News Reached the Church in Rome

Celebrating a Christian mass in Japan in circa 1600.
Cropped from Kano Naizen’s “Arrival of the Southern Barbarians Screen” c. 1600.

I recently read Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence. The following statement is on the book’s copyright page: “This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.” 

I find the need to make this statement intriguing. The phrase “used fictitiously” raises questions concerning the relationship between a story’s fictional and nonfictional components. For example, are the references in Silence to a man named “Ferreira” to the historical figure Cristóvão Ferreira (c. 1580 – 1650), a Portuguese Jesuit missionary who apostatized during Japan’s persecution of Christians in the 17th-century? Take the novel’s opening paragraph. It reads like history. 

Silence, opening paragraph [Endō, Picador Modern Classics]

If it is history, where, in the story, does the nonfiction end and the fiction begin; can the reader always tell? Sometimes, answering this kind of question about a novel is challenging. Doing so can be especially difficult for the genre of historical fiction, as with Silence, for example. If you find that hard to believe, google the question “Is Silence a true story.” But what about works that at least seem to be unquestionably fiction, say, War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells? Oh, well, I don’t know, maybe it’s different if you catch it on the radio, in medias res.


All of this brings to mind something that I noticed when rereading Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. What do translators do when they come across what appear to be “errors in fact” in a work of fiction? Let’s look at four English translations of just the novel’s opening paragraph in the context of the general question about the interplay of nonfiction and fiction in stories.  

The translations I want to examine are by the following translators; the publication dates are also given:

  • George Makepeace Towle 1873
  • William Butcher 1995
  • Michael Glencross 2004
  • Frederick Paul Walter 2013

Let’s begin with Verne’s French text, and then I will excerpt the relevant passage from the English translations listed above in their publication order.

Jules Verne 1873

Around the World in Eighty Days was first published in French in 1873. Here’s the book’s opening paragraph as issued, in French, by J. Hetzel et Compagnie, Paris, 1873.

En l’année 1872, la maison portant le numéro 7 de Saville-row, Burlington Gardens, maison dans laquelle Shéridan mourut en 1814, était habitée par Phileas Fogg, esq., l’un des membres les plus singuliers et les plus remarqués du Reform-Club de Londres, bien qu’il semblât prendre à tâche de ne rien faire qui pût attirer l’attention.

Verne, Jules. Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingt jours Around the World in Eighty Days (Dual Language Reader in French / English) (Illustrated) (French Edition). Kindle Edition.

George Makepeace Towle 1873

The American lawyer, author, and translator, George Makepeace Towle (1841 – 1893), translated the book in 1873, the same year as the book’s publication. Here is Towle’s translation of the book’s opening.

Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814. He was one of the most noticeable members of the Reform Club, though he seemed always to avoid attracting attention. 

Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days (Illustrated) (p. 2). Standard Ebooks. Kindle Edition.

If you opened the book having no idea that it’s a work of fiction, you might wonder:

  1. Is Phileas Fogg a historical figure, or based upon a historical figure, who lived in London in 1872?
  2. Is the address given for him a real one in London, or was it, at least, in 1872?
  3. Did a Mr. Sheridan ever live at the given address, and did he die there in 1814?
  4. In 1872, was there a club called the Reform Club in London?

William Butcher 1995

In 1995, William Butcher, an independent researcher in Hong Kong, translated the novel for Oxford World’s Classics published by Oxford University Press. A review of the translation appearing in Science Fiction Studies claimed Butcher’s and OUP’s version of the Verne text is “by far the best available.” [A. B. E. Review of Superb Jules Verne Translations, by Jules Verne, William Butcher, Jules Verne, and William Butcher. Science Fiction Studies 22, no. 2 (1995): 288–89.

Here is Butcher’s translation:

IN the year 1872, No. 7 Savile Row, Burlington Gardens*—the house where Sheridan* died in 1814—was occupied by Phileas Fogg,* Esq. This gentleman was one of the most remarkable, and indeed most remarked upon members of the Reform Club,* although he seemed to go out of his way to do nothing that might attract any attention.

Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days (p. 7). Oxford World’s Classics.

This one appears to adhere more closely to the French, including Verne’s word order. Notice, however, Butcher’s footnotes. I want to focus on only the first two of them. 

In his first note, Butcher tells us that Verne consistently spells “Savile” as “Saville.” Butcher assumes that Verne refers to “Savile Row, W1, on the Burlington Estate, famous for its tailors since mid-century.” In other words, Verne misspelled the English name of a real street in London, one to which Verne meant to refer.

