So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Any discussion related to Victor's Hugo's Les Misérables, in any language.
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So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby deHavilland » Sat Mar 30, 2013 4:51 am

I’ve noticed a lot of people wondering recently what translation they should be reading for their first time through the Brick and while I wouldn’t presume to foist my own opinion on the matter on anyone – at least not in a masterpost thread like this one – I thought, hey, maybe a quick guide about what you should expect and what people have to say regarding each one wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

Herein I shall attempt to present a quick guide to the various translations in as unbiased a light as possible.


BUT WHY SHOULD I CARE WHAT TRANSLATION I’M READING?

... well, if you don’t care, then I guess it doesn’t matter! Read forth, young hodman! Carry your Brick(s) with pride!

But otherwise, there’s a couple reasons why taking note of the translation can be an interesting (or frustrating) endeavour. Over the years, Les Mis has been majorly translated into English no less than seven times, with rumors of additional translations coming down the pipeline. Between these there’s editions that are distinctly faithful to Hugo’s original work, and ones that strive to be faithful to the plot and character elements, but update the language to be more easily managed by today’s readers.

In the long run, it depends on what’s most important to you. Are you more concerned about getting the authentic Hugo experience despite not being able to read French? Or are you looking to read the Brick for the sake of having read the Brick and aren’t especially bothered by whether a couple words are swapped around to be more or less flowery?


THE TRANSLATIONS

Victor Hugo A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie, 1862.

Presented here with links to the original French text.
Online: (volume 1) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17489/17 ... 7489-h.htm, (volume 2) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17493/17 ... 7493-h.htm, (volume 3) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17494/17 ... 7494-h.htm, (volume 4) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17518/17 ... 7518-h.htm, (volume 5) http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17519/17 ... 7519-h.htm


Charles E. Wilbour, New York: Carleton Publishing Company, June 1862 and George Routledge and Sons, 1879.

- This was the first copy of the Brick available in English for American audiences. The first volume (Fantine) was available in New York within months of the first instalments being published in France.
- The Wilbour is noted as being the most accurate and faithful English translation to-date, though he did not do any footnotes.
- In the case of Hugo’s puns, Wilbour gives his best attempt to present them in an understandable manner, often giving both the French and the English rather than a direct translation. Though there are a couple that he misses.
- Like the original text, the Wilbour translation is in the public domain and is typically easy to find and cheap to procure as a recent publication.
- The less fancy version of the book (with a paper cover) was a whopping 50 cents when it first came out, while the fancier (cloth-bound) edition was $1.00.
- Fun Facts about Wilbour: He was devoted to the study of Egyptology and accidentally purchased a very valuable bit of papyrus. Its value wasn’t discovered until after his death when it was found among his belongings. He was 29 when he translated Les Mis, what have you done lately?

Read Wilbour if... you’re looking for what’s considered to be the most faithful translation and you don’t mind dealing with some slightly more archaic language.
Online: (volumes 1, 2, and 3) http://archive.org/details/lesmiserablesnov01hugoiala, (volume 4) http://books.google.ca/books?id=Tlc6AQA ... &q&f=false, (volume 5) http://books.google.ca/books?id=pqgxAQA ... &q&f=false


Lascelles Wraxall, London: Hurst and Blackett, October 1862.

- This was the first copy of the Brick available in English for British audiences. It came out several months after both the original French and the American edition, but still within the same year of publication.
- Wraxall is the only translator to correctly translate “Oreste à jeun et Pylade ivre” as “Orestes Sober and Pylades Drunk.” (Over the more popular “Orestes Fasting.”)
- In several instances, Wraxall avoids the tricky business of translating some of Hugo’s puns. For example, in the chapter describing each of the students, Hugo writes of Joly, “tu peux t’enoler sur quatre L.” Wilbour gives us “you can fly on four L’s,” with a note that explains the joke (L’s sounding like ailes, wings). Wraxall omits the pun completely. In some cases, he simply translates the pun without giving an explanation. Hugo says “les cygnes comprennent les signes” which Wilbour presents as “cygnes (swans) understand signes (signs)” to give the reader the idea that a pun is at play here. Wraxall only translates it as “swans understand signs” and gives no further explanation.
- Fun Facts about Wraxall: He was a “third baronet and a miscellaneous writer.” The Wraxall baronetcy was created for this Wraxall’s grandfather in 1813 of Wraxall in the County of Somerset. He served in the Turkish contingent of the Crimean War. Despite being British, he was born in France.

