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?