Lost and Found in Translation

When I was a kid, I read Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon.  It was a fantastically prescient novel, realistically depicting a trip to the moon more than a hundred years before it really happened.  It inspired generations to be astronomers, scientists, engineers and – finally – astronauts.  I can remember being pretty excited to pick up a copy at the local library.  I can also remember my utter disappointment.  The concept of the book was interesting, but I couldn’t imagine how anyone was inspired by the book.  I was amazed anyone had actually finished it!  The writing was absolutely atrocious.

When I was in college, I decided to give Jules Verne another try.  I was in the undergrad library and started paging through their copy.  After a chapter or two I was drawn in and ended up reading the entire novel right there.  I recalled the basic plot, I could remember some of the characters, but other than that, it seemed like a totally different book.  This novel was witty; its writing was sharp and there was a hint of satire I had totally missed when I was a kid.  I realized more than ten years had passed since the first time I read it; I was older, more educated, but how could I have so totally misjudged it?

Jules Verne was a Frenchman and – like most Frenchmen – wrote in French.  I wasn’t reading the actual text as Jules Verne wrote From the Earth to the Moon, but rather an English translation.  The public library had an old translation and the college library had a newer one.  It seemed like a totally different book because – in a way – it was a totally different book.

I didn’t think the translation could change a book that much.  Wouldn’t the strength of the words shine through, no matter what language it was printed in?  Once again, the Jules Verne experience was remarkably prescient, for a few years later, computer translation became available on the Internet, and I could see for myself what role translation played.

“We little, us happy little, we meet brothers; For He today it of the hangars its blood with me will be my brother; ne’ so cheap er is it, this day will soften its state: And the Messrs in a-read of England now will think themselves that cursed they were not here, and to consider their manhoods cheap on the way speaks that fought with us over the day about Crispin Saint.”

While the speech is – sort of – recognizable as the words of William Shakespeare, Henry V’s impassioned words seem to lack the zest when going to French and back again.  Perhaps that’s why they lost the Battle of Agincourt.

“It had no more additional contact with the perfumes, but after it it was squandered on the complete principle of abstinence, always then; and it was always said its, that, it was which it knew how as to hold Christmas in the best way, if any person of living possessed knowledge. May is truly said us, and all of us! And so, in proportion to tiny observed Tim, god blesses us, every one!”

While Tiny Tim seems to be relatively unaffected after being translated to Portuguese and back, Scrooge’s dealings with the spirits have left him a changed man… in fact, now described as “it”, he’s apparently no longer a man at all.

“Therefore I can introduce to you
the action who you have known for all these years,
you wrap of the Lonely Hearts Club of sergeant the Pepper.”

William Shatner may have butchered the Beatles, but you no longer need a celebrity to garble the words.  Just translate them back and forth from Russian.  And what of Jules Verne?  Here’s the pivotal moment of launch as a tremendous cannon shoots the manned projectile towards the moon as translated from his native French.

“The discharge of Columbiad was accompanied by a perfect earthquake. Florida was shaken with its same depths. The gases of the powder, increased by heat, returned the atmospheric layers with enormous violence, and this artificial hurricane precipitated like toilets-spout by the air.”

I don’t know if this translation would have inspired the legions it took to put a man on the moon.  However, it might have hastened the development of Pepto Bismol.


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