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The Best Translation of “Les Miserables”?

The family and I just returned from Les Miserables. More on the movie when I have a moment to collect my thoughts, but my overall response: staggering.  Imperfect, but beautiful, powerful, and serious, a work so marvelous–so intent on faithfully rendering Hugo’s original–that it nearly redeems the entire medium of film.  All the terrible movies you’ve ever seen–all the trite or cheap or crass or obvious or manipulative pictures–all seem an acceptable price to pay for a film that tries so hard and succeeds so beautifully in rendering a work of truly great popular art.

(In other words, I liked it.)

Three of my four oldest kids are, for now (parents will know what I mean) determined to read the book. Yet going online to order a couple of copies in paperback just now, I found myself stopped cold. Translations can make a big difference, I learned in reading the nineteenth-century Russians, and it stands to reason, I figure, that translations can make a big difference to Victor Hugo as well. But which should I choose? Just get a load of this, an excerpt from an online discussion of several of the leading efforts:

Here’s a little comparison of…three modern versions along with the old Wilbour version. It involves a short description of the character Tholomyès:“a thirty-year-old, ill-preserved rake” (Denny) “a high liver, thirty years old, and in poor shape” (Fahnestock & MacAfee) ”a wasted high roller of thirty” (Rose)”a good liver, thirty years old and ill preserved” (Wilbour)

“un viveur de trente ans, mal conservé” (the original French)

Good Lord. Four widely differing versions of a phrase of a mere seven words–yet the book itself runs to more than 1,500 pages. Mal de mer–that’s what it makes me feel.

Good people of Ricochet, I ask you. Which translation should I buy?

  1. Matthew Gilley

    Trust only the version that John Kerry translated from the original French. All others are pale imitations, lacking in brilliance, honor, and accuracy. Various literati decorated him for this masterpiece, but he is such a committed scholar that he threw the baubles away. The authentic edition bears his photo on the dust jacket along with a caption that challenges the reader, “Do you know who I am?”

  2. Gojira

    Children have an active language-learning brain center.   Make them learn French.

  3. Bill Dunne

    Rose.  I like it short.

  4. Cold Friday Warrior

    Forget the translation…and the book entirely. For true, lasting, and dare I say faint-worthy literary fiction, pick up any of Mr. Obama’s autobiographies. 

  5. Pony Convertible

    I quit funding Hollywood years ago.  No more movies.  I can’t bring myself to give my $$ to those who are trying to bankrupt this country.  Think about where your money goes.

  6. notmarx

    Venturing a firm recommendation on the slimmest of evidence: Denny.   The other tranlations are still stuck in French word order.  A thousand pages of that would make for a very wearing read.  Rose’s and Denny’s seem written in English.  Denny’s phrase is more graceful than Rose’s,  and more precise, and as pungent.

  7. Bluebottle

    Do you and your children just want an easily accessible translation, or do you want something that does its best to faithfully preserve nuance?

     When I read Homer’s Odyssey in college for a self-directed “masterworks” seminar, I had to choose my own translation. I chose a paperback, a prose translation in chapter book format, targeted to a youth/teen audience. (Sorry, I don’t remember the translator nor publisher). I’m sure it lost a lot in translation, but it was just so readable, understandable, and enjoyable. I do not regret the choice. (I even passed my oral exam with confidence!)

    On the other hand, I tried (and mostly failed) to tackle the Portuguese epic poem Os Lusíadas by Luis de Camőes a short time later in the same “masterworks” seminar. I never did find an English translation which was readable enough to help me satisfactorily slog through that beautiful and brilliant but heavy piece of literature.

  8. Amy Schley
    bereket kelile: 

    I got a copy from Barnes & Noble that’s translated by Isabel Hapgood. I can’t judge the quality of the translation but what gets me is that some of the words aren’t translated at all, like the name of the place where the bishop presides (Digne) and the revolutionary that the bishop visits early on (Garouche?). The copy I have just has the first letter of the word and then hyphens, as if it was an expletive. Looking at three copies that B&N provides, it seems they’re all translated by Hapgood.  · 6 hours ago

    That’s actually from Victor Hugo — he’s trying to let the place and bishop remain anonymous. Why he didn’t just make up a place name, I don’t know.

    My advice — be prepared to skip chapters if you want to maintain any track of the plot.  Hugo was paid weekly to produce a chapter, and so sometimes the chapters have a very tenuous relation to the story, like one on street argot and another on the history of the Parisian sewer system.

  9. Todesque

    Peter, I take world lit pretty seriously, and choose translations very carefully. That said, I highly recommend Signet’s translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (based on C. E. Wilbour’s translation). Beautifully done. Enjoy!

  10. Hang On

    What? You didn’t take the family to see Django instead?

