Amazing Stories

Mangling the works of Jules Verne

frontice-ile_mysterieuse_In a recent post about Jules Verne and his translators for English editions, I included a few examples of how those translators mangled Verne’s stories, so that for generations his authorial abilities were maligned by English-reading critics, and he was considered a writer only fit for youthful readers–and barely fit, at that.

In that essay, I didn’t want to include too many detailed examples of the inept translations, for fear of derailing the pace of the piece. But below are a few more instances that provide evidence for how Jules Verne has been badly served by his translators into English. The appearance of new and authoritative editions in English during the recent past is, in part, redeeming Verne’s reputation as a storyteller among English readers. The sources of my examples are those present translators whose work is accomplishing that repair.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

William Butcher’s 1992 translation is the first to retain present tense in the log-book passages. The near-ubiquitous 1872 translation renames Axel and Lidenbrock, “makes them both Scottish, and finishes each paragraph with at least one totally invented sentence.” (Butcher, “Introduction,” Oxford [Oxford University Press: 1992], vii)

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Mercier Lewis (the nom de plume of Reverend Lewis Page Mercier) bungled scientific and mathematical translations from Verne’s original French, such as stating the metal used in the construction of The Nautilus — Nemo’s undersea craft — was lighter than water. He also omitted about 23 percent of the original novel from his translation, including passages regarding British oppression in India.

The Mysterious Island

W.H.G. Kingston’s 1875 translation changes Smith’s name to Harding and deletes passages. I.O. Evans 1959 and Lowell Blair’s 1970 editions are severely abridged.

The Mighty Orinoco

Unpublished in English until 2002. In his introduction to the edition published by Wesleyan University Press, Walter James Miller states the work was suppressed in English-speaking countries because of its anti-colonialist stance.

The Secret of Wilhelm Storitz

One of eight novels unpublished at the time of Verne’s death in 1905, this — aa well as the other seven — was modified in various ways by Verne’s son Michel before its French publication in 1910. According to Peter Schulman, “he changed the era in which the story takes place from the late nineteenth century to the eighteenth,” replaced words and phrases to fit the changed time setting, and “more substantially, he changed Verne’s poignant and highly original ending to a completely conventional ‘happy ending.’” I.O. Evans’ 1963 translation was based on Michel’s doctored version. The public was allowed access to Verne’s original manuscripts in the 1980s. Researchers discovered the extent of Michel’s tampering at that time. Schulman’s translation is the first authentic English version based on Verne’s original manuscript. (Lincoln, Nebraska [University of Nebraska Press: 2011], xii-xiv)


Like Wilhelm Storitz, this novel was unpublished at the time of Verne’s death. Michel completely rewrote it (adding twenty chapters and deleting five) and retitled it The Castaways of The Jonathan for its 1909 French publication. The 1960s translations by Evans were based on Michel’s rewritten novel. The first true English edition was translated by Benjamin Ivry and published by Welcome Rain Publishers in 2002.

These are just a few examples. For a more thorough examination of the subject, I recommend Arthur B. Evans’ article, “Jules Verne’s English Translations,” which originally appeared in SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES, XXXII:1 #95 (March 2005): 80-104. As of this writing, the essay is available online. You can access it by clicking here.



4 thoughts on "Mangling the works of Jules Verne"

  1. This is both incredible and horrible. I had no idea this kind of translational bowdlerization was going on. Is there a list of the most accurate English translations?

    1. Hi Geoffrey! Yes indeed, there is a nicely annotated listing of the English translations of Verne's works, with the translations rated according to their quality. Again, this is a fine piece of scholarship by Arthur B. Evans, "A Bibliography of Jules Verne’s English Translations." It also appeared originally in SCIENCE FICTION STUDIES, XXXII:1 #95 (March 2005): 105-141. Fortunately for those of us interested in reading Verne, the bibliography is available online, and I've found it particularly useful:….


  2. David Kilman says:

    Very interesting and disappointing at the same time since I gather that I have read a bunch of poorly translated and mangled Verne stories in my lifetime. This does, however, reaffirm a prejudice that I have mix feelings about, and that is the fact that I tend to avoid translated works for fear of getting a bad translation. While I would like to read more stories originally written in other languages, I tend not to for this very reason. The mixed feelings stem from knowing that I am likely missing out on some fantastic stories, but at the same time, I also hate the idea of not being able to read the true vision of the author. I tend to think of reading translations like watching a movie version of a book – never as good as the original (ok, maybe not quite that bad, but you get the idea).

    While I’ve studied three languages, I’ve never achieved mastery in any of them, in part because there is never anyone to practice with (a common American malady, I fear). But I did learn enough to be appalled at some bad translations (and I don’t mean the internet babelfish kind which are hilarious entertainment). Anyway, it is a problem that haunts me from time to time.

    1. David, there is an extensive list of "New English translations of Verne’s works published since 1965" available at the Web site. The list reaches up only to works published as recently as 2007, but it's useful, just the same. The bibliography of scholarly work that has appeared since 1965 also is valuable. You'll find it here:

      Hope you find this helpful.

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