De la terre à la lune: Post 0

I’ve been meaning to translate some Jules Verne for a while. I know, I’ve been working on the New Testament, and I still feel like I ought to because it’s probably going to be harder to retain my Greek as I spend more time out of school, but the truth is that it’s kinda boring. I’ve always been a big Jules Verne fan, and I recently was given an e-reader (Sony PS300, wherein I assume PS stands for “Piece of Shit,” but it’s better than nothing), which makes it much more pleasant to read .txt files, which means I can read those Jules Verne books I got off Project Gutenberg lo these many years ago. Now, when I say “read those Jules Verne books,” I don’t mean Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Most easily-available copies of those are horrible translations with big hunks missing, measurements translated without being converted, and general localisation mayhem. No, I mean Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours and Voyage au centre de la terre.

And, hey, if I’m going to be reading them in French anyway, why not translate them while I’m at it?

Turns out, there actually is a reason. It’s work. I mean, it’s not as tedious as translating the Bible, but it’s not as quick and fun as just reading. I decided to start with Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (Around the World in Eighty Days), since that’s pretty much the most popular Verne book in English, and I figured it might be easier with no sci-fi elements. So, I started reading it, and I finished three chapters quickly enough, and I certainly understood everything, so let’s get started!

It took me over an hour to translate the goddamn table of contents. Seriously.

Here’s the thing: Comprehending is different from translating. When you comprehend, you just need to get the gist of things. You may even take in a lot of subtle shades of meaning from a language in which you are not a native speaker, or even not proficient (French and German, respectively, are good examples of this for me). However, when you translate, you are trying to get those subtle shades to come out in another language. Instead of just taking the subconscious cues from your experience with the language, you have to think about word choice, word order, localisation of humor, and explanation of things that you can’t really localize. I discovered that Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours is chock-full of so many idioms, turns of phrase, creative wordings, creative word orders, and general mayhem that is easy for a native speaker, and not particularly hard even for me, to read, but that it becomes absolute hell to translate. Inside of an hour of reading, I knew all the clubs Phileas Fogg is not part of, numerous examples of his then-impossible-to-diagnose OCD, how he spent his day, why Passepartout wanted to hire on as his valet, why he was ironically incorrect in that desire, what theft had taken place, under what circumstances, that he was rich and no one knew why, and a number of other minutia that collectively added up to an amusing story that was only getting started. Inside of four hours of translation, I had a list of clubs Fogg didn’t belong to.

De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon) is actually much easier. It was what I’d wanted to read originally—for personal reasons, including my love of some stories it inspired, I have wanted to for quite a while, although I never got around to it—but decided at first to put off, thinking Tour due monde en quatre-vingts jours would be easier to translate. The truth is that De la terre à la lune is far easier to translate. The language is much simpler, which is probably in keeping with its status as a lighthearted bit of fluff with a crunchy sci-fi center. It’s more entertaining just to read (although this time I didn’t get my hopes up by reading more than half of the first chapter), and much easier to turn into not just readable, but entertaining English.

Unfortunately, I’ve run into another problem: Notes. I don’t have to worry anywhere near so much about the accuracy of my translation (Tour du monde… would have had such extensive notes on the reasons I translated things the way I did, had I kept notes on the subject, that I never would have gotten anything done), but De la terre à la lune is science fiction with some actual science at its core, including rather a lot concerning cannon, the history of cannon, and many advancements in cannon technology in the 19th century, most notably by Americans (that much is true, although he dismisses any other American military advancements; guess he never heard about easily-usable rifled muskets, metallic cartridges, breech-loading revolvers, lever-action rifles, trench warfare…) in the first chapter. I mean a lot. I can keep up… barely. And that’s after having grown up a history nut with a brother and father who were both gun nuts and history buffs. (I remember a book my brother and I used to borrow from the library in turns when I was in first and second grade: A History of Firearms, I forget the years, but it had some marvelous illustrated descriptions of Columbine cannon, the development of breech-loading rifles, starting with the revolutionary Ferguson rifle, some of the more dangerous experimental Civil War-era cannon…) The average reader is going to need some details filled in, and that means extensive footnotes. And I don’t want to misinform the average reader, so that means at least minimally researched footnotes as well.

So, four hours later, I’m feeling a bit burnt out. I’ve gotten a little farther than I did on Tour du monde in that much time, and I’m pretty sure I can keep going (if not today), but holy crap, my notes are more than twice as long as the actual text. I do plan to keep up this pace of notes for a few reasons. The biggest one is that I don’t think I’ll need quite so many notes throughout the book. This is the first chapter, the first part of which is essentially a primer on the history of cannon for the uninitiated 19th-century Frenchman; theoretically, there won’t be such a density of information in most of the book, and most of the rest of the book shouldn’t be full of information that needs intermediate processing to be understandable to the 21st-century Anglophone reader. The other big reason is that I believe it’s necessary. If I start talking about Parrotts in the middle of a discussion on ballistics, you’re going to want to know why. (The why, incidentally, is that Robert Parker Parrott invented a method of manufacturing rifled, muzzle-loading cannon that was named after him, along with the guns made using that process.) This is still easier than the translation of Tour du monde, as instead of struggling over the best way to turn out a sentence for fifteen minutes, I’ll just write out a whole paragraph no problem. It just still takes a long time because only one sentence of that paragraph is translation, the rest explaining what’s going on in that paragraph.

::sigh:: Well, at least I know that we get past the history of cannon and on to some actual plot and dialogue before even the end of the chapter. But I think that’ll have to wait till tomorrow.


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