The other day, I pulled Mysterious Island, by Jules Verne, off my unread-books shelf. I decided that I didn't really want to read the whole book, so I read the Wikipedia article, including the plot summary. And that article led me to some interesting stuff about colonialism and the way the book has been translated into English.
MAJOR SPOILERS ABOUND HERE.
So if you don't want spoilers for the ending of the book, then skip this entry.
Most of the book is about some Americans during the US Civil War who escape from a Southern prison by balloon, but they crash-land in the ocean. They find themselves on an island, where they keep getting mysterious help from person or persons unknown.
Near the end of the book, it turns out that the mysterious helper is none other than Captain Nemo, making this a sequel of sorts to Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
And Nemo tells them his life story: it turns out that he was originally a prince from India, named Dakkar. He was educated in Europe; he fought on the Indian side in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (a.k.a. the Sepoy Mutiny); then he had a submarine constructed and started calling himself Nemo.
All of which is interesting; before Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, I don't recall seeing anything in modern renditions of Nemo to suggest that he's from India. (Though it turns out that there have been some portrayals of him by men of color.)
But what I find especially interesting is that the person who first translated the book into English was British, and they decided not to retain Nemo/Dakkar's anti-British sentiments.
My copy of the book is the 1965 Airmont edition, labeled as “Complete and Unabridged.” But it appears to have followed in the footsteps of that earlier translator; for example, in the earlier translation, a character's name was changed from the original “Smith” to “Harding” (Wikipedia says that's because “Smith” was seen as a lower-class name in Britain at the time), and the Airmont version retains that name change.
And it also retains the major changes to the narration of Nemo's story. (It may in fact be an expanded reissue of the earlier (abridged) translation; I'm a little unclear on that.)
For example, in the Airmont edition, this appears:
His father sent him, when ten years of age, to Europe, in order that he might receive an education in all respects complete, and in the hopes that by his talents and knowledge he might one day take a leading part in raising his long degraded and heathen country to a level with the nations of Europe.
I was thinking, That seems weirdly out of keeping with what Wikipedia said about Nemo. I wish there were some way to determine what the original French version said. And then I realized that (a) the original French version was probably available online, and (b) due to the miracle of Google Translate, I need not consider French to be a mysterious unknowable exotic foreign tongue that none may know the true meaning of. (In case it's not clear, I'm mocking myself here; I really did initially have a vague gut reaction to the effect that it was impossible to know what the French version said.) (It did eventually occur to me that I could ask a French speaker to translate for me. But then it occurred to me that Google Translate would likely do a good-enough-for-my-purposes job.)
And sure enough, Project Gutenberg supplies a full public-domain etext of L'île mystérieuse in various formats. The French version of the above passage says:
Son père, dès l'âge de dix ans, l'envoya en Europe, afin qu'il y reçût une éducation complète et dans la secrète intention qu'il pût lutter un jour, à armes égales, avec ceux qu'il considérait comme les oppresseurs de son pays.
Which Google Translate translates as:
His father, at the age of ten, sent him to Europe, that he might receive a complete education, and with the secret intention that he might one day fight, on equal terms, with those whom he considered The oppressors of his country.
So the original version has him fighting the oppressors of his country, while the translated version has him raising his degraded and heathen country.
And it goes on!
Though young and possessed of every personal advantage, he was ever grave—somber even—devoured by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, and cherishing in the recesses of his heart the hope that he might become a great and powerful ruler of a free and enlightened people.
Jeune et beau, il demeura sérieux, sombre, dévoré de la soif d'apprendre, ayant un implacable ressentiment rivé au cœur.
Le prince Dakkar haïssait. Il haïssait le seul pays où il n'avait jamais voulu mettre le pied, la seule nation dont il refusa constamment les avances: il haïssait l'Angleterre et d'autant plus que sur plus d'un point il l'admirait.
C'est que cet indien résumait en lui toutes les haines farouches du vaincu contre le vainqueur.
L'envahisseur n'avait pu trouver grâce chez l'envahi.
