Translation comparisons

Any discussion related to Victor's Hugo's Les Misérables, in any language.

Translation comparisons

Postby Marianne » Tue Jun 10, 2008 4:22 am

There's been a lot of talk about the various English translations of LM and their relative accuracy, readability, etc. Since I have all but the Norman Denny translation, I've started typing up passages from the ones I do own and putting them side-by-side to compare them. (This isn't as much work as it sounds like, since the original and the Hapgood translation are readily available online.)

Here's the first one, which I just did tonight: http://10littlebullets.livejournal.com/380237.html
[Dieu] entend ta voix, ô fille des hommes! aussi bien que celle des constellations; car rien n'est petit pour celui devant lequel rien n'est grand.
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Postby bigR » Tue Jun 10, 2008 5:14 am

Lovely! Thank you.
I going straight to bed right now, but I decidedly will have to pass judgement on this as soon as possible...
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Postby Charlette-Ollie » Tue Jun 10, 2008 5:54 am

Thanks for this, it's great! I think I prefer the Wilbour translation which, incidentally, is available on Google Books here: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=joIPAAAAYAAJ&printsec=titlepage&dq=les+Misérables+wilbour although occasionally it is missing a page and the text is a little difficult to read.
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Postby MmeJavert » Tue Jun 10, 2008 9:02 am

Oh, thank god for Wilbour being online. I don't mind typing out sentences but when I go and type out whole paragraphs (or god help me the entire Ami intros) it gets really tedious. I don't much like the other translations. XD
and to this day, she's glided on
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nothing said, what a waste

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Postby bigR » Wed Jun 11, 2008 2:37 pm

Omg, I've finished reading them I have so many things to say!
Marianne, you're going to kill me if you keep doing this.
I'm going to try to order my thoughs, before posting anything, in oorder to say a couple of things withouth this becoming the longest and most boring review ever.
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Postby cordeliersclub » Wed Aug 13, 2008 12:14 am

So which translation do you recommend to the dilettante? I currently own, in all honesty, the Barnes and Noble Classics version, and a suspiciously small version. I'm looking for something with a lot of text and loads of footnotes, preferably whose translator is very frank with the reader and doesn't pretend to be the only person on Earth able to read French. Just read Marianne's translation comparisons, and I've pretty much ruled out Hapgood because I don't consider "by dint of" to be a real phrase.


What's your favorite/are your favorites? I know MmeJavert likes Wilbour and Aurelia Combeferre recommended MacAfee-Fahnestock.

I wouldn't mind to read a couple at once, either. Thoughts?
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Postby MmeJavert » Wed Aug 13, 2008 12:19 am

I dunno if footnotes are by the translator or by the publisher/editor, in either case my Wilbour is the Modern Library Classics and doesn't have footnotes. Am pretty sure the version I saw in B&N for the Barnes and Noble classics was Wilbour.

I have a shiny French two-volume paperback of the Brick with the best footnotes ever; I got it at a little stall by the Seine the other day. I know, that's not a translation, but it's tangentially related 'cause it's about Bricks with footnotes. :D
and to this day, she's glided on
always home but so far away
like a word misplaced
nothing said, what a waste

~pearl jam, "dissident"
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Postby cordeliersclub » Wed Aug 13, 2008 12:28 am

Oh IS it! I'm at work right now so I can't check to see who the translator is...

I know with my favorite Onegin translation the translator has littered the thing with footnotes like "other translators have suggested for this passage this and that and the other thing, and I made the decision I did for these reasons, and Vladimir Nabakov can rot in hell", and it was a very enjoyable experience for me.

Yes feel free to continue buying Bricks with Footnotes from LITTLE STALLS BY THE SEINE. My potent jealousy notwithstanding that is AMAZING, though.
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Postby Schmerg_The_Impaler » Wed Aug 13, 2008 12:29 am

I usually like the Wilbour translation more, because when I read descriptive passages in anything else, they always seem fragmented and choppy. And sometimes, I get really mad when translations drastically change something-- in the Fahnestock-MacAfee, it says Enjolras is capable of being 'intimidating' rather than 'terrible,' and it says that Javert says, "Mother, you have a beard like a man but claws like a woman." Bleh. They have Éponine call Marius a 'good guy' and have Gavroche call the two little boys 'kiddos,' both of which feel a bit jarring.