Read Wraxall if... you want a reasonably accurate copy but you can’t find the Wilbour or the Fahnestock/McAfee.
Online: (volume 1) http://archive.org/details/lesmisrables10hugogoog, (volume 2) http://archive.org/details/lesmisrables15hugogoog, (volume 3) http://archive.org/details/lesmisrables18hugogoog, (volume 4) http://archive.org/details/lesmisrables09hugogoog, (volume 5) http://archive.org/details/lesmisrables13hugogoog


“A.F.,” also known as the “Richmond Translation,Richmond, Virginia: West and Johnson Publishers, 1863.

- Professor A. Dimitry is cited as being the translator of this edition up to “page 49,” at which point “the pressure of other engagements” forced him to be replaced by “A.F.” This later translator is never further identified.
- In the editor’s preface at the start of this edition, it’s stated that its predecessor, the Wilbour translation, “is disfigured by numerous errors and misapprehensions of peculiar French idioms, some of them even of a ludicrous nature.”
- This edition was meant to be more complete, but omits “several long, and... rather rambling disquisitions... exclusively intended for the French readers of the book.” (According to the editor’s preface.) Specifically: “a few scattered sentences reflecting on slavery – which the author, with strange inconsistency, has thought fit to introduce into a work written mainly to denounce the European systems of labor as gigantic instruments of tyranny and oppression – it has also been deemed advisable to strike out... the absence of a few antislavery paragraphs will hardly be complained of by Southern readers.”
- This edition appeared in the midst of the US Civil War, which would explain the editor’s reluctance to include any slavery-related writings. Additional, the Southern readers weren’t all that impressed with the omissions and frequently wrote in to complain that there were pages missing.
- This translation allegedly does handle the puns better than either Wilbour or Wraxall, however.
- Due to paper shortages during the war, the omitted passages started to get longer with each volume and the mysterious A.F. began to rely more heavily on Wilbour.
- This is the copy most Confederate soldiers read on the battlefield. It cost them about $2.00 per volume, with each volume being published and made available separately.

Read the Richmond if... you’re interested in seeing the way it was packaged for the Confederate army. Much of the text is lifted from the Wilbour, with some updates to the translations of the puns and idioms, but beware the omissions.
Online: (volume 1) http://ia600505.us.archive.org/2/items/ ... 01hugo.pdf, (volume 2) http://ia700505.us.archive.org/2/items/ ... 02hugo.pdf, (volume 3) http://ia700505.us.archive.org/18/items ... 03hugo.pdf, (volume 4) http://ia600503.us.archive.org/8/items/ ... 04hugo.pdf, (volume 5) http://ia700503.us.archive.org/23/items ... 05hugo.pdf


Isabel Florence Hapgood, 1887.

- The Hapgood is noted for using fairly formal language throughout, and some have described it as being clunkier than its predecessors.
- Along with Les Misérables, Hapgood also translated Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Toilers of the Sea.
- Fun Facts about Hapgood: She once spent several weeks with Leo Tolstoy at his country estate and is honored with a feast day (June 26) in the Episcopalian calendar.

Read the Hapgood if... you’re looking for an easily available copy. Most of the online versions and eBooks tend to be Hapgood. (Though it’s more difficult to find if you’re looking to buy a physical copy of it.)
Online: http://www.online-literature.com/victor ... iserables/


Norman Denny, Folio Press, 1976.