In his second note, the Sheridan note, Butcher provides information about an Irish politician, poet, and playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Butcher tells us that Sheridan, born in 1751, “died in fact in 1816.” Oops, this is another error by Verne. In addition, Butcher writes, referring to Sheridan, “He lived in fact at No. 14 Savile Row.” Dang, Verne!

For Butcher, Verne’s opening paragraph contains three errors: street name, street number, and death date of Sheridan. Notice, these are mistakes, according to Butcher. However, in his translation, Butcher corrects only one of them, the spelling of the street name. He leaves the street number and Sheridan’s death date as Verne wrote them. Hmmm.

Michael Glencross 2004

Michael Glencross was born in South Wales and took a degree in modern languages from Pembroke College, Oxford, where he read modern languages. He lives in France, where he works as a translator. Glencross’ translation:

In the year 1872, the house at number 7 Savile Row,1 Burlington Gardens – the house in which Sheridan2 died in 1814 – was lived in by Phileas Fogg, Esq., one of the oddest and most striking members of the Reform Club,3 even though he seemed determined to avoid doing anything that might draw attention to himself. 

Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days (p. 2). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

The translation is closer to that of Butcher than Towle. Again with the notes, and again focus on the first two. Like Butcher, Glencross believes Verne’s reference is to Savile Row. He writes, “Savile Row: Before it became famous in the course of the nineteenth century as the centre of the high-class tailoring trade for men, Savile Row was known as a desirable residential street in the West End of London.” [Verne, Jules. Around the World in Eighty Days. Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.] 

Like, Butcher, Glencross feels free to change Verne’s spelling of Savile Row.

His note on Sheridan: “Sheridan: Better known nowadays for his plays, especially The Rivals (1775) and The School for Scandal (1777), Richard Brinsley Sheridan (born Dublin 1751) was also a well-known politician and parliamentarian in his day. Verne commits two errors of fact concerning Sheridan: he lived in fact in number 14 Savile Row, and died in 1816. However, Verne’s main point is the contrast between the dashing, public figure of Sheridan and the mysterious, private persona of Fogg.” [ibid.] 

Butcher and Glencross felt free to correct what they understand to be a spelling error by Verne, changing Saville to Savile, but noting the other two errors leave them untouched in their translations: the street address and Sheridan’s death date.

Guideline? Correct and note perceived spelling mistakes; leave factual errors, but note them.

Frederick Paul Walter 2013

Now for something different. Frederick Paul Walter served as vice president (2000 – 2008) of the North American Jules Verne Society. Walter is a Verne fan. Here’s Walter’s translation, published in 2013 by the State University of New York Press. By the way, Walter’s translation includes fifty-nine illustrations from the 1873 French edition.

In the year 1872 the house at 7 Savile Row in Burlington Gardens—the house where Sheridan died in 1816—was the residence of Phileas Fogg, Esq., one of the most distinctive and noteworthy members of the Reform Club in London, though he seemed to shrink from doing anything that might attract attention.

Verne, Jules. Around the World in 80 Days (Excelsior Editions). State University of New York Press. Kindle Edition.

Notes? Nope. Like Butcher and Glencross, Walter “corrects” Verne’s spelling of Savile Row. He leaves the street number as Verne wrote it. But, notice, he changes the death date to match the death date of Richard Brinsley Sheridan—1816, not 1814. 

What do you think of this? Assume it was the only version of Around the World in Eighty Days that you ever read. Would that, that is, it’s being the only translation you were familiar with, make a difference?

And all of this is from only the first paragraph of the Verne!


William Johnston (1925 – 2010) translated Silence. Mr. Johnston includes a Translator’s Preface in which he states that the “novel, Silence, deals with the troubled period of Japanese history known as ‘the Christian century.’” Two words, “novel” and “history,” alert us that we are reading a work of historical fiction. Johnston goes on to provide the reader with the novel’s historical background.

The above being said, without the preface, if one picked up the novel only, there could be some confusion, maybe a lot. And it’s fed, intentionally, by some of Endō’s craftsmanship. For example, an Appendix, “Diary of an officer at the Christian Residence,” includes dates, names, and events. History or not? Johnston, unlike Butcher and Glencross, provides no notes in the body of the novel.

So, what does all this mean? Let me make a suggestion. When we read novels, regardless of their genre, notes identifying, explaining, or correcting what are felt to be factual errors in the book are not required. Why not? For the simple reason given in the statement on the copyright page of Silence. Any “facts” in the book are “used fictitiously.” In Verne’s fictional world, Around the World in Eighty Days, “Mr. Phileas Fogg lived, in 1872, at No. 7, Saville Row, Burlington Gardens, the house in which Sheridan died in 1814.” Period.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

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