Le fils de l'un de ces souverains dont le Royaume-Uni n'a pu que nominalement assurer la servitude, ce prince, de la famille de Tippo-Saïb, élevé dans les idées de revendication et de vengeance, ayant l'inéluctable amour de son poétique pays chargé des chaînes anglaises, ne voulut jamais poser le pied sur cette terre par lui maudite, à laquelle l'Inde devait son asservissement.
Google Translate translation of the French:
Young and handsome, he remained serious, gloomy, devoured by the thirst for learning, having an implacable resentment riveted to the heart.
Prince Dakkar hated. He hated the only country in which he had never sought to set foot, the only nation whose advances he constantly refused; he hated England, and all the more so because he admired him on more than one point.
It is because this Indian summed up in him all the fierce hatreds of the vanquished against the conqueror.
The invader could not find grace in the invaded.
The son of one of these sovereigns, whose only nominal name was the United Kingdom, was the prince of the Tippo-Saib family, raised in ideas of claim and vengeance, having the inescapable love Of his poetic country, charged with English chains, would never set foot on this earth by him cursed, to which India owed his enslavement.
(Google Translate obviously leaves something to be desired, but I think the gist is clear.)
This artist, this philosopher, this man was, however, still cherishing the hope instilled into him from his earliest days.
He waited an opportunity. At length, as he vainly fancied, it presented itself.
Instigated by princes equally ambitious and less sagacious and more unscrupulous than he was, the people of India were persuaded that they might successfully rise against their English rulers, who had brought them out of a state of anarchy and constant warfare and misery, and had established peace and prosperity in their country. Their ignorance and gross superstition made them the facile tools of their designing chiefs.
In 1857 the great sepoy revolt broke out. Prince Dakkar, under the belief that he should thereby have the opportunity of attaining the object of his long-cherished ambition, was easily drawn into it. He forthwith devoted his talents and wealth to the service of this cause. He aided it in person; he fought in the front ranks; he risked his life equally with the humblest of the wretched and misguided fanatics; he was ten times wounded in twenty engagements, seeking death but finding it not, but at length the sanguinary rebels were utterly defeated, and the atrocious mutiny was brought to an end.
Never before had the British power in India been exposed to such danger, and if, as they had hoped, the sepoys had received assistance from without, the influence and supremacy in Asia of the United Kingdom would have been a thing of the past.
Civilization never recedes; the law of necessity ever forces it onwards. The sepoys were vanquished, and the land of the rajahs of old fell again under the rule of England.
Cet artiste, ce savant, cet homme était resté indien par le cœur, indien par le désir de la vengeance, indien par l'espoir qu'il nourrissait de pouvoir revendiquer un jour les droits de son pays, d'en chasser l'étranger, de lui rendre son indépendance. [...] Mais le bonheur domestique ne pouvait lui faire oublier l'asservissement de l'Inde. Il attendait une occasion. Elle se présenta.
Le joug anglais s'était trop pesamment peut-être alourdi sur les populations indoues. Le prince Dakkar emprunta la voix des mécontents. Il fit passer dans leur esprit toute la haine qu'il éprouvait contre l'étranger. Il parcourut non seulement les contrées encore indépendantes de la péninsule indienne, mais aussi les régions directement soumises à l'administration anglaise. Il rappela les grands jours de Tippo-Saïb, mort héroïquement à Seringapatam pour la défense de sa patrie. En 1857, la grande révolte des cipayes éclata. Le prince Dakkar en fut l'âme. Il organisa l'immense soulèvement. Il mit ses talents et ses richesses au service de cette cause. Il paya de sa personne; il se battit au premier rang; il risqua sa vie comme le plus humble de ces héros qui s'étaient levés pour affranchir leur pays; il fut blessé dix fois en vingt rencontres et n'avait pu trouver la mort, quand les derniers soldats de l'indépendance tombèrent sous les balles anglaises.
Le droit, cette fois encore, était tombé devant la force. Mais la civilisation ne recule jamais, et il semble qu'elle emprunte tous les droits à la nécessité. Les cipayes furent vaincus, et le pays des anciens rajahs retomba sous la domination plus étroite de l'Angleterre.
