Last week I wrote about how the Oxford World’s Classics series translates to the kindle. This week, I took a look at the way in which their chief competitors in the world of paperbacks – Penguin Classics – have put together their own eBooks. As a sample text, I selected Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, with an introduction and explanatory notes by Adrian Poole.
I’ve written before about the difficulty of finding good electronic editions of the works of Jules Verne. Recently, I discovered that William Butcher’s translations of The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and Around the World in 80 Days were available through the kindle store. The books are part of the Oxford World’s Classics series, which, in addition to the text, provides readers with a critical introduction, explanatory notes, and supplementary materials. The last, in the case of Around the World, consist of a discussion of Verne’s sources, a very brief essay about the stage adaptation of the novel, and a compilation of contemporary reactions to the work.
After I unwrapped my kindle on Christmas morning, I almost immediately began scouring Amazon’s website for deals. I soon discovered that many of the cheapest books on kindle are also the oldest. Since older books have fallen out of copyright, electronic publishers can offer such material to customers for a negligible fee, if not for free. If you’re a lover of classic fiction, the first foray into the kindle store feels a little like walking into the perfect library. That is, until you get to the Jules Verne section.
The kindle versions of Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaires highlight several problems with the way that the electronic texts of the classics are assembled and sold. Take a look at the first page of search results for Mysterious Island in the kindle store. You won’t find any sign of who translated the novel, and most of the time that information isn’t even on the merchandising page for a specific version. Adding to the confusion, Amazon sometimes borrows the product description and reviews from other editions of the same novel. You’ve got to download a sample to be sure of which version you’re reading, and that might involve comparing what’s on your kindle with the various translations available at Project Gutenberg. Many readers won’t care whose translation they’ve got, and I’ll admit that often I don’t. But with Verne, what English version you read apparently matters a great deal: certain 19th century translations of 20,000 Leagues and Mysterious Island remove passages that their translators felt criticized the British Empire; even the best English version of Journey to the Center of the Earth adds allusions that are not present in the French.
But the product page in the kindle store won’t give you this information, nor will it always tell you for certain whether the version you’re about to download has been abridged. I probably seem ungrateful: after all, these books cost almost nothing. Kindle is a fantastic technology for people who love books, but right now Amazon isn’t doing everything it can to cater to that audience. The service could be improved by providing the same level of detail in the descriptions of their electronic books as they do for their physical ones, and guaranteeing that those descriptions fit the product to which they’ve been attached.