Extrapolation, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring 2001, pp. 100-2.
Jules Verne. Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas. William Butcher, trans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. $9.95 paper.
reviewed by Jie Lu
William Butcherís translation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas is, first of all, a truly ambitious translating work. As Butcher points out in his introduction, previous translations of this novel, though as many as three hundred editions, have not only been of an "unacceptable standard," by mistranslating and truncating more than 20 percent of the original but have also been the main reason for Verneís poor reputation in Britain and America. Another crucial leakage in previous translating work of this novel is the consistently devastating "low level of critical commentary," omitting the three most basic textual works of comparing different original editions, properly establishing text, or studying the manuscript in detail. By pointing out the various shortcomings of previous editions Butcher raises the serious issue that since this novel occupies an influential role in the history of ideas and the resonances and "continues to produce on successive generations," it is expedient to provide a complete and accurate English translation to the public.
Butcherís translation of this novel, thus, exemplifies the ideal of adequate style as well as strong details. One of the strong impressions that the reader gets from browsing over this edition is the ultra-sincerity and high-standard scholarship of the translator, as well as his minute consideration for the readerís convenience, knowledge necessity, and referential need. Besides a helpful, annotated bibliography at the beginning and a chronology of Jules Verne at the end of the book, the edition also boasts a forty page-long explanatory notes section, furnished with detailed notes on the text, explaining not only historical background and difficult terms, but also countless valuable facts about the authorís life, his social surroundings, his intention in writing this novel, and many of the important relationships between the events and figures of the authorís time. It also has the effect of textual editing and has not only fulfilled the blank spot about critical commentary and the study of textual works but has also approached an unprecedented scholarship and standard. Butcher is, however, not yet satisfied, he also provides a note on the text and translation and an appendix "Sources of Ideas on submarine navigation."
Covering more than 380 pages, this edition of the text itself is the most complete and could proudly appoint itself to a place among such masterpieces as Moby-Dick and Robinson Crusoe, an equal not only in length but also in literary qualities such as the theme and the idea of the unknown man, the depth depiction of many of the dramatic episodes, and the living nature of the text. It is also interesting to note the connection between Swiftís Gulliverís Travels and Verneís novel, which follows Swiftís by about one hundred years. Both novels feature journeys, and they are also closely linked by their mutual invention of the fantasy and the utopian elements in the works. As different as these two novels are in their distinct genres of the extraordinary journey and of the social satire, each create a fantasy world and a Utopian society. Similar to Gulliver, whose repeated journeys and shipwrecks bring him to places devoid of the usual struggle of his human society, Captain Nemo enters a world of utopian eternity, with the perfect submarine far away from any of the evils on the human sphere of the land. Although Nemo faces inevitable destruction at the end, just as Gulliver has to return to his estate to live among human beings, both of these heroes succeed as fantasy and have significantly enriched, even changed manís ideas, ideals, and ideology.
As Butcher argues, Verne should not be understood as a mere science fiction writer; "His originality lies in his unbridled literary imagination." Although this is a story concerning the circumnavigation of the globe by submarine, Verne successfully "integrates both his own experience and his literary and scientific reading." In addition to the themes of the unknown man and the obvious genre of the extraordinary journeys, Butcherís powerful background information discloses to us that even such a nineteenth-century fantasy does explore such modern issues as a sexual subtext, the apprehension of technology, and the issue of the relationship between nature and man. According to Butcher, Verneís attitude toward science and "signs of uneasiness may already be visible in this book. From about 1870 Verne displayed an increasing pessimism about many of his early enthusiasms, with the previous admiration for technology replaced by apprehensions on social and political issues." This is an astute point, as the reader can easily, or, uneasily, observe a drastic change in style, mood, and subject matter from chapter 8 or 9 in part two. Starting from this point in the story, Verneís Captain Nemo displays and enunciates an unarguably negative opinion on the issues of whale hunting on the distinction of whale on the globe, and on humanityís future.
This depiction of the contradictory nature of Captain Nemo is one of the novelís most valuable literary distinctions, and his character is also notable for traits such as being highly romantic, artistic, nostalgic, and full of yearning. The other characters in the novel, however, are far from claiming such depth. Aronnax, the naive, conventional questioner; Conseil, the tireless classifier; and Ned Land, the impatient harpooner do lend rigidity to the narration and could disappoint the reader. These other characters, however, do function as a useful foil between the reader and the antagonist, Nemo, between the conventional world and the absolutist fantasy of one man (an idea also shown through the ironic surname of Ned Land, as opposed to the captain who never steps near a land). As Butcher points out, "Verne feels tom between the captain and his guest. He identifies with Aronnax in his more logical and systematic aspects, but with Nemo for his imagination, energy, and freedom." This insightful comment may help us understand not only Verne and his work but also many other literary figures and the hard labor behind their work.