Why the new English translation of Victor Hugo's masterpiece is 100,000 words longer than its best-known predecessor
In the preface to her bold new translation of Les Misérables, Julie Rose states that Victor Hugo wrote his novel “standing in the room he’d nicknamed ‘the lookout’ at the top of Hauteville House, on the isle of Guernsey”. In fact, much of the novel had already been completed when Hugo fled from Paris, disguised as a worker, after Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of December 2, 1851. A bulky manuscript titled “Les Misères”, begun in 1845, had survived the invasion of Hugo’s house by insurgents in 1848, and then the flight of the banished author to Brussels, London, Jersey and, finally, Guernsey. It was in the sun-baked, wind-blasted “look-out” that “Les Misères” ballooned into the ten-volume epic that Hugo called “the social and historical drama of the nineteenth century”. Les Misérables was published from April 3 to June 30, 1862, by which time nine translations were nearing completion and twenty-one unauthorized editions were in print.
Hugo had demanded an unusually rapid rate of publication because, as he told his Belgian publisher, Albert Lacroix, the book must be judged as a whole: “This book is a mountain: it is impossible to measure it or even to see it properly except at a distance”.
It is a pity that this new translation does not include a history of the novel’s composition. The fact that the writing of Les Misérables straddled almost two decades accounts for its sheer size, the extraordinary range of idioms and the kaleidoscopic vision of the sporadically omniscient narrator. At times, the story of the reformed convict Jean Valjean seems to sag with the weight of Hugo’s confusing experience. Certain passages can appear cluttered and obscure on a first reading. “Geniuses are disconcerting”, said Hugo. “Their comings and goings in the ideal world give one vertigo . . . . They have a telescope in one eye and a microscope in the other.”
Faced with this “mountain”, many of Hugo’s English translators have been tempted to smooth away some of the rubble-strewn digressions and weird outcrops of metaphor for the comfort of their readers. Some early translators excised what they saw as obscenities; others tried to tailor Hugo’s political views to their audience. The “Confederate” edition of 1863, intended as an improvement of C. E. Wilbour’s “Yankee” edition, struck out all references to slavery. (According to one of Hugo’s early American bibliographers, few perfect copies of this edition remain because they were “read to pieces by the soldiers”.) “I am, to my knowledge”, says Rose in her preface, “one of the few translators to have rendered all of Hugo’s magnificent novel without censorship.” (She might have mentioned the unabridged Signet Classics translation published in 1987 by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the Wilbour translation of 1862.) Norman Denny, whose translation of Les Misérables was published by Penguin Classics in 1980, and which is probably the translation that most English readers know, did so much smoothing that, even including the two sections on convents and slang that he turned into appendices, his version is still 100,000 words shorter than Rose’s.
“It is now generally recognized”, wrote Denny, “that the translator’s first concern must be with his author’s intention, not with the words he uses or with the way he uses them”. Most of his elisions are surreptitious – confusing images, eccentric aphorisms, strings of apparently superfluous adjectives. He does, however, confess to pruning Hugo’s dizzyingly detailed chapter, “L'Année 1817”, in which the “physiognomy” of the period is constructed out of a hundred or so seemingly miscellaneous facts: imperial Ns were scratched off the face of the Louvre; a steamboat sailed up the Seine and left Parisians unimpressed; little boys were made to wear enormous leather caps with earflaps; Chateaubriand cleaned his teeth at the window of 27 rue Saint-Dominique every morning while dictating La Monarchie selon la Charte; and so on. According to Denny, nearly all the apparently unrelated facts that make up the chapter are “of no great importance”. Evidently, their interrelatedness escaped him, and he chose to ignore Hugo’s concluding remark, which provides a clue to his megalomaniac ambition as a novelist: “History neglects almost all these little details, and cannot do otherwise: it would be engulfed by the infinite” (“l’infini l'envahirait”). Preferring a more conventional and consoling notion, Denny translates the last phrase as “the larger scenes absorbs them”, which is not at all the same thing.
These teeming worlds of subtly coordinated detail are, as Adam Thirlwell points out in his introduction to Rose’s translation, in some ways the whole point of the novel. Who can say what matters and what doesn’t? Is there an underlying pattern, or can all the trivia of human existence be safely edited out of history and sent to the oubliettes like the misérables of society? Tutting and lopping his way through Hugo’s novel like the tidy-minded restorer of a Gothic cathedral, Denny is exactly the sort of scholar against whom Hugo had been writing since the days of Hernani. “Manuals, out of concern with the contagious diseases that lurk in genius, advise temperance, moderation, ‘common sense’ and the art of not saying too much. They recommend writers who have been expurgated, pruned, trimmed and regulated.”
