Do they translate word for word? Or provide the general gist of the story? Do they modernise? Do they add or delete to help the story make sense? Do they censor or clean up rude, offensive words? Do they improvise and take poetic licence?
There are pro's and con's for each. And in the end, it comes down to personal preference.
Personally, I'm not a stickler for exact translations.
I'm happy for the translator to take some liberties to make the flow of the story work better in English, as long as it remains faithful to the author's intent. I'd rather have the impurities and offensive passages left in. And I do not like abridged versions.
I'd like to know a bit about the translator, especially their religious and political views. I have heard that the translator's own beliefs have been known to influence their interpretation away from the author's intended meaning if they happen to disagree or disapprove. Attempting to translate a book that is embedded in religious, social and political themes like Les Miserables most definitely is, the hazards must have been many.
I suspect there are whole discussions posts and forums out there, discussing this very topic. Perhaps one day soon, I have will have time to explore this further than my own little comparison below.
I picked this brief passage from the beginning of Vol 1 Book 1 Chapter 4 as I felt the little joke about the Bishop's highness or grandeur could easily be interpreted in many different ways.
Translated by Wilbour (June 1862)
His conversation was affable and pleasant. He adapted himself to the capacity of the two women who lived with him, but when he laughed, it was the laugh of a schoolboy.
Madame magloire usually called him Your Greatness. One day he rose from his arm-chair, and went to his library for a book. It was upon one of the upper shelves, and as the bishop was rather short, he could not reach it. "Madame Magloire," said he, "bring me a chair. My greatness does not extend to this shelf."
Translated by Wraxall (Oct 1862)
The Bishop's conversation was affable and lively. He condescended to the level of the two old females who spent their life near him, and when he laughed it was a schoolboy's laugh. Madam Magloire was fond of calling him "Your Grandeur." One day he rose from his easy chair and went to fetch a book from his library; as it was on one of the top shelves, and as the Bishop was short, he could not reach it "Madame Magloire," he said, " bring me a chair, for my Grandeur does not rise to that shelf."
Translated by Isabel F. Hapgood (1887)
His conversation was gay and affable. He put himself on a level with the two old women who had passed their lives beside him. When he laughed, it was the laugh of a schoolboy. Madame Magloire liked to call him Your Grace. One day he rose from his armchair, and went to his library in search of a book. This book was on one of the upper shelves. As the bishop was rather short of stature, he could not reach it. “Madame Magloire,” said he, “fetch me a chair. My greatness does not reach as far as that shelf.”
Translated by Norman Denny (1976)
His conversation was friendly and light-hearted. He put himself on the level of the two old women who shared his life, and when he laughed it was the laughter of a schoolboy.
Mme Magloire was pleased to address him as Your Greatness. On one occasion he rose from his armchair to get a book which was on a top shelf. He was short in stature and could not reach it. 'Mme Magloire,' he said, 'will you be so good as to fetch a chair. My greatness does not extend so high.'
Translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee (1987)
His conversation was cheerful and pleasant. He adapted himself to the level of the two old women who lived with him, but when he laughed, it was a schoolboy's laughter.
Madame Magloire sometimes called him "Your Highness." One day, rising from his armchair, he went to his library for a book. It was on one of the upper shelves, and as the bishop was rather short, he could not reach it. "Madame Magloire," said he, "bring me a chair. My highness cannot reach that shelf."
Translated by Julie Rose (2007)
In conversation, he was affable and cheery. He spoke at the same level as the two old ladies that spent their lives by his side; when he laughed, it was the laugh of a schoolboy.
Madame Magloire liked to call him Your Highness. One day, he got up out of his armchair and went to find a book. The book happened to be on one of the top shelves and, as the bishop was fairly short, he couldn't reach it. "Madame Magloire," he said, "bring me a chair, will you. My Highness doesn't extend to this shelf."
Christine Donougher (2013)
Thanks to our wonderful #LesMisReadalong host, Nick, I now have the Donougher version of this passage:
His conversation was affable and cheerful. He was sociable with the two old women who spent their lives with him. When he laughed it was the laugh of a schoolboy.
Madam Magloire liked to call him 'Your Highness'. One day he rose from his armchair and went to his bookcase to fetch a book. As the bishop was rather small in stature he could not reach it. 'Madam Magloire,' he said, 'bring me a chair. My Highness falls short of that shelf.'
Victor Hugo (April 1862)
Sa conversation etait affable et gaie. Il se mettait a la partee des deux vieilles femmes qui passaient leur vie pres de lui ; quand il riait, c'etait le rire d'un ecolier.
Madame Magloire l'appelait volontiers Votre Grandeur. Un jour, il se leva de son fauteuil et all a sa bibliotheque chercher un livre. Ce livre etait sur un des rayons d'en haut. Comme l'eveque etait d'assez petite taille, il ne put y atteindre.
- Madame Magloire, dit-il, apportez-moi une chaise. Ma grandeur ne va pas jusqu 'a cette planche.
Google translate (2018)
His conversation was affable and cheerful. He went to the side of two old women who spent their lives near him; when he laughed, it was the laughter of a schoolboy. Madame Magloire would gladly call it Your Highness. One day he got up from his chair and went to his library to get a book. This book was on one of the rays from above. As the bishop was rather small, he could not reach it. "Madame Magloire," he said, "bring me a chair. My greatness does not go up to this board.
I'm reading the Denny translation and thoroughly enjoying the language and style so far. But I believe I may strike a problem with a couple of sections that have been removed from the main text and transferred to an appendix. Although I can't actually find any appendix in my Penguin Classics hardback edition at all (reprinted in 2012).
Denny claimed to be primarily concerned with the 'author's intention' and 'readability'. He focused on showing the English reader the poetry of Hugo's writing. He explains that his translation is 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.'
During the week I picked up a used copy of the Julie Rose translation. I like the idea of her more modern retelling of the story - warts and all with all the gory details thrown in - but the online forums pan her liberal use of modern day slang in getting this message across.
Rose felt that she 'channelled' Hugo during the translation process in her home along the Parramatta River in Sydney. She likened the relationship to a 'marriage' and said she aimed to be 'faithful' to Hugo's purpose.
Denny was obviously less enamoured of Hugo's digressions and attention to the minute details than Rose was. Yet they both claim to be faithful to his intent.
I will stick with reading the Denny translation, but will dive into the Rose for the occasional comparison as I have the time (and the inclination!)
Which translation and edition are you reading?
How are you finding it so far? Did you have an introduction by the translator that gave you some insight into their process or thoughts about Hugo himself?