But the Fahnestock-MacAfee is sometimes helpful because it translates some of the French that the Wilbour doesn't (and I don't speak a lick of French), most notably the crazy argot, and some of the dialogue seems more natural, at least to me. I like having both on hand.
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Postby MmeJavert » Wed Aug 13, 2008 12:34 am

I tend to prefer Wilbour mostly because he was a contemporary of Hugo's and therefore I tend to believe that he was "closer" to Hugo's original interpretation just by being around him after it was written. It still has its awkward moments and such but I love it anyway.

(French bookshops are awesome, I tell you.)
and to this day, she's glided on
always home but so far away
like a word misplaced
nothing said, what a waste

~pearl jam, "dissident"
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Postby Schmerg_The_Impaler » Wed Aug 13, 2008 12:37 am

Yeah, it's just a lot of dialogue from books from centuries gone by feels a bit antiquated, so even though the Wilbour might have been closer to the dialogue in Hugo's head, sometimes I find the terms they use distracting. I like the prose better in it, though. And like I said, Fahnestock-McAfee butchered some pretty good lines.

This is off-topic, but I just stumbled across this in an old review of the musical Les Misérables from 1985:
"In our penal cells, and in the shame of our streets." pontificated Hugo, "is to be found the stuff of which angels are made." Out of this stuff he shaped his hero, Jean Valjean, ex-convict on the run reclaimed for God by a saintly bishop and pursued for years by the rigid policeman Javert. His conversion is psychologically interesting, but the book declines into a crude cops-and-robbers epic, and drips with sentimentality when Valjean saves and sustains a child waif, daughter of a virtuous but wronged prostitute who dies pathetically on a paupers' bed.

It goes on to talk about how the musical is empty trash, like the book. :lol:
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Postby bigR » Wed Aug 13, 2008 2:31 am

All I know about the translations is what I've been reading on the internet and the little bit I was able to check in I don't know how many bookshops in NY last may. And from what I've seen I would recommend either the Wilbour or the paperback with musical little cosette on the cover that seems to be a modern reversion of Wilbour.

In any other version I have catched huge translation mistakes just by opening the book at any random page (well, maybe it is not a random page. Maybe it always is the ABC introduction chapter...).

Oh, oh, and french editions! Some days ago I found a french footnoted edition on the internet and I wanted to tell you but now I don't seem able to find the url, althought I saved it, brrr...

And cordeliers, really? You like footnoted editions? I would have never guessed :wink:
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Postby Marianne » Wed Aug 13, 2008 7:33 am

Schmerg_The_Impaler wrote:I usually like the Wilbour translation more, because when I read descriptive passages in anything else, they always seem fragmented and choppy. And sometimes, I get really mad when translations drastically change something-- in the Fahnestock-MacAfee, it says Enjolras is capable of being 'intimidating' rather than 'terrible,' and it says that Javert says, "Mother, you have a beard like a man but claws like a woman." Bleh. They have Éponine call Marius a 'good guy' and have Gavroche call the two little boys 'kiddos,' both of which feel a bit jarring.


Usually, the reason a translator would use a drastically different word is because the word in French has different connotations from the English loan word--in English, French loan words and other Latinate borrowings tend to become intensified or a lot more formal than they would be considered in their original language, or they just plain change meaning. (To give a common example, 'demander' in French simply means 'to ask,' not 'to demand.')

On the one hand, ignoring these differences is lazy as sin and makes for a bad translation. On the other hand, it's possible to get overzealous in changing them; sometimes un cigare is just a cigar.
Last edited by Marianne on Wed Aug 13, 2008 10:04 am, edited 1 time in total.
[Dieu] entend ta voix, ô fille des hommes! aussi bien que celle des constellations; car rien n'est petit pour celui devant lequel rien n'est grand.
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Postby Frédéric Dumont » Wed Aug 13, 2008 9:46 am

Does anyone happen to know if there is more than one German translation?
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Postby Schmerg_The_Impaler » Wed Aug 13, 2008 4:19 pm

Usually, the reason a translator would use a drastically different word is because the word in French has different connotations from the English loan word--in English, French loan words and other Latinate borrowings tend to become intensified or a lot more formal than they would be considered in their original language, or they just plain change meaning. (To give a common example, 'demander' in French simply means 'to ask,' not 'to demand.')

Yeah, I guess it's true for every language. I guess I'm just unhappy when I see one of my favourite quotes, and it's different. It makes me feel like "Wait a minute... that's not my quote. Is that wrong? Or is my quote wrong? Dangit, I wish I could speak French."
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