St. Olaf College | News

Student tackles translations to reveal the true Jules Verne

KirstukasAlex300x425Eight years ago, Alex Kirstukas ’14 opened up a book by a favorite author and felt his world turn upside down.

The book, a modern translation of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, included an explanation that most of Verne’s books in the English-speaking world are not an accurate portrayal of his work. Instead, they are heavily abridged versions full of errors and changes ranging from political censorship to inaccurate scientific details.

So, during his first year at St. Olaf College, Kirstukas took up a French translation project with the hope of showing the real Verne to the English-speaking world.

The project, the first complete English translation of Verne’s longest novel, The Children of Captain Grant, evolved into an independent study course at St. Olaf and opportunities to present on the process in front of both peers and a national audience.

“Though the book is practically unknown in the English-speaking world, it’s considered one of Verne’s great masterpieces in his native France,” says Kirstukas. “I found that the authentic Verne — as opposed to the one in the false old translations — was a brilliant author with an engaging and inspiring worldview.”

Finding a faculty mentor
As the book is more than 900 pages in the paperback French edition, Kirstukas, who learned French mainly for the purpose of reading Verne in his native tongue, looked to a professor for guidance. He formed two back-to-back independent research courses for the 2012–13 academic year with St. Olaf Associate Professor of French Jolene Barjasteh aimed at honing his knowledge of French grammar and translation.

The pair went through the original French text in great detail, checking Kirstukas’ English rendering for any errors and working through problem spots along the way.

“I drew on the language skills I acquired in French classes, as well as the historical context I got from the Great Conversation program to finish the translation and produce an accompanying scholarly apparatus,” says Kirstukas, a music major. “Along the way I did a great deal of research, not only into the process of translation but also into the cultural and literary background of the work, making several new discoveries about Verne’s sources and inspirations for the novel.”

Presenting the results
Kirstukas’ hard work will be highlighted this week as he presents at the North American Jules Verne Society 2014 Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. The academic conference revolves around Verne’s life and work and is hosted by the Alliance Française of New Orleans.

Kirstukas submitted his work on Verne’s use of intertextuality in The Children of Captain Grant to the conference after discussing the project with retired St. Olaf librarian J. Randolph Cox, who is a member of the society.

“This kind of collaborative work between student and professor can result in significant research that may lead to public dissemination of important findings through conference presentation or publication,” says Barjasteh. “I learned as much, if not more, about the difficulties of translation as Alex did through this independent project. I have great admiration for Alex’s inquisitiveness, tenacity, and ability to turn a phrase.”

In addition to his research, Kirstukas delivered a presentation titled “Found in Translation: What a Misunderstood French Genius can Teach us about Creativity, the Universe, and Everything” at this spring’s STO Talks.

“It’s a talk for general audiences about how misunderstood Verne’s novels are in the English-speaking world, and what the authentic Verne can tell us about combining creativity and rationality in our lives and work,” says Kirstukas.

“I hope to spread the joy of reading and understanding the real, authentic Verne, rather than the old cliché that popular culture built out of misunderstandings and irresponsible translations.”