[Note: The book of which the above graven image is the frontispiece was first published in Paris in 1873. The small print in the bottom right-hand corner is difficult to make out. It could be the name of the engraver, although it appears to say "Pauvre Louis". The reference is obscure; in the only episode in the book where a person and a bear appear in the same relationship, the intention of the bear is quite different. In the bottom left-hand vignette, notice the seated figure nonchalantly watching the others run away from falling icebergs. These menaces figure importantly in the story. The artist's depiction of the dramatic confrontation in the doorway is not correct. The pistol was in fact being fired by a woman, Mrs. Paulina Barnett. The record is set straight later on, and credit given where due.]
In the Summer issue of 1957 (Outfit 288) there appeared in The Beaver: Magazine of the North, published by the Hudson's Bay Company, a condescending article titled "With Verne in the Arctic", by one James McCook, identified elsewhere as parliamentary correspondent for the Ottawa Journal. Previously McCook, an aficionado of western and northern Canadian stories, had been a reporter in Calgary and Regina. Let what he made of Verne's Le Pays des Fourrures be a lesson in the appropriate selection of interpreters. One would not send a journalist to fact-check The Odyssey, nor do we laugh at the improbabilities in that noble story. Neither should we thus abuse Verne's, for as a rollicking epic adventure of Canada's North, a work of the imagination in that genre, it has, I believe, no equal.
Serials are an honourable literary magazine tradition. To inaugurate its Sunday Serials, KnICH Magazine now launches its new annotated English translation of Le Pays des Fourrures. Three translations have appeared before, always under the title The Fur Country. I believe Land of Furs, however, to be a more august rendering of the same French words, and thus more appropriate.
The intention of this new translation can be easily illustrated through the first two brief paragraphs of Chapter I. The original French of Jules Verne is (with thanks to Archive.org for access to a copy):
Ce soir-là -- 17 mars 1859 -- le capitaine Craventy donnait une fête au Fort-Reliance.
Que ce mot de fête n'éveille pas dans l'esprit l'idée d'un gala grandiose, d'un bal de cour, d'un «raout» carillonné ou d'un festival à grand orchestre. La réception du capitaine Craventy était plus simple, et, pourtant, le capitaine n'avait rien épargné pour lui donner tout l'éclat possible.
The new KnICH translation is:
That evening, March 17, 1859 Captain Craventy gave a party at Fort Reliance.
Let this word «party» not kindle in the mind the idea of a grandiose gala, a court ball, a high feast or festival with full orchestra. Captain Craventy's reception was more modest, and, yet, the captain had spared nothing to give it all the sparkle possible.
The most commonly used translation, and certainly the one available to McCook, was first published in England in 1874. The translator was N. d'Anvers [Nancy (Mrs. Arthur) Bell; 1844-1933]. A copy of this translation, published in 1874 by James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, is in the KnICH Magazine library. Mrs. Bell translated as follows:
On the evening of the 17th March 1859, Captain Craventy gave a fête at Fort Reliance. Our readers must not at once imagine a grand entertainment, such as a court ball, or a musical soirée with a fine orchestra. Captain Craventy’s reception was a very simple affair, yet he had spared no pains to give it éclat.
The second came out in 1879, translated by Henry Frith, 1840-1910. A copy of this translation is available through the good offices of Google Books:
On the 17th of March, 1859, Captain Craventy gave a party at Fort Reliance.
This must not be understood as a grand ball, or a magnificent gala or "rout," or even as a concert. Captain Craventy's reception was much more commonplace, but nevertheless he had done all in his power to make it a success.
The most recent translation was done by Edward Baxter, 1927-2019, published by New Canada Press in 1987. This book, while somewhat talked about, seems to be out of print. We have not yet located a copy.
As these comparisons show, KnICH intends to follow the conventions, both rhetorical and typographic, of the original as closely as common sense allows, and to try, no doubt feebly, to make the text sound as it would to a French reader in the nineteenth century. Of course we have no idea if such a reader would have heard, in his or her mind, "Que ce mot de fête n'éveille pas dans l'esprit l'idée …" as "Let this word «party» not kindle in the mind the idea …", but we think it likely to be closer than "Our readers must not at once imagine …" or "This must not be understood …". These renderings convey the same sense, but would have been translated back into French quite differently. In other words, we aspire to some middle way between literal and idiomatic translations, intelligible to a modern reader, as translators of other great epics often struggle to do authentically.
I read this book for the first time as a teen-ager in the 1950's, in the d'Anvers translation. My father, a subscriber to The Beaver, read McCook's article and immediately bought a copy, the one I have before me now. I confess that my reaction was much like McCook's: a patronizing amusement at Verne's factual gaffes. It was only sixty years later that I read it again, and with a very different understanding.
Le Pays des Fourrures is a work of the imagination, not a travelogue. Jules Verne has taken what scraps of knowledge he could find from the accounts of explorers and reports of the Hudson's Bay Company, consulted available maps, and used them as the framework for his imaginative epic. He portrays arctic Canada not as it is, or was then, but as it needed to be to hold the thundering epic adventure he wanted to tell. Willingly therefore suspend your disbelief, O Reader, and travel with him as his creative mind travelled on this extraordinary voyage.
We will take it in small doses, as our medium requires, and add supplementary notes to enrich your experience. I found in my second reading that I was constantly looking things up, comparing Jules Verne's imagination with reality, which diminished my affection for the former not one iota. On the contrary, I emerged with great respect for his shrewd absorption of what he had read, and the artistry with which he wove it into the frame he needed.
Eh bien! En route! Allons-y!