Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

Finding a Specific eBook Translation

Les Misérables has been translated many times over the century and a half since Victor Hugo completed it, and each translation has a different tone and experience. The early translations tend to stick closer to Hugo’s text, but they’re also translated into 19th-century English with its own literary style. Newer translations take different approaches. I’ve read the Denny and Donougher translations myself, and spot-checked passages in a few of the others. If you’re trying to decide which one to read, check out Marva Barnett’s recommendations and these discussions at at Owlcation, GoodReads and Quora.

Unfortunately, figuring out which translation you’re getting when buying an eBook can be tricky. Stores don’t always include the translator on the listing. They’ll mix reviews from different translations. Sometimes they’ll link a print copy of one translation to an ebook of another one. Plus since the original novel and early translations are in the public domain, the market is flooded with a lot of editions using the Wilbour and Hapgood translations.

And then you have to figure out whether the copy you’re getting is abridged or unabridged!

Nineteenth Century

The original French and early translations into English are now in the public domain, and you can find several of them on Project Gutenberg in multiple formats (Mobi, EPUB, HTML, etc) suitable for reading on a computer, phone, tablet, or various e-readers.

Victor Hugo’s Original French (1862)

The original is available on Project Gutenberg in five parts: Tome 1, Tome 2, Tome 3, Tome 4, Tome 5.

Charles Wilbour (1862)

Sepia portrait photo of Victor Hugo with a light green sidebar.Wilbour’s translation is not available on Project Gutenberg, but a lot of modern publishers use it for their text. The Modern Library edition seems to be consistent across a lot of stores: Kobo, Kindle, Google Play, Apple Books, eBooks.com.

Lascelles Wraxall (1862)

Wraxall’s translation is available in five parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Isabel F. Hapgood (1887)

Hapgood’s translation is another one used by a lot of modern publishers who want to use a public domain text. Hers is also available on Project Gutenberg in one volume.

Modern Translations

The late 20th and early 21st century translations are still in copyright, so it’s sometimes easier to search by publisher than by translator. I’ve looked up direct links at some of the major ebook stores.

Norman Denny (1976?, Penguin Classics)

Painting of a crowd in front of the Arc de Triomphe, with a black band at the bottom of the cover for the title and author.Denny attempts to streamline things for readability. I’ve read this one twice, including the first round of detailed commentary on this site. It was released digitally in 2012, as a tie-in to the movie musical, but is no longer available. You can still find older print copies of this translation, such as this paperback on Amazon.

Lee Fahnestock and Norman Macafee (1987, Signet Classics)

Gray background with the same Little Cosette and tricolor flag image and font used for the musical.Fahnestock and Macafee aim for an updated text that still preserves Hugo’s style. Kobo, Kindle, Nook, Google Play, Apple Books, eBooks.com

Julie Rose (2008, Modern Library Classics)

A drawing of a white candle on a yellow candlestick with drip pan on a table in front of a window with a dark blue night sky behind it.Rose makes an effort to really modernize the language. Some readers have said that it’s more readable, but off-putting. Kobo, Kindle, Nook, Google Play, Apple Books, eBooks.com

Christine Donougher (2013, Penguin Classics)

A mostly black and white drawing of a woman waving an impossibly long red banner against a white backdrop, with Parisian buildings and flames in the distance. A black band at the bottom contains the title and author.Donougher modernizes and streamlines the language while still preserving Hugo’s style and wit. I read this one for the second round of commentary and liked it better than the Denny translation. (The first edition translated the title as The Wretched, but it’s been changed back, probably so readers can find it more easily.) Kobo, Kindle, Google Play, Apple Books, eBooks.com

Posted in About the Project by Kelson Vibber, January 4, 2021

Tagged: translation