How on earth do I sum up in mere words such a magnificent, majestic, momentous story?! Les Miserables is a story full of pathos, compassion, extravagance and just a few flaws. Fortunately these flaws of logic and historical truth don’t get in the way of Hugo’s grander themes about love, redemption and sacrifice.
I struggled to accept Hugo’s premise for the forward march of humankind with the promise of inevitable Progress towards some greater point. This belief, that all progress and evolution is good, was common among many writers, politicians and thinkers of the time, a belief which still infects many people today. However his ideas about the positive outcomes for universal education, suffrage and abolishing slavery felt spot on and admirable.
In his Introduction to my Penguin edition of the book, Norman Denny, explains that although
he was masterly in the construction of his novel, (Hugo) had little or no regard for the discipline of novel-writing. He was wholly unrestrained and unsparing of his reader. He had to say everything and more than everything; he was incapable of leaving anything out.
Which is a shame, because some basic editing would have made an easier journey of it, for this new-to-the-story reader in particular. I powered through the Waterloo diversion and enjoyed Valjean and Cosette’s sojourn in the convent, but the soppy love story between Marius and Cosette and then the barricades nearly did me in!
The student uprising, with their youthful idealism, the creation of the barricades, the endless pontificating, the senseless waste of life that just kept going on, and on, and on, chapter after chapter. So much detail and importance assigned to a little remembered, little known footnote in history.
Although, perhaps that was Hugo’s point.
All our lives are filled with moments significant and important to us, but of little consequence to future historians. Smaller moments within bigger historic periods, like the French Revolution and Empire, get swallowed up by time. Only the events that allow historians to draw a narrative line that suits their agenda get included (and we all have an agenda when it comes to creating the story of our lives, even historians).
It was only after finishing the book, that I went back and read the Introductions in all three books. In the Rose edition, Adam Thirwell has written a very thoughtful piece about Hugo’s intentions for this epic book. He notes that,
What is relevant?….How can you know what fact will emerge, and destroy you?….We all live our lives so blissful in our ignorance of an infinity which could invade us at any moment….The true story is chance.
Hugo said that the poet’s duty was to elevate political events to the dignity of historical events….he was interested in transforming politics into history, and rewriting history so that it included the unknown, the ignored, the forgotten….to show how far history is fiction.
Donougher also noted that Hugo believed that ‘classicists wanted art to improve and idealise reality, while he insisted it should ‘paint life’, with its confusion of the good, the bad and the absurd.’
Hugo himself was a romantic, a liberal, a poet. He used his fame to promote his political views. He wrote a story that, according to David Bellos (The Novel of the Century) showed that ‘moral progress is possible for all, in every social sphere‘ without reassuring us with a ‘tale of the triumph of good over evil, but a demonstration of how hard it is to be good.’
Throughout the year I read/referred to three different translations of Les Miserables – the Denny, the Rose and the Donougher. I started the year with the Denny, so that ended up being the main one I stayed with the whole time. I developed a strong affection for it and the lovely hardcover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith. I really enjoyed his language choices. I found it easy to read and it flowed well. But Denny did edit and make changes to Hugo’s work – he also put two whole chapters into an appendix at the back.
The other two versions became my comparison reads when I had the time or inclination.
I can safely say that the Rose version will not be staying with me beyond this readalong. I disliked many of the word choices she made, especially the modern colloquial that jarred within the pages of a book so obviously set within a specific time.
I really liked the Donougher though, when my copy finally arrived in February. The deckled edges tickled my fancy every time I picked it up and the soft cover book was much easier to travel with (for weekends away).
Next time I read Les Mis, this will be the version I will read the whole way through.
At various times throughout the year, I would get fixated on translation choices. I found this fabulous summary of ALL the Les Mis translations by R. Plunket from Scotland on his VERY extensive review about the book here.
Below are his abridged comments, from that review, about the various translations:
Now onto the translation. First a little bit of translation history. American Charles Wilbour was the first to translate the novel and his version was published by Carleton in 1862 just months after the novel was published in Brussels. The fact that Wilbour, at the age of just twenty nine, completed the translation so quickly is astounding. The translation is very close to Hugo’s French and is highly regarded…. An abridged version of Wilbour’s translation was released in the UK by Catto & Windus in 1874. The unabridged version was finally released in the country in 1890.
The only downsides of Wilbour’s translation are that it contained no footnotes and French verse parts were not translated. This was rectified in 1987 by an updated translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, released by Signet. The vocabulary is more modern so the translation will appear more readable to someone who finds 19th Century texts difficult. This is the most common paperback version in the USA and has the musical logo on the cover. It is unabridged like the original Wilbour, has full place names instead of dashes (so you get Digne instead of D-, this was a revision Hugo himself made to the text in 1881) and French verse parts are translated into English in footnotes.
Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall’s translation was the first to be released in the UK and appeared in 1862, just before the release of the last volume of Wilbour’s translation in America. Wraxall’s translation was the only one to pay copyright to the publishers. It was advertised as the most “literal” translation. It is abridged as it deliberately misses chapters and books (Wraxall gives his reasons for this in the preface). The text was even further abridged from the fourth edition onwards. The omitted parts were translated in the USA by J Blamire for the 1886 Deluxe Edition by Routledge and this same text was used for the 1938 Heritage Press release with illustrations from Lynn Ward. Little Brown also supplemented the Wraxall text in 1887. Later reprints by various publishers, such as Allison & Co, supplemented the text using Wilbour. Even with the supplementations, the Wraxall version is still very poorly regarded. Hugo himself even voiced his disapproval.