  11. Frederick Key

    Nuts – I know Robin Buss is an excellent translator of Dumas, and has done Zola and others, but does not seem to have done Hugo. Well, make them read Buss’s translation of Count of Monte Cristo too.

  12. Eeyore

    Mal de mer–that’s what it makes me feel.”

    Peter, you don’t have any Dramamine left over from the NR Cruise?

    Todesque: I take world lit pretty seriously, and … highly recommend Signet’s translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee…

    Although I don’t take world lit as seriously, as I looked through the list, “in poor condition” was the only translation which destroyed the poetry inherent in “mal conservé.”

    But I could also be biased against it, as Fahnestock was my ex’s name.

  13. John Grier

    A few years back, I picked up a film version (2000, 3-hour English version of a former 6-hour French TV miniseries directed by Josée Dayan and co-produced by Gérard Depardieu).  This was NOT the musical version, but was just the story.  

    When I then watched, the 1995 “Dream Cast” musical version.  As it turned out, it made more sense, knowing the the story first.  

    Both were “moving” for me.  I have yet to see the newest version.

    I never tackled the book.  It has always intimidated me by its thickness whenever I was propmted to pick it up.  I must confess I lean toward  the “Illustrated Classics” comic book version.

  14. DocStu

    I read the Hapgood translation on my iPad a few years ago and enjoyed it very much, other than the aforementioned sewer description. The Waterloo scenes had little to do with the plot but were very interesting. I do not know how historically accurate they were not being a military historian but very very interesting.

    The priest, Val Jean and redemption and the fact of judgmentalism in the world was impressive. The American ideal that anyone can rise from anywhere to any height just didn’t exist in France of the day. I could begin to talk of what redemtion truly means, but suffice to say that it is not what you believe, but what you do.

  15. 1967mustangman

    This reminds me of some of the discussion around different translations of the bible and how some versions are “translations” and some are “transliterations”.  The same online discussion you mentioned notes that the Denny version is is only “lightly abridged” with 100,000 words left out (reading that this morning almost made me spit my coffee, it is only for the fact that I don’t drink coffee at home that I was saved from cleaning my walls).  

    I sounds to me like some versions that try to stick directly to the French are translations and others are transliterations that try to get closer to the meaning (and making that meaning known in language it is being translated into).  I would be interested in knowing on which version you settle.

  16. Lucy Pevensie

    It’s funny that you posted this yesterday, as earlier in the day I had googled the same question. I decided on the Denny, having looked at some of the others and found them painfully literal.

  17. Peter Robinson
    C
    notmarx: Venturing a firm recommendation on the slimmest of evidence: Denny.   The other tranlations are still stuck in French word order.  A thousand pages of that would make for a very wearing read.  Rose’s and Denny’s seem written in English.  Denny’s phrase is more graceful than Rose’s,  and more precise, and as pungent. · 4 hours ago

    Thanks.  Have read 20 or so pages of Denny online, and it looks pretty darned good–in his prose, the narrative moves.  Will take a look at Rose, too, before making a decision.

  18. Peter Robinson
    C
    Bluebottle: Do you and your children just want an easily accessible translation, or do you want something that does its best to faithfully preserve nuance?

     When I read Homer’sOdysseyin college for a self-directed “masterworks” seminar, I had to choose my own translation. I chose a paperback, a prose translation in chapter book format, targeted to a youth/teen audience. (Sorry, I don’t remember the translator nor publisher). I’m sure it lost a lot in translation, but it was just so readable, understandable, and enjoyable. I do not regret the choice. (I even passed my oral exam with confidence!)

    On the other hand, I tried (and mostly failed) to tackle the Portuguese epic poem Os Lusíadas by Luis de Camőes a short time later in the same “masterworks” seminar. I never did find an English translation which was readable enough to help me satisfactorily slog through that beautiful and brilliant but heavy piece of literature. · 4 hours ago

    If forced to choose, I figure we’d take accessibility.  The book is well over 1,000 pages.  We need a narrative that helps move us along.  

  19. EJHill

    Do you think anyone said to Hugo, “Pretty good story, Vic, but what it really needs is a good song…”

  20. Reckless Endangerment

    When reading Ovid’s Metamorphoses in college, the translations I found most fruitful fell either in one of two camps.

    It can either be one in which the reader is well aware of any political or artistic bias in the author’s translation that might actually tell more about the era the work was translated than the era in which the work was written. Or, it can be a near literal translation of the work in the spirit of the era in which the work was written to the best abilities of the translator. Best to maybe consider the translator as your guide on a winding journey rather than an authoritative voice that puts his/her hands on your shoulder and directs you as to what to think. It’ll be more fun for your imagination anyway!