Despite his reputation for unconscious self-parody, Hugo knew how ridiculous his whale-like processing of the “infinite minutiae” would appear. Like any good storyteller, he was prepared to be laughed at, and played along with his audience. (“To appear mad is the secret of the sage”, he wrote in William Shakespeare.) Not only does the novel begin with the biography of a bishop “that has no connection whatsoever with the substance of our tale”, it continues to digress almost to the very end. “Here, a short digression is necessary”, says Hugo in the antepenultimate, 358th chapter. This mischievous inexhaustibility is one of the charms of the narrator. “History of Corinth from its Foundation” is the title of the first chapter of the twelfth book of Part Four. (“Corinthe” turns out to be the name of a tavern.) His expansiveness, and the repeated probing of simple details until, wearing thin, they collapse into vast, sewer-like domains of unsuspected moral truth, are evident in the smallest quirks of Hugo’s syntax, and this is where Rose’s translation gives a sharper taste of Hugo’s chatty, disputatious and cranky style than Denny’s. Here are their respective versions of the opening of the section on sewers, “L’Intestin de Léviathan”. Rose’s version follows the syntax of the original much more closely:
Paris pours twenty-four [sic] million francs a year into the water. That is no metaphor. She does so by day and by night, thoughtlessly and to no purpose. She does so through her entrails, that is to say, her sewers. (Denny)
Paris throws twenty-five million a year into the sea. And that is not a metaphor. How, and in what way? Day and night. With what aim? With no aim. With what thought? With no thought. What for? For nothing. By means of what organ? By means of its bowels. What do you mean, its bowels? Its sewers. (Rose)
Rose, who found translating Hugo “a very physical challenge”, involving long walks with her dog and the hiring of an occupational therapist, has tried to avoid the gentility and prissiness of some of her predecessors and to give an impression of Hugo’s demotic vigour. Instead of being “a thirty-year-old, ill-preserved rake” (Denny) or “a high liver, thirty years old, and in poor shape” (Fahnestock and MacAfee), Rose’s Tholomyès is “a wasted high roller of thirty” (“un viveur de trente ans, mal conservé”). Denny’s Cravatte, the bandit, is “an intrepid rogue”; Rose’s is “a brazen bastard” (“un hardi misérable”). Sometimes, the attempt misfires, as when Rose has Napoleon call Wellington “that little British git”, which is doubly improbable (cf “ce petit Anglais”), or when she calls the “gargote” run by Cosette’s horrible foster parents “a greasy spoon”. (The greasiness of a wooden spoon was hardly the defining characteristic of a sordid tavern in the early nineteenth century.) No doubt a good translator of Hugo has to take risks. Les Misérables is riddled with puns, which implicate language itself in the search for underlying patterns. Rose misses quite a few of these, or leaves them unexplained, but she is surely right to translate the chapter title “Buvard, bavard” (the blotting-pad on which Jean Valjean reads Cosette’s message to Marius) as “A Blabber of a Blotter”, where Denny prefers the bland “The Treacherous Blotter”.
If anyone ever tries to compose a super-translation of Les Misérables from all existing English versions, Rose’s would provide some excellent phrases. Too often, however, her translation adds its own strangeness to Hugo’s eccentricity. “A fromage frais”, served to the convict Valjean, is just about defensible for “un fromage frais”, but it strikes an odd note as part of a rugged repast. There are many literalisms, gallicisms and unfortunate formulations such as “The bowels of Paris are bottomless” (for “L’intestin de Paris est un précipice”). The attempt to render the antiquated patois of Marius’s grandfather makes him sound like a badly programmed robot: “She is exquisite, this little cutie. She is a masterpiece, this Cosette here! She is very much the ingénue and very much the grande dame at once . . . . Now those are what I call eyelashes for you! My children, get it into your thick noggins that this is for real”. This edition includes more than a hundred pages of useful and accurate notes by James Madden, which the translator must not have seen. Madden knows, for instance, that the Duke of Clarence was drowned in a butt of malmsey rather than in “a tun of marsala” (“une tonne de malvoisie”), and that the “sacre” of Charles X was his coronation rather than his “consecration”.
As millions of poorly educated readers of Les Misérables could attest, Hugo’s French is not particularly difficult, which makes the obvious errors of interpretation all the more surprising. At the very beginning of the novel, when Hugo says that the tale of the Bishop of Digne “ne touche en aucune manière au fond même de ce que nous avons à raconter”, Rose misreads both “fond” and “même” and translates thus: “has no bearing whatsoever on the tale we have to tell – not even on the background”. A “boudoir meublé d’X en satin bleu ciel” cannot be “done out by X in sky blue satin” (the boudoir was furnished with cross-legged stools). Marius was not “fierce” with pretty girls but “shy” (“farouche”). “These rays of dawn are sometimes soft to ruins” is a misreading of the common expression “être doux à”. “Misère” and “misérable” are sometimes translated “misery” and “miserable” when the context clearly indicates poverty.
Les Misérables has survived worse translations. Its latest translator is at least an enthusiast, and, as Hugo says, “paper is very patient”. Materially, this edition is preferable to the cramped Signet Classics edition. The pages open nicely, and two of Hugo’s paintings adorn the endpapers. It weighs two kilograms, which gives a vivid impression of what Robert Louis Stevenson felt when reading Hugo’s masterpiece: “the deadly weight of civilization to those who are below”.