Tag Archives: Translation

On The Barricade

I finished reading the final battle on the barricade a little after noon on June 6. It happens…a bit after noon on June 6. That was kind of weird.

I don’t have a lot new to say about it compared to last time. Just a few notes.

The digression to the 1848 barricades is shorter than I remember. I also really like contrast between the chaotic, throw-everything-on-the-street barricade and the perfectly engineered stone wall with silent snipers.

Enjolras, after a scouting mission determines that no help is coming and they’re all going to die, gives a stirring speech about the glorious future their deaths will usher in. He’s painfully optimistic about the 20th century.

Combeferre’s story about the starving orphan whose autopsy he attended is one of the hardest things to read in a book full of people experiencing horrible things. (Every stage and movie adaptation I’ve seen downplays how awful things are for the characters.)

Here’s a rare case where I like Denny’s translation over Donougher’s. Regarding Valjean’s pattern of shooting helmets instead of heads, Combeferre says he “does good deeds with a gun” (Donougher), which doesn’t get the same idea across as saying that he “does kindness with bullets” (Denny).

Most of the named characters die in lists. Bullet points, if you will. Only a few get individual send-offs: Mabeuf, Éponine and Gavroche. They hear Jean Prouvaire being executed after he’s captured. And at the end, Enjoras and Grantaire face a firing squad together.

There’s a lot of philosophical commentary about urban warfare, civil war, revolutions that have or don’t have the support of the populace, and how revolutions are sometimes necessary in preserving the long-term life of society over the short-term life of the individual. It’s presented as supporting material for the June Rebellion. But it’s the other way around.

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When Javert Loses His Cool

When Javert shows up to arrest “M. Madeleine,” he’s really out of sorts. At first you can only tell by the fact that the buckle of his collar was slightly out of place. Then he forgets to actually produce a warrant, and can’t quite get the words out.

Javert did not say, ‘Let’s get a move on!’ He said, ‘Lessghehmwuhahn!’ No spelling can do justice to the way in which it was uttered: it was no longer human speech, it was an animal roar.

I’m really enjoying some of the wordplay in the 2013 Christine Donougher translation of Les Misérables. It’s apparently in the original, but the last translation I read sacrificed a lot of it to make the text read more smoothly.

Not that I can read the French, but it’s clearly the same description:

Il y eut dans l’inflexion qui accompagna ces deux mots je ne sais quoi de fauve et de frénétique. Javert ne dit pas: «Allons, vite!» il dit: «Allonouaite!» Aucune orthographe ne pourrait rendre l’accent dont cela fut prononcé; ce n’était plus une parole humaine, c’était un rugissement.

The last time I read Norman Denny’s translation (1976):

Javert said: ‘Then be quick about it.’
He spoke the words in savage haste, running them together in an unintelligible growl that scarcely resembled human speech.

It does get the same idea across, and it does flow better. But it’s not quite as viscerally satisfying.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Isabel Hapgood translation (1887) on Project Gutenberg:

There lay in the inflection of voice which accompanied these words something indescribably fierce and frenzied. Javert did not say, “Be quick about it!” he said “Bequiabouit.”

Awkward by today’s standards, but then it does read like a nineteenth century English language novel, which makes sense.

Interestingly, it turns out that there’s another English translation from 1887, from a different publisher. Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall:

“Come, make haste—”

There was something savage and frenzied in the accent that accompanied these words; no orthographer could write it down, for it was no longer human speech, but a roar.

OK, sort of splitting the middle, trying not to do the undignified spelling, but still alluding to it.

What’s interesting is that of the four versions I’ve compared, the two women are willing to go for a comparable translation of the growl, but the two men sort of step around it. It’s like they thought this was too serious a book for something like that. And I’ve noticed a lot of places where the humor and wit comes through better in Donougher’s translation than Denny’s.

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Great chapter title for the trial: “Where Convictions Take Shape.”

Donougher’s choice is much better than “Place of Decision” (Denny) or “A Place Where Convictions Are In Process Of Formation” (Hapgood).

Yeah, one day I need to read the 1887 translation. If I dare…

Recidivism is the biggest issue here. More than being a fugitive, it’s the belief that Valjean has returned to his criminal ways and will keep doing so that concerns the court.

The prosecutor at Champmathieu’s trial denounces M. Madeleine’s “insanity” & demands the trial continue & convict the “real Jean Valjean.” The rest of the court, however, has been convinced & clears Champmathieu in minutes. But the prosecutor still needs a Jean Valjean.

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First Impressions of the Donougher Transalation

As I mentioned last time, I’ve picked up a new translation of Les Misérables, the 2013 Donougher translation.

I’m at the point where Valjean is about to steal the silver (spoilers!). My first impressions:

Christine Donougher’s translation reads very smoothly. I feel like I’ll get through it faster this time — or would, if it weren’t for all the endnotes describing the outside references. I’m too curious to skip them!

There are a few places where I’ve compared her translation to Norman Denny’s, and they’re fairly similar, but she’s more likely to keep details that Denny glosses over. Msgr. Bienvenu’s gardening, for instance: He’s not familiar with various botanical debates of the day, he just likes growing plants. Denny simply mentions that he took no sides, while Donougher keeps the references to specific scientists and schools of thought, and adds an endnote. Or comparing an ex-con’s reaction to being called “Monsieur” to a shipwreck survivor’s reaction to fresh water — Hugo referenced a particular famous shipwreck, which Donougher explains in a note and Denny just drops as unneeded.

Last time, the opening chapters really felt like a slog, and it took a few weeks for me to get into it. This time, they feel comfortably familiar. It could simply be that it’s only been five years instead of twenty since my last read. Or that I’m older. Or the new translation. Or that it’s 2018.

There’s also a fascinating introduction by Robert Tombs, which covers Victor Hugo’s life, French politics of the time and his involvement with them, and the process of writing the novel. I’d recommend reading through it even if you don’t want to take the time to read the whole book.

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5 Years Later: Reading a New Translation of Les Misérables!

I’ve been thinking for a while about picking up Les Misérables again, and five years after my last re-read seems like a good time to do it. This time I’m reading a different translation, Christine Donougher’s version published in 2013, a.k.a. The Wretched.

Yes, I’m reading a translation published during my last read-through.

Yes, they translated the title.

Yes, there’s probably an element of defiance here, stubbornly insisting that the world continue in such a way that it’s possible for me to read the digital equivalent of a 1300-page brick. (Reading Les Mis in 2018 is a bit different than reading it in 2013.)

I do plan on posting commentary again, here and at @ReadingLesMis – but I don’t plan on going into as much detail. More impressions than the play-by-play I wrote last time.

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