20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
by Jules Verne
Annapolis, Md. : Naval Institute Press, 1993
by Colleen R. Cahill
It’s great to live in the twenty-first Century, where we have central air conditioning, high-speed Internet and new translations of Jules Verne. If the last seems a bizarre statement to you, I am guessing you have read the older translations or only seen movies of Verne’s work. These are pale imitations of the exciting, thought-provoking and very scientific books from a master of science fiction. The translation of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea by Walter James Miller and Frederick Paul Walter will show you why Verne is called the father of this genre.
The base story will be familiar: intrepid explorers are swept off their ship and taken up in the submarine the Nautilus, which is commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo. While captives, they learn a lot about the ship and its captain, see the wonders of the ocean, fight not just one but a dozen giant squid, and eventually escape to tell the tale. 20,000 Leagues is the best known of Verne’s work and yet, English readers are missing so much. The very informative introduction of this edition points out that complaints about Verne using bad science were actually the result of sloppy translation. Early English editions were slipshod and due to the biases of the translators, had whole sections cut out or so altered they barely reflected the original text. One example is from an 1873 English edition, where the second chapter opens with “I had just returned from a scientific research in the disagreeable territory of Nebraska”, which Miller and Walter translate to “I came back from a scientific expedition into the Nebraska Badlands…” These two statements are very different in attitude, something that changes the whole feel of the story.
Verne made many points in this work, much of which he did through his characters. Captain Nemo is complex and like all of us, had his good and bad sides. He is a man of principle who opposes imperialism, believes in the dignity of all peoples, is an ecologist and great scientist. He also burns with hatred so great, that he sinks ships just because they are from a certain country. The author shows not only skill with characterization, but 20,000 Leagues has a sophisticated plot of a rebel who rejects modern society while embracing science. Don’t let the title or movies fool you into thinking this is a deep sea adventure: the 20,000 Leagues is the distance the Nautilus travels around the world, not how deep she dives and the fight with the giant squid is not the climax of the book but only a few pages in a much more interesting text. The annotations by the translators fill in any background the modern reader might not be aware of, bringing the story even more to life.
Whether you have read this book before or never tried Jules Verne, you would be well served to take up Miller and Walter’s translation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.