- Denny’s translation is intended as a “modern British translation.”
- Though many people have praised this edition’s phrasing and word choice, the fact that small abridgements are made here and there is often very off-putting to those who want to ensure they’ve a complete and intact translation.
- In his introduction, he explains that he has placed two of the novel’s longer digressive passages into appendices and made some minor abridgements to the text.
- He also says “there are three earlier English renderings of Hugo’s novel, of which I have seen only one. I shall not disclose which one, or make any comment except to say that I found it very heavy going. It was made at the turn of the century and the translator, conscientiously observing the principles of translation at that time, has made a brave attempt to follow Hugo in the smallest detail, almost literally word for word. The result is something that is not English, not Hugo and, it seems to me, scarcely readable,” and refers to Hugo as “the most exasperating of writers – long-winded, extravagant in his use of words, sprawling and self-indulgent.”
Fun Fact: Not a lot is known about Denny, whose translation was published when he was 75. He wrote juvenile fiction as Norman Dale, but the bulk of his writings were some 50 translations from French or (less frequently) German.

Read the Denny if... you’re looking for a more manageable copy to read but don’t mind the cuts. The writing is easier on the modern day reader, though it does retain much of the original gravitas, and the abridgements make it a little bit shorter than your average Brick, if you aren’t concerned with that sort of thing.


Lee Fahnestock and Norman McAfee, Signet Classics, March 1987.

- Another modern translation, the Fahnestock and McAfee (often abbreviated to F/M) is based on the Wilbour, but with the intention to update the language a little bit to make it easier on modern readers.
- Most commentary on the translation suggests that it’s done its job well, the language is more manageable but Wilbour’s accuracy remains intact.
- Any of the songs that Hugo put in the original are presented in French rather than translated, as previous editions have done, the English is available in footnotes.
Fun Facts about F/M: Lee Fahnestock is a woman! At last record, she was at work on an extended study of Hugo’s Paris. The pair have also translated the letters of Jean Paul Sartre together.

Read the F/M if... you want the same kind of accuracy you can get out of the Wilbour, but are looking for something a little bit easier to read language-wise.


Julie Rose, Vintage Classics, 2007.

- The most recent of the modern translations, the Rose comes with a detailed biographical sketch of Hugo’s life, a chronology and several notes regarding the text.
- Like F/M and Denny, Rose strives to update the text with more manageable language and like the Denny, is considered by many to have decent flow, though there are no random abridgements.
- Rose goes a little further than the previous modern translations in her updating. Some of the phrases are downright 20th/21st century, with wording like “greasy spoon,” and “high roller” dotted throughout. Most notable is the “Orestes Fasting (Sober), Pylades Drunk” where rather than translating Grantaire’s final words as “do you permit it?” Rose uses the hyper-modern, “All right with you?”
- She also nullifies a number of the more ambiguously homoerotic phrasing; rather than clutch hands at the barricade, Combeferre and Jehan merely shake hands, Marius doesn’t come to Courfeyrac’s to “sleep with [him]” and Joly is no longer “the gayest.”

Read the Rose if... You’re looking for a copy of the Brick that’s been translated not only into English but into fairly modern dialect. If you feel challenged by the more archaic phrasing of previous translations, this one might be for you.


SO WHY SO MANY TRANSLATIONS?

Essentially this comes down to the fact that none of the translators can agree with each other on what’s been translated. The Wilbour and Wraxall translations may have been separated by geography. An American publishing house would employ an American translator and a British publishing house, a British one. The Richmond (A.F.) translation exists to “correct” the Wilbour and the Hapgood probably exists for similar reasons. When you get into the more recent translations, there was a call for something a little easier for modern day audiences to read, first presented by the Denny and then by F/M to make up for the abridgements. And lastly, the Rose, some twenty years after the F/M to do another language update.


HELP! I DON’T KNOW WHICH VERSION I AM READING!

