Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

Tag: books

20,000 Leagues under the sea, and the problem of translations

A few weeks ago I decided to download and re-read Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues under the sea” on my kindle. When I was done I was a bit surprised to learn that the version which I had finished is actually pretty shit. Although re-reading the blurb with a cynic’s eye, you can see that Amazon sort of know that as well…

“for nearly a century the definitive English translation” – until everyone realised he did a rubbish job.

20,000 leagues was originally published in French as a serial between 1869 and 1870. Around 1872 Lewis Page Mercier got the job of translating it and some of Verne’s other books onto English. He could speak French. But in hindsight his other main qualification was that he could do the job fast. He translated all three in one year.

What was overlooked, or not noticed, was that he wasn’t up to speed on the technical terms used in the books e.g. he literally translated the French for diving suits as “cork-jackets”. As a proud Englishman he made sure to colour the translations with his political views – one of Captain Nemo’s heroes was Daniel O’Connell, but mention of this was cut entirely from the book. And it appears that one of the ways you can get through that many translations so fast, is you just leave out 1/4 of the book!

What is really odd is that none of this was noticed for over 90 years. Mercier’s shonky translations were the standard for a long time. It was only in the 1960s when new translation of 20,000 leagues appeared that Mercier’s were dethroned. The translation errors were fixed, and the missing text restored. The new translators also fixed the most glaring error – the title. Even with my school French I can see that the book’s correct name is “20,000 leagues under the seas“.

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Original title page. And there is a story behind Verne’s battles with his editor Hetzel as well!

Once upon a time a there was a bad translation, but now we have better ones. So what? Well the problem is that Mercier’s text is out of copyright. Which means it can be freely copied, re-printed, and shared. And so it refuses to die. Amazon’s free, (4.3/5 star), kindle version of the book is based on Mercier’s translation.

Fortunately you have options. One of the well regarded modern translations is by Fredrick Paul Walter from 1991. He has made it available in the public domain. You can get it for free in loads of (electronic) formats from these links:

I had never really considered the quality of my translations before. And it sort of adds a hidden cost to the “free” out of copyright books. You need to find out who has translated the classic you are reading. Check if is any good. And if not try and find a better version. Or for masochists you can learn the language the book originally was written in!

And personally, I also had to go onto Amazon and give a low rating to their version ūüôā

Finding Nemo’s War – an excellent solo experience

Last thing, why did I decide to read this book now? Because of a board game! One of the many lists of board-games-to-play-during-the-pandemic mentioned “Nemo’s War“. Its a (mostly) solo game which really gets into the spirit of the book.

Well I think it does. I read Mercier’s translation so now I need to go and read a good one instead!

[2020 Target: 10/52. 4,950/25,000]


“The Graves are Walking” – a review

One of my pleasures when back in Ireland is wander around some book shops for an hour or two. And when I come out I am slightly more stressed about my luggage allowance for the return trip as I may will have a few extra kilos to carry with me.

My book haul from last August.

It is not too hard to get English language books in Sweden. Though they can be expensive, and the selection is never as good. But I do love going into a book shop and picking up, and skimming, and coming away with 5 or 6 treasures to add to the stack on my bedside locker.

For a while I have wanted to do some reading about the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s. Obviously an Irish bookshop would be a better place to get books on that subject. But I was surprised to find that there are relatively few books available. Most Irish bookshops only have a handful, and often they were very local in subject matter. It can be a bit difficult to find something that is well regarded, and covers the full breadth of the famine across the country.

The two most recently published books (that were widely reviewed) were from 2013. One is “The Famine Plot” by Tim Pat Coogan. And the other is “The Graves Are Walking” by an American historian – John Kelly.

If you don’t know of him, Tim Pat Coogan is a well known, but controversial historian in Ireland. He has written a number of well researched, and well received books on events in Irish history. But he has strong, and sometimes contentious opinions on the topics he writes about. For that reason I decided I would go with a potentially more balanced take in John Kelly’s book.

I bought the book last summer but I found I kept putting off reading it. Having an interest in history, and spending plenty of time in the west you see a lot of evidence of the Ireland that was destroyed by the great famine – ruined stone cottages. Lazy beds where you think no person could ever have farmed anything. The famine graves. I find it moving. Though it can be hard for the mind to appreciate the scale of the catastrophe that happened. Every so often you hear some little thing that reaches you about it. Like when my father pointed out that Ireland is probably the only country in the world has a lower population today than it did 150 years ago. Demographically we still have not recovered.

Before Christmas I finally started reading it. I knew it would be emotionally difficult. I didn’t expect if to be so frustrating.

The books is well researched, and well written. As I read I felt it was opening up vistas to Ireland of 1845, and the horrors that were occurred. But it also leaves much unaddressed, and it came away with loads of questions.