The Wraxall translation was also heavily plagarised by others. The translation by William Walton et al. (actually a pseudonym of John Thomson of the Philadelphia Free Library), released in 1892 by the publisher G Barrie, borrows heavily from Wraxall.
Isobel F Hapgood’s translation first appeared in 1887 and was published by Thomas Crowell. Hapgood’s translation was generally very well regarded at the time, although some of the language used has become outdated. Hapgood’s main defect is that she misses out the Cambronne section. This omission was restored by a handful of publishers in the early Twentieth Century including John Wannamaker, Dumont and Century Co. Crowell continued to publish a copyright version without the supplementation so it is clear that Hapgood did not approve of such additions….
The early years of the post war era was mainly filled with adaptations and abridgments of Wilbour’s text (a famous abridgment by James K Robinson reduced Wilbour’s text to under 400 pages).
Norman Denny was the first person to offer a new translation in the Twentieth Century. This is the most common version available in the UK, released in 1976 by Folio Press (with bizarre illustrations) and by Penguin as a paperback in 1980. Highly readable but Denny takes great liberties with Hugo’s text and a lot of material is omitted. Two sections are moved to the end of the book as appendixes. Penguin continues to print this but thankfully they have now released this superior translation by Christine Donougher.
Finally in 2008 an unabridged translation by Julie Rose was released by The Modern Library in the US and Vintage in the UK. The main criticism of this translation is that the vocabulary is very modern and at times feels awkward. For instance Rose uses the term “slimy spook” to describe Javert in one section. I have never heard this term before and I cannot imagine it being a good translation of the French term Mouchard. I do respect Rose for translating such a difficult text. Her translation just didn’t click with me.
So now we come to the new translation by Christine Donougher. So why is this translation superior to the others? It is complete and unabridged, unlike Denny, Wraxall and Hapgood. It doesn’t feel like the language has been dumbed down, unlike Rose. It has excellent notes and footnotes, unlike Wilbour and the updated versions of his text. The text flows well. I would say the closest translation to Donougher in terms of style is probably Hapgood. It is certainly as readable as say Denny….
In summary Christine Donougher’s translation of Les Misérables is the best version available in English and I would advise all fans of the novel to buy it. Well done to Penguin for publishing this splendid edition.
16 thoughts on “Les Miserables by Victor Hugo”
I have yet to read this book, though I know the story (at least insofar as the musical was true to the story). I appreciate the recommendation of the Donougher translation–a translation can really make or break a book, and I would never go for an abridged version! I thought your comment about the progress is good theme interesting. A few years ago I finally realized that my own personal vision that life is getting better (despite manifold issues we struggle with) must be based on the massive amount of reading of Victorian lit that I did as a young person, while my brain was still forming. The Enlightenment writers and then the Victorians really saw progress as positive, and I accepted that despite ardently wishing to time-travel back to a pre-industrial world.Congrats on completing this massive, important work and having the wherewithal to compare translations. That's quite something!
The numerous chapters dedicated to Paris' sewers were the real drag for me…but still worth it. A Masterpiece. Congrats (cuz it's also sort of a reader's bucket list item, yes?)
I read and enjoyed Les Mis 3 or 4 years ago. Now I'm going to have to see what translation it was. I'm glad you put that info up, sometimes the process is as interesting as the story.
I think you are almost certainly right that this was Hugo's intention. He was writing this in a way as a response to the Paris Commune and 1848 revolution, and probably deliberately set it earlier, with a far less well-known (and less significant) revolution.
I love this novel so much and I'm thrilled you enjoyed it! Loved your post too, very informative and considered 🙂
I'm with you on the barricades (er, I mean I agree with you) — it was all so pointless. Nothing else seemed dull to me, even Waterloo, the convent and the sewers! But others find this an exciting high point, go figure.It was great to read this book along with others this year. Quite an experience – and now I want to look into the Donogher translation!
Thanks for your thoughtful comments Jane. I've still been mulling over exactly what I meant about Hugo's ideas about progress. I saw his future view as being rather utopian and that there was some sort of inevitable element to it with some good, positive goal at the end.I'm less enthusiastic about this idea. Progress isn't inevitable; it's often chaotic; what seems like a good idea (the industrial revolution and globalisation), can have many negative side effects and what starts off negatively can turn out to have some positive outcomes. Having said all that, I'd still rather be alive now than at any other point in history (even though it would be great if we could just pop back for a visit 🙂
I have since found a website called Human Progress which has some interesting articles.
Yeah, the sewers were not easy for me either, but at least that section finished up with another dramatic/heroic escape scene!
I tend to get a bit obsessive about translations Bill – I find the difference a word can make quite astounding at times.
I think it's safe to say that there was also a sense of nostalgia in play, from Hugo in exile, remembering an earlier Paris fondly.
Thanks Lory, it was a fabulous way to read such a BIG book, in such fine company. I can see how the barricade scenes might make good theatre though – highly condensed that is!
Thank you for including the link to this post in your comments, I really liked the comparison of all the translations. I want to read all your posts as I read Les Mis. And I just made it through the Waterloo section, huzzah!
Congrats! It wasn't an easy section but I ended up getting a lot out of it in the end.