There’s a couple things you can do in this instance, assuming of course that you can’t just flip to the front of the book to see which translator is responsible. Shortest trick is to take a quick look-see at the table of contents, you’ll be able to tell pretty quickly if it’s abridged or not. But once you’ve determined that what you’re holding seems to be mostly whole and complete, here’s how to figure out the translation.

Step 1: Flip to page one!

Step 2: Use the following list to identify your Brick!

"In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was a man of seventy-five and had occupied the bishopric of Digne since 1806." -- Wilbour

"In 1815 Monsieur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was then about seventy-five and had presided over the diocese of Digne since 1806" – Fahnestock/McAfee

"In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of Digne since 1806." -- Hapgood

"In 1815, Monsieur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was an elderly man of about seventy-five and had occupied the seat of Digne since 1806." -- Rose

"In 1815 Monseigneur Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was then about seventy-five, having held the bishopric since 1806." – Denny

“In 1815, Mr. Charles Francois Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was a man of seventy-five, and had occupied the see of Digne since 1806.” – A.F./Richmond

Step 3. Commit the shorthand to memory:
Wilbour: “bishopric of Digne” <-- Bishop of Digne, original translation.
F/M: “diocese of Digne” <-- Diocese of Digne, building on the original.
Hapgood: “see of Digne” <-- “see” is archaic, like most of Hapgood.
Rose: “seat of Digne” <-- “seat” is a modern update, like Rose’s translation.
Denny: “held the bishopric” <-- Denny cut out “of Digne” like how he abridges randomly.
Richmond: “Mr. Charles Francois Bienvenu Myriel” <-- very American, like the Confederate army


I tried to keep this fairly unbiased, but feel free to put your own opinions in the comments!
Last edited by deHavilland on Sun Mar 31, 2013 1:32 am, edited 6 times in total.
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby Acaila » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:01 am

Epic post is epic! :D
And very fair I think actually, from my own experience and opinions at least.
Some excellent research here - I liked the notes about the de-gaying! I've only read bits of the Julie Rose so that's new to me! (and a reason to avoid. Homoeroticism is an integral part of the experience for me! :D)
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby deHavilland » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:09 am

My favorite thing, I think, is how heavy-handed Denny is in his little introduction. You're not winning any hearts there bashing the author of the book whoever's holding it is about to read, Denny. Just because you think you're better doesn't mean you can tout yourself out to everyone, lolol.
"Quand vous aurez besoin de Bahorel, capitaine, Bahorel est là! Je sais faire trébucher tous les chevaux du garde-corps avec une ficelle... Rien qu'une petite ficelle. Enfin, pensez à Bahorel du Café Musain!"

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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby Lamarque-is-Dead » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:12 am

deHavilland wrote:- Wraxall is the only translator to correctly translate “Oreste à jeun et Pylade ivre” as “Orestes Sober and Pylades Drunk.” (Over the more popular “Orestes Fasting.” Legitimately, Hugo couldn’t have been more clear about saying “sober,” not sure where everyone’s getting “fasting” from.)


Interesting. For some reason I like "fasting" better -- just makes for a more interesting comparison, I guess.

I've only read the Hapgood, but I definitely want to check out other translations. Thanks for this! :mrgreen:
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby deHavilland » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:16 am

lol, looking back on the quote you've now embedded, I feel I should clarify that it does make sense to use "fasting," but "sober" is the more obvious translation. What I meant was more "I don't know why they went with that over "sober" which make substantially more sense even if you lose a little bit of the wordplay." lolol. But yeah!
Last edited by deHavilland on Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:39 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby Acaila » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:24 am

Yeah, I've never really understood why fasting :?
When you told me before about the sober thing I was really surprised, because it seems a far more obvious word choice. The whole point is that Grantaire is the opposite of Enjolras and the opposite of drunk is sober. Plus ivre in French has the connotation of drunk on an ideal, and sober can be used in the non-drinking sense and seems to fit well with Enjolras' character and reactions in that chapter.
By comparison, what does Fasting really add?
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby deHavilland » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:53 am

Overall, the "à jeun" is a bit of wordplay. The idea of the chapter being that Enjolras walks into what's definitely his death completely clear-headed (one meaning), literally without having eaten all day (another meaning) and sober compared to Grantaire's drunkenness (third meaning) is served by the word in all three cases. It's when you translate it into English that you run into the issue because there isn't a word that encompasses quite all of these things. So, Wilbour went with fasting, which I guess fills the idea of he's willfully not eaten, not imbibed and remains calm despite the dire circumstance, if you dig deeply enough into it. And because Wilbour used it, everyone else did.