After a good summary and historical background to the Ireland of the 1840s, Kelly quickly gets into the the failure of the potato crop. He shows how the press and the government quickly realised there was a significant problem. And he spends much of his tile going into great detail about the relief works that were started. He talks about immigration during the famine, and has many anecdotes about the death and suffering of those years. But the impression I came with was that in many ways this is half a book.

There is a problem when looking at the period. The peasants who were doing most of the dying were poor and illiterate, so they left few first hand accounts. Their experiences usually have to be recounted by others. But the book does not give you much of a feeling a personal, or even at a high level for the people who were actually suffering and dying. There are snapshot glimpses from those that observed them at the time. But even the big picture of what was happening to them seems incomplete. There is little to no information about the actual severity of the famine. It is not clear if anyone died in 1845. You can’t tell how much worse was 1847 to 1846?

And weirdly having spent 330 pages covering the first three years of the famine up to the end of 1847, the book suddenly ends. You have to go into the afterword (4 pages long) to see that the starvation, deaths, evictions, and suffering continued at a huge rate until 1850. I finished it and was left wondering “where is the rest of the book? Was this the first volume of a larger work?”

If your interest is limited to the British government’s response to the famine then there is a huge amount of detail. Most of the book is concerned with the relief efforts, and the politics around them. Understandably that is the area with a wealth of original documentation. But if feels like the people who were dying, the communities and the way of life that were shattered are barely touched on. It is like a book about a war that spends all its time writing about logistics and supplies and generals, rarely mentioning the civilians and soldiers experiencing it day to day.

Overall I would have to say that if you want an account of the Great Famine – one that covers the whole duration, and the national impact, then this is not the book to read. And personally I still need to find a book that gives me that picture. So with some hesitations I have ordered Tom Pat Coogan’s book.

I will finish with a mention of the genocide question. There seems to be a lot of debate as to whether the famine, and the actions of the British government at the time constituted an act of genocide. After reading one flawed book I certainly am not about to offer an opinion on that. But I do know that the book that is on its way to me has an opinion on that question…

[2020 Target: 8/52. 4,220/25,000]


Beautiful books

I saw the fabulous looking trailer for the BBC/HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “Dark Materials” today. I may have to re-subscribe to HBO for that one (while also catching up on the Handmaids Tale, and Westworld). The trailer did remind me that I have no idea where my copies of the books have ended up. Having moved country and house multiple times in the last few years, loads of things have gone missing. Where is my favourite book on Irish history, or my copy of Good Omens? So many moves, so many prized things lost… ūüė•

dark materials hardback

Hardback copies of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials”

I would love to get a set of all three Dark Materials books in hardback for my shelves. Can anyone lend me ¬£150 for a custom printed set? A friend once said to me of the trilogy that – this was a set of books you would put on a high (but not too high shelf) in a prominent place. And then you tell your children they are not allowed to read them ūüôā


hardback jane austins

Hardback Jane Austins, and Mr Darcy

There are a few other books in my collection, or which used to be in my collection, that I would love to replace with good hardbacks (money and space allowing). I was in a friend’s house recently and she had a pretty set of Jane Austins alongside her Mr Darcy mug. The nice thing about these is that as well as being in subtle understated colours, they were smaller. Too many hardbacks are giants of books, that can only be read at home. Books are companions that you should be able to bring places with you!

Swedish Harry Potter covers

Swedish Harry Potter hardcover editions

One thing I have noticed, is that I often prefer the hardbacks which I see available outside of the English speaking world.  In Dublin bookshops the hardback sets can be be bright, almost gaudy, with different colours used on each of the books in a set. But look at these anniversary hardback issues of Harry Potter on sale in Swedish. The artwork is beautiful, the colours simple, and the books look good together. Putting all of them on a bookshelf together would make the room look prettier!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblr

Children’s classics – may not work as well today

I finished reading JM Barrie’s original Peter Pan book this evening. My girls asked me to read it to them. But I quickly discovered the classic text wasn’t really suitable for a modern 4 and 6 year old. You do find it is not the book¬†you think it is, especially if you have grown up with the Disney version. Peter Pan is a¬†selfish shit. Tinker Bell is a scheming shrew who actively tries to murder one¬†of the children. And the whole thing is laced with a rampant sexism that is hard to overlook even with the most generous eye (women/girls are just there to cook, clean and generally act as skivvies for the boys).

On balance I would have to say that it is not suitable for children today. You need to find some other sanitised version.

As an adult though, you can draw a smile from some of the slightly dated language. This passage amused me on the plane this evening:

“The little house looked so cosy and safe in the darkness, with a bright light showing through its blinds, and the chimney smoking beautifully, and Peter standing on guard. After a time he fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy. Any of the other boys obstructing the fairy path at night they would have mischiefed, but they just tweaked Peter’s nose and passed on.”

I know the word meant something else a century ago. But if I read that to my 4 and 6 year old’s I just know that at some¬†stage they would state in public (mortifying their father) that¬†they wanted to take part in “a fairy orgy”!


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