Janet reads Les Mis: translating is complicated

Unofficial subtitle of this post: let’s stick to the introduction for now, shall we?

Hi! Janet here. This is the first of what will probably be four posts on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (the edition* I’m reading is 1232 pages, so probably is the most definite I can be right now). If you can’t resist VH’s particular brand of misery and gore, or for whatever reason, my sarcasm, there’s more on our tumblr account.

I know both too much about Les Mis and too little. I know roughly what happens, because I’ve heard the music (all? most of? I don’t know), can sing snatches of most of the songs (believe me, “Master of the House” goes from amusing to downright grating after a while), and I saw a high school production of the musical when I was, like, nine. What I really remember from that production is that the guy who played Javert had the most beautiful voice of all the cast, so I have a lingering fondness for him. (Unless it was Jean Valjean who had the most beautiful voice. It’s been more than a decade, okay?) And tumblr, thanks ever so much, has spoiled Certain Important Items, like the deaths of Certain Characters. I’ve wept buckets for them and we haven’t even met yet.


So all in all, I was pretty relieved to read the translator’s Introduction and find that Norman Denny (the translator) is a pretty funny guy. He manages to praise and insult Victor Hugo on the same page, and laud Les Mis while remaining aware of its defects. He has studied not only the text itself (multiple variations thereof) but its reception throughout the years since its publication, and Victor Hugo’s life and other bricks achievements. He is also aware (very aware) of the pitfalls awaiting the unwary or thoughtless translator.

In short: he knows Les Mis backwards and forwards. More to the point, he has Opinions.

The defects which the [early critics] saw, and which no one can fail to see, since they are monumental as the book itself, may be summed up on the single word, extravagance. Hugo, although as the final result shows he was masterly in the construction of his novel, 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. The book is loaded down with digressions, interpolated discussions, passages of moralizing rhetoric and pedagogical disquisitions. (Introduction, p. 9)

This is a magnificently sweeping critique. It certainly explains the size of the brick book. Perhaps this is why Les Mis succeeds so well as a musical – all the pointless blather narrative excesses are necessarily excised, leaving only intense emotions and lyrical prose, both of which do very well on stage.

This is a scene from the 2004 film of Phantom of the Opera, which was based on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which was based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Denny offers explanations for the overwhelming number of pages: the book was written over nearly twenty years; Hugo’s own politics changed during that time; France changed; Hugo researched meticulously (even if he then got the facts wrong in the book). And he offers a explanation for the changes he makes to the text.

He also notes his approach to translation. At the time of his work, there were three English translations of the novel.

… the translator, conscientiously observing the principles of translation at the time, … 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. It reads, in short, like a translation… (Introduction, p. 11)

Denny’s approach to translation is that the resulting text must, above all, be readable. It must capture the author’s intention, the nuances of the original. All well and good. But here is where Denny edges into riskier territory.

The translator (and here I am referring specifically to myself and Les Misérables) can, I maintain, do something to remedy [the text’s] defects without falsifying the book, if he will nerve himself to treat Hugo not as a museum piece or a sacred cow but as the author of a very great novel which is still living, still relevant to life, and which deserves to be read. He can ‘edit’ – that is to say abridge, tone down the rhetoric, even delete where the passage in question is merely an elaboration of what has already been said. (Introduction, p. 12)

That is a large claim. All translation is interpretation and, necessarily, an edited version of the original. Denny seems, however, to embrace the role of editor with alarming enthusiasm. To be fair to Norman Denny, his rationale and the most significant of the changes he has made are laid out plainly in the introduction. To be fair to Victor Hugo, no two people are ever going to agree on what exact changes to make to a text of this rambling nature and impressive length. Are the changes justified? I do not know. I cannot read the original French (and there is debate about even that text) and, short of acquiring all the major English translations and reading them side by side, I have no way of determining to what extent Denny (or any translator) has altered the text, and to what effect.

I am, in short, utterly at the mercy of the translator. It is an uncomfortable feeling.

Still. Based on the introduction, I am amused by admire and respect this particular translator. I like that he is open about his perspective, his goals, and his changes to the text. And I really do want to read this book.**

This foreword is unavoidable if the reader is to know exactly what he is getting – not a photograph but a slightly modified version of Hugo’s novel designed to bring its great qualities into clearer relief by thinning out, but never completely eliminating, its lapses. It must stand or fall not but its literal accuracy, although I profoundly hope that I have been guilty of no major solecisms, but by its faithfulness to the spirit of Victor Hugo. He was above all things, and at all times, a poet. If the fact is not apparent to the English reader then this rendering of his work must be said to have failed. (Introduction, p. 13)


* My library has the Penguin 2012 version, which uses Norman Denny’s 1976 translation.

** If there is a translation that is just to die for, though – let me know! Or a translation to avoid.