be both at the same time. (1)

Perhaps the many references he makes on a regular basis were clear to Verne’s contemporaries, but I doubt if the average reader today would immediately understand his allusions to Fridtjof Nansen,17 Abel Janszoon Tasman,18 William Dampier,19 Captain George Vancouver,20 Nicolas Baudin,21 Jules-Sebastien-Cesar Dumont d’Urville,22 or even Caius Maecenas,23 regardless of the context. Therefore, another consideration for the contemporary translator is choosing which Vernian references to annotate in order to enlighten today’s reader.

In the final analysis, perhaps the most challenging task for the translators of Verne is actually getting the work done! The enjoyment derived from working with Verne’s fiction is unequaled, and it is easy to get lost in this vast world of wonder. As a translator, I am also a reader who is discovering these textual treasures for the first time. I cannot help but feel a sense of gratitude for having been given this chance to make a small contribution to the restoration of Verne’s literary reputation.

1. First published in the Magasin d’éducation et de récréation (seconde série), vol. 17, no. 193 (January 1, 1903) to vol. 18, no. 216 (December 15, 1903), Bourses de voyage, (Première Partie) appeared in unillustrated format on July 1, 1903, and (Seconde Partie) on November 9, 1903. Finally, the illustrated in octavo format publication of the entire text was published on November 19, 1903. The illustrations for this novel were provided by Léon Benett (see
2. According to the most recent UNESCO bibliography called the Index Translationum, Verne is the fouth-most translated author of all time (after the collective works of Walt Disney Productions, Agatha Christie, and the Bible). See their website at: <>.
3. See Evans’s “Jules Verne’s English Translations” in this issue.
4. This information is so specific that it helps to establish a time frame for the narration: 1878. In 1784, France ceded the island of St. Barthelemy to its ally Sweden, which was interested in a sugar-producing colony of its own. The Swedes renamed the capital (Gustavia) and consecrated the Lutheran church in 1787. However, the majority of the population was Catholic and spoke French and Creole. After decades of prosperity, St. Barthelemy became an economic burden to Sweden and in 1878, it was sold back to France and again placed under the administration of Guadeloupe (Rogozinski, cited in Alexander Ganse’s World History-St. Barthelemy 1784-1878).
5. “It constitutes one of the worst crimes that a translator, editor, or publisher can commit: ideological censorship. Several Verne novels were rewritten to adhere to a pro-anglo political agenda and were methodically ‘purged’ of any perceived anti-British or anti-American content before being published” (Evans 73).
6. At a moment in the novel when Verne is emphasizing the unity among all the students, one of the English students foresees the day when all the islands will be British colonies: “Please understand that perfect unity reigned among these young Antilleans. Perhaps, deep inside, Roger Hindsdale thought that one day Saint Martin and also the other islands would be British colonies ” (Verne 216). At another point in the story, while the students are visiting Antigua, Verne expresses concern that the French may do here what they had just done in St. Barthelemy; however, he quickly reassures himself by noting that the British are less likely to give up their possessions in the West Indies than to try to obtain those that already belong to someone else! He adds that it is indeed Great Britain that holds the greatest number of colonies in the area and wonders if in the future these might increase.
7. A sort of African beauty (Verne 114).
8. “It became the main warehouse for contraband traffic with the Spanish colonies, and soon the most important market for ‘ebony,’ i.e., the blacks bought on the African coast and transported to the West Indies. That is why it quickly passed under Danish domination and was never let go, after its transfer by a financial Company that had acquired it from a Bradenbourg parliament member whose heir just happened to be the king of Denmark” (Verne 192).
9. “However, the emancipation of blacks, declared in 1862, provoked at first some unrest that the colonial authorities had to repress vigorously. The emancipated freed-slaves had something to complain about in the sense that the promises that had been made to them were not kept.... Then came the official claims that did not yield any results, and finally a revolt by the blacks who set fires all over the island ” (Verne 203).
