Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Abridged Abolitionism

Years ago I saw a mention of Les Misérables being popular with Confederate soldiers, who were nicknamed “Lee’s Miserables.” I thought it odd that people fighting a war to preserve slavery would have liked a book about how you shouldn’t treat people horribly even if they’re on the lower rungs of society.

As I reread the book, I found it even stranger, since the the rare times America is mentioned, it’s to approve of the revolution or to condemn slavery. Thénardier, the one major character who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, moves to America after he leaves Paris to become a slave trader. More pointedly, Hugo praises John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, only three years before the novel’s publication and very much in the national consciousness as one of the events building up to the Civil War. What did they think of those references?

Well…

As I was putting the finishing touches on my list of links to English translations of the book yesterday, I decided to check Wikipedia on Les Mis to see if there were any other translations that I didn’t know about. It turns out there was one more:

An 1863 edition published in Richmond that “fixed” the “Yankee” translation from the previous year.

Ugh.

“Some Translations of Les Misérables” (Olin H. Moore*) explains that the 1863 “Richmond Edition” was based on Charles Wilbour’s 1862 translation, allegedly to correct the translation of French idioms (which they apparently did, at least in the first volume). But they also made some cuts. The article quotes from the editor’s preface to the edition:

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.

What, slavery is supposed to be off-topic because the book’s only about European oppression? You’re telling me you can’t generalize a book that starts by describing its intent to discuss universal truths?

I shouldn’t be surprised, but FFS!

*Modern Language Notes, vol. 74, no. 3, 1959

Posted in About the Project by Kelson Vibber, January 5, 2021

Tagged: translation · america