This artist, this scientist, this man had remained indian by heart, indian by the desire for vengeance, Indian by the hope that he feared to be able one day to claim the rights of his country, to drive out the stranger , To restore its independence. [...] But domestic happiness could not make him forget the enslavement of India. He was waiting for an opportunity. She presented herself.
The English yoke was too heavy for the Hindoo populations. Prince Dakkar borrowed the voice of the malcontents. He caused all their hatred of the stranger to pass into their minds. He traveled not only to the countries still independent of the Indian peninsula, but also to the regions directly subject to the English administration. He recalled the great days of Tippo-Saib, who died heroically at Seringapatam for the defense of his country. In 1857, the great revolt of the sepoys broke out. Prince Dakkar was the soul of it. He organized the immense uprising. He put his talents and his riches at the service of this cause. He paid for himself; He fought in the front row; He risked his life as the humblest of those heroes who had risen to liberate their country; He was wounded ten times in twenty encounters and could not have died when the last soldiers of independence fell under English bullets.
Never had the British power in India incurred such a danger, and if, as they had hoped, the sepoys would have found relief abroad, it was perhaps made in Asia of influence and domination from the United Kingdom.
Law, once again, had fallen before the force. But civilization never retreats, and it seems that it borrows all the rights to necessity. The sepoys were defeated, and the country of the ancient Rajahs fell again under the more narrow domination of England.
I'm especially struck by the transformation from “humblest of those heroes who had risen to liberate their country” to “humblest of the wretched and misguided fanatics.”
One last extended passage: A couple of pages later, Nemo tells them, with some distress, about once having rammed and sunk a ship. English version:
“It was an enemy’s frigate,” exclaimed Captain Nemo, transformed for an instant into the Prince Dakkar, “an enemy’s frigate! It was she who attacked me—I was in a narrow and shallow bay—the frigate barred my way—and I sank her!”
«C'était une frégate anglaise, monsieur, s'écria le capitaine Nemo, redevenu un instant le prince Dakkar, une frégate anglaise, vous entendez bien! Elle m'attaquait! J'étais resserré dans une baie étroite et peu profonde!... il me fallait passer, et... j'ai passé!»
Puis, d'une voix plus calme:
«J'étais dans la justice et dans le droit, ajouta-t-il. J'ai fait partout le bien que j'ai pu, et aussi le mal que j'ai dû. Toute justice n'est pas dans le pardon!»
"It was an English frigate, sir," cried Captain Nemo, "for a moment, Prince Dakkar, an English frigate, you hear!" She attacked me! I was tightened in a narrow, shallow bay! ... I had to pass, and ... I passed! "
Then, in a calmer voice:
"I was in justice and in right," he added. I did everywhere the good I could, and also the evil that I had. All righteousness is not in forgiveness! "
There's one last item that I find particularly interesting, but this one I can't blame on the British translator. Nemo's last words in the British translation are “God and my country!”; in the French version, they're “Dieu et patrie!” But in Verne's original manuscript, Nemo's final word is: “Independence.” The change was apparently made by Verne's publisher, Pierre-Jules Hetzel.
But in a further twist, it appears that Hetzel was also the reason that Nemo was Indian! Verne originally intended Nemo to be “a Polish nobleman whose entire family had been slaughtered by Russian troops. [...] But in the 1860s France was very careful not to offend the Tsar as an ally in any way. Verne's publisher Hetzel pronounced the book unprintable, since a Pole fighting against Russian oppression would severely restrict the sale of his books in the Tsar's vast domain.” (Quote is from “Jules Verne and the Indian Rebellion,” by Swati Dasgupta, published in Insurgent Sepoys: Europe Views the Revolt of 1857, edited by Shaswati Mazumdar.) And so Verne changed Nemo to an Indian fighting British oppression; I can only guess that Hetzel wasn't as bothered by the prospect of losing British sales. Or perhaps he guessed that a British translator would mess with things.