10. “Most probably, the principle of the Monroe Doctrine would be invoked in order to make the different powers agree, manipulating the results in favor of the United States. All of America for the Americans, and only for the Americans! They would have soon added another star to the fifty that, at that time, shone on the Union flag!” (Verne 220).
11. Antilie is a common term used in Italian and Portuguese as well as French throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries to describe the West Indies. One of its first uses is found as early as 1367 in a cartography of mythical islands.
12. “The Carribee Islands, as originally called, lie for the most part in the semi- tropical zone; they are cooled by trade winds that blow from the northeast. The early Spanish colonists divided them into two groups. They called the northern islands the Windward Islands, and the eastern the Leeward Islands. They were also known as the Antilles, after Antilla, the mythical continent that was supposed to exist east of the Azores, the northern islands being called the Greater and the southern group the Lesser” (Waugh 7).
13. This explanation was a common one, and one which played into the exotic portrayal of the Caribbean at that time. However, it ignores the many other pacifist tribes that lived in the islands of the region, belonging mainly to the Arawak family. These tribes were not cannibals; they did not participate in any kind of human sacrifice, and their diet seldom included meat of any kind. (Verne does make references to them later on in the text.)
14. “It is appropriate at this moment to recall the disaster that, a few years later, would hit Martinique on the morning of May 8, 1902; earthquake and volcanic eruptions destroyed part of the island. Saint-Pierre, situated twenty-two kilometers from Fort-de-France, was completely devastated by the smoke and the ashes that the crater of Mt. Pelée spewed out. Millions of people died of asphyxiation due to the inhalation of hot air” (Verne 285).
15. Verne uses the term “blaguer.”
16. Consider the edition of Journey to the Centre of the Earth published in 1871 by Griffith and Farran, for example, where Professor Otto Lidenbrock becomes Professor Von Hardwigg; Axel becomes Harry; and Gräuben becomes Gretchen.
17. (1861-1930). Norwegian explorer, author, athlete, oceanographer, and statesman. He crossed Greenland and attempted to cross to the North Pole in a sleigh.
18. (1603-1659). Dutch explorer who became the first European to arrive in New Zealand.
19. (1652-1715). British explorer and sea captain who was one of the most highly regarded map-makers and navigators of all time.
20. (1757-1798). British naval officer and explorer (of Dutch ancestry); first European to explore the inner waters of the Burrard Inlet; led the longest mapping expedition in history: in four and a half years, Vancouver and his crewmen sailed about 140,000 kilometers and mapped the North American west coast from northern Mexico to southern Alaska. His measurements were good enough that many can still be used today.
21. (1754-1803) French naval officer. Explored the main coasts of Australia. In the 1790s, Baudin commanded voyages to numerous countries in the southern hemisphere to gather scientific information.
22. (1790-1842). French naval officer. On January 20, 1840 Captain Dumont d’Urville was exploring the same seas as the United States Exploring Expedition when he and his crew sighted land about a hundred miles west of the first position reported by Senior Commander Wilkes of the USEE four days before. A landing party went ashore on a small, rock-covered island near the ice cliff and planted the French flag, thus assuming possession of the region on January 22. The claim extends from the coastline for approximately 135 miles between the 142nd and 137th east meridians extending inland all the way to the South Pole.
23. (d. 8 B.C.) Roman statesman and patron of letters. He was born between 74 B.C. and 64 B.C. into a wealthy family and was a trusted adviser of Octavian (Augustus), who employed Maecenas as his personal representative for various political missions. Later he retired and devoted all his time to his famous literary circle, which included Horace, Vergil, and Propertius. His name is the symbol of the wealthy, generous patron of the arts.

Evans, Arthur B. “Jules Verne’s English Translations.” SFS 32.1 (2005): 62-86.
Butcher, William. “Journey Without End: On Translating Verne.” Babel 40.2 (1994): 131-36. Available online at: <>
Rogosinski, Jan. A Brief History of the Caribbean: From the Arawak and Carib to the Present. London: Penguin, 1994.
UNESCO. Index Translationum. December 2, 2004. See <>.
Verne, Jules. Bourses de voyage. Paris: Hetzel, 1903.
Waugh, Alec. A Family of Islands. A History of the West Indies. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1964.

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