Except Wraxall. Because sober makes more sense. Even in English, it makes more sense. You're sober, you're clear-headed. You maybe lose the joke of the not-having-eaten, but I think it's a minor loss in comparison.

An insurgent hailed Enjolras.

"We are hungry here. Are we really going to die like this, without anything to eat?"

Enjolras, who was still leaning on his elbows at his embrasure, made an affirmative sign with his head, but without taking his eyes from the end of the street.
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby Acaila » Sat Mar 30, 2013 5:56 am

For me, sober fits two of those definitions and fasting only fits one. And democracy rules :D
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby YoungStudentMarius » Sat Mar 30, 2013 6:00 am

*Takes a minute to just sit in an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude at This Post* :shock:

Geronimo, I cannot thank you enough. That was fantastic, and very, very helpful and interesting. You've done this fandom a favor. :mrgreen:

That's all very interesting, though. I love the little personal anecdotes about the translators. It does feed into their writing, so I guess it makes the whole thing make more sense.

Personally, I prefer fasting. :oops: But that's just my opinion, and probably not a very educated one at that; it just struck me differently, and had a greater impact on me personally than sober did.
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby deHavilland » Sat Mar 30, 2013 6:04 am

Admittedly, what I like about the word fasting is that it says he's doing it willfully. It's not that he's not-eaten because he had nothing to eat, he's not-eaten because he intentionally prevented himself from eating anything. He's not drunk because he has chosen not to drink. (Though sober, when you strip away the "at this moment, I am physically sober" part of the adjective can also mean "I am sober - I do not drink ever.")

Also, yay, thanks, Marius! Hope you enjoy!
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby macaron » Sat Mar 30, 2013 3:35 pm

Havs, this is amazing! :mrgreen:

I don't think I was aware that Rose took out the homoerotic phrasings. That's just not right. Joly should always be the gayest of them all.

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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby Enjolvert » Sat Mar 30, 2013 3:58 pm

Very good post. I've read the Rose one and while I can't compare it to any others, I felt it was definitely a good read. For someone who's no literary major, I was able to cope with reading it but at the same time didn't feel like anything was lost in that feeling of the book being a brilliant epic.

Whenever I get round to re-reading it though, I think I might try out the Wilbour one due to it's accuracy.

Also, there's an online website which has lots of classic books available to read on it and I can't remember it's name, but Les Mis is on it. Does anyone know the website and if they do then does anyone know which translation is on it?
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby macaron » Sat Mar 30, 2013 4:05 pm

Enjolvert wrote:Also, there's an online website which has lots of classic books available to read on it and I can't remember it's name, but Les Mis is on it. Does anyone know the website and if they do then does anyone know which translation is on it?

Do you mean The Literature Network, perhaps? If so, their version is Hapgood. :)

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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby Enjolvert » Sat Mar 30, 2013 4:33 pm

macaron wrote:
Enjolvert wrote:Also, there's an online website which has lots of classic books available to read on it and I can't remember it's name, but Les Mis is on it. Does anyone know the website and if they do then does anyone know which translation is on it?

Do you mean The Literature Network, perhaps? If so, their version is Hapgood. :)


Yes, that was the one. :D
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Re: So, Let’s Talk About Translations

Postby Acaila » Sat Mar 30, 2013 7:33 pm

It's the Hapgood on Project Gutenberg as well :)
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