Verne, Jules. Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Translated by William Butcher. Introduced by Michael Crichton. Illustrated by Grahame Baker. The Folio Society, 2001. 231 pp., 9 color illus., hardcover with color design and a protective hard case.

Extrapolation (Vol. 43, No. 2 summer 2002, p. 227.); reviewed by Jie Lu

When translator William Butcher points out at the end of his "Note on the Text and Translation" that "It is hoped that this edition of Journey to the Centre of the Earth will afford the reader a sense of the joy and excitement as well as the labour of translating Verne, and that as such it may go some way towards elevating Verne to the mainstream literary status which has long been his due," he could not have been more true. Indeed, a reader is bound to get the excitement, immediately this beautiful folio edition is held in hand, and joy comes gradually and completely as one reads through. Printed on Caxton Wove paper at Grafos S.A., Barcelona, and bound in a cambric grained material, this book weighs pleasantly heavily in the hand and looks hopefully mysterious, as it is still encased in a sea of deep blue curved almost tenderly at the mouth. Slipped just so smoothly out of this hard protective case, the book immediately attracts the eye with stylish design and color illustration on the cover, plus nine fantastically fanciful illustrations, three of which stretch as centerpiece length, full pictures, while the rest each covers one full page. Up till now, this folio edition strikes one as having reached the epitome of successful book making and well deserves to be kept on the shelf of any book collecting patron.

The excitement, however, does not stop here. Michael Crichton’s thirteen-page "Introduction" provide much useful information one wants to learn about Jules Verne, his life-time experience, his fame and influence, and his writing style. In the last respective, Crichton becomes particularly focused and examines the why and how of Verne’s treatment of plot and characterization in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. The important issue about the relationship between the genre of science fiction and classical mainstream literature unavoidably pops up during the process of this examination and Crichton’s argument that the accursedly flat characterization in science fiction writers sometimes accounts for exactly a narrative and plot necessity is, though somehow mundane and commonplace for today’s postmodernist lingo, quite thorough and still rather convincing. Moreover, his exposition about the places of plot "fall-out" in Verne’s writing is intriguing and demonstrates the kind of passion, sincerity, and expertise of a true science fiction and Verne fan.

But the complete joy comes only after one finishes reading William Butcher’s rendition of the Verne story. So much energy, creativity, and expertise are put into it that one becomes completely absorbed in the reading and, after abandoning and plunging oneself to the seas and tunnels of the journey, re-emerges at the end somehow emotionally exhausted but spiritually fulfilled and elevated, an experience that characterizes and associates with many classical mainstream literary works. One is not simply absorbed into the plot, but also deeply moved by the language, and it is the combined effort of both Verne and Butcher in making such a deep impression. Verne’s wonderfully exciting and fantastic plot and skillfully succinct characterization are completely his own; but the lucid and pungent language filled with force and humor, as presented to the English reader, is completely the translator’s labor and creativity. In this sense, the Butcher translation of Verne’s work is as much a creation of the translator as a good literary translation can be.

In particular, the Butcher translation is especially characterized by a presence of linguistic rhythm, so pungently idiosyncratic and full of confidence that the narrative voice of Axel and the conversations between Axel and his uncle, professor Otto Ldenbrock come vividly to life, sounding astoundingly young and modern. If a simple passage like the one on page 72: "In the evening, … we were obliged to spend the night in a tumbledown abandoned cottage, worthy of being haunted by all the goblins of Scandinavian mythology; the god of cold had clearly taken up residence there, and he was up to his tricks the whole night" sounds humorously amusing, descriptions about the fantastic phenomenon of the subterranean sea reach poetical:

      A vast expanse of water, the beginning of a lake or ocean, stretched away out of view. The shoreline, greatly indented, offered the lapping water a fine golden sand, dotted with those small shells that housed the first beings of creation. The waves broke over it with that sonorous murmur peculiar to vast enclosed spaces. A light foam was swept up by the breath of a moderate wind, and some of the spray was blowing into my face. On this gently loping shore, about two hundred yards from the edge of the waves, expired the last spurs of large cliffs that soared, widening, to an immeasurable height. Some of them, piercing the shoreline with their sharp edges, formed capes and promontories worn away by the teeth of the surf. Further on, the eye was drawn by their shapes clearly outlined against the hazy horizon in the distance. (146)

Such a powerful translation, well supported by Baker’s illustrations about the Forest, the Battle, and the Storm, draws the reader completely into the masterfully imagined world of Verne’s and allows the reader to enjoy and savor at the same time the fancy of first rate imagination and the novelty of a classic literary creation. It is obvious that Butcher has achieved a height in his translating career with this work, and well he has. Three cheers to William Butcher!

So, William Butcher’s brilliant translation, Michael Crichton’s insightful introduction, Grahame Baker’s fantastic illustrations, Caxton Wove paper, cambric grained binding material, hard protective case…. A combined effort; and a virtuoso performance. Needless to say, this Folio Society edition of Verne’s novel is a great success. Expensively made, it is as valuable a project as many, including the Easton Press project examined by David Williams in the spring issue of last year, in moving the genre of science fiction into "the establishment" of fine book making and, as Butcher has hoped, towards elevating Verne to the mainstream literary status "which has long been his due."