Saturday 17 March 2018

Finally Facing My Waterloo

AKA The End of Volume One of Les Miserables.
Or An Opportunistic Chance to Reference an ABBA Song!

My life continues its rather crazy, hectic pace at the moment. Everything feels rushed and harried...everything that is except my quiet time each most mornings when I sit down with my chapter of Les Mis. Slow reading our way through this glorious French classic has been my saving grace, my moment of peace and calm that I have come to look forward to immensely.

I may not get much time to tweet, visit other blogs or delve very deeply into each chapter, but when I do, I love seeing how everyone else is going and how they are approaching this year-long reading marathon.

Nick has created a fabulous post comparing the various movie versions of the candlestick scene. It was an interesting exercise, especially as I find myself continually comparing the translations used by various translators.

I started the year with my lovely hardback edition translated by Norman Denny. It had been sitting on my TBR shelf for quite a few years, so I'm thrilled to be finally getting into. Denny's use of language is formal but not difficult. I find it has a very 'classic' feel to it, which I appreciate when I'm reading, you know, a classic. However, he has also taken some liberties with his editing-as-he-goes approach. I wish the translator of my copy of Dostoyevsky's The Brother's K had been so kind! From all accounts, though, this is not great for Hugo or Les Mis. All his minutiae is necessary and deliberately included. Apparently!

A few weeks into January, the Julie Rose translation of Les Mis came my way (one of the advantages of working in a bookshop!). It's interesting to compare. Rose's translation is more casual and feels thorough but I still prefer the Denny version. However my translation curiosity was not sated by this little excursion. Au contraire.

As with the Russian writers a few years ago, I found myself caught up in which translation is really best for me.

My first dilemma occurred with the description of Madame Thenardier in V1 B4 C1. Denny says,
This Madame Thenardier was robust, big-boned and red-headed, a typical soldier's woman with the roughness characteristic of her kind...She was still young, not more than thirty. Had she been standing upright, instead of sitting crouched in the doorway, her height and general look of the fair-ground wrestler might have alarmed the stranger and so shaken her confidence as to prevent the events to be related from taking place. Destinies may be decided by the fact a person is seated and not standing.

Rose says,
This Madame Thenardier was a redhead, fleshy, yet bony; the soldier's-wife type in all its ghastliness....She was still young; had only just turned thirty. If the woman squatting had stood up, her height and her bearing, which were those of an ambulatory colossus fit for the fairground freak show, might well have frightened off the traveller, derailed her confidence, and caused what we are about to relate to vanish into thin air. Whether a person sits or stands - fate hangs by threads like these

Word order is different, as too is the description of M. Thenardier's height and girth. Fantine is described as a stranger and a traveller. Two, almost opposite ideas.

A few chapters later, I noticed V1 B5 C2 that Denny describes Pere Madeleine as someone who,
demanded goodwill from the men, pure morals from the women, and honesty from all.

Later in the chapter, the gossips referred to Madeleine as a 'businessman', 'a careerist', 'an adventurer' and 'a peasant.'

Meanwhile Rose tells us that he,
required goodwill of the men and pure morals of the women and honesty of everyone.

The gossips call him a 'trader', an 'ambitious' man, 'an adventurer' and 'a brute.'

How can one translator get 'peasant' and the other 'brute' from the same French word? One would is about class and the other about a physical description.

What was I too do?

Louise has been raving about her Christine Donougher edition the entire readalong. Enough so for me to search it out at work. Alas it was no longer in print in I had to go to one of our overseas suppliers to find a copy. It was worth the effort.

It has deckled edges!

Have I ever told you all how much I adore deckled edges?

I'm also enjoying her translation. She says of Madame Thenardier that she was a,
brawny and angular sandy-haired woman, the archetypal soldier's wife in all her charmlessness....She was still young, barely thirty. Being very tall and built like a walking colossus such as you might expect to find in the fairground, this woman, who was squatting down, had she stood upright might perhaps have scared the traveller from the outset, undermined her trustfulness and forestalled what we have to relate. Someone sitting instead of standing - destinies hang on this.

Two redheads and one sandy haired Madame Thenardier?

What about Madeleine?

For Donougher he,
expected willingness of the men, respectability of the women, and honesty of everybody.

And the gossips thought he was a 'tradesman', 'an ambitious fellow',  'an adventurer' and 'a crass ignoramus'!

My confusion will never be resolved...unless I learn to read French myself!

The whole expected/required/demanded thing reminded me of the passage in Steinbeck's East of Eden where the various translations of the bible are discussed and how one word in one passage changes the intent and meaning in a profound way - the words being shall, must and may. I wonder what the French word was that can be translated in three such diverse ways?

After all that, I find that I'm now moving between Denny and Donougher depending on my mood on the day. If I have enough time, or the chapter is particularly short, I read both versions just to extend the Les Mis love a little longer. I only refer back to the Rose if I'm translation comparing a section or phrase that seemed starkly different in the first two.

Yes, I am a book geek!

So now we turn our eyes towards the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon.

In Part One we met Monsigneur Bienvenu, Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, the Thenardier's and their daughters, Eponine and Azelma and finally Javert.

Who awaits us in Part Two?



  1. I really enjoyed reading your comparisons, Brona! You have a wonderful narrative voice. I am really enjoying the Donougher translation, but it is hard to get the Wilbour translation out of my head, since that was the translation I used with my students over the years. I don't know if you've listened to any of Briana Lewis' Les Mis podcast, but she is able to translate from the French directly and often does so in her episodes, demonstrating how difficult it is to translate Les Mis. She would be a good one to ask your translations questions to. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Thanks for your kind words Nick. I'm enjoying your readalong so much. Not sure why I get so excited/caught up in the whole translation thing, except that I've always found the nuances of language intriguing. Double the languages involved; double the fascination I guess!

      I have been listening to Briana's podcasts, but I'm only 3 episodes in so far. They're great for long car trips.

  2. Superb post. Translation is so important. These days I always do a little research before choosing which version of a translated work to read. I also have sat with more then one translation while reading a book.

    1. There used to be a great site where you could compare the first page of the various translations of most of the French & Russian writers...but sadly it has now disappeared. Maybe there were copyright issues, but it was a very handy when I was trying to pick which Odyssey, which Anna Karenina and which Brother's K.

  3. Oh, best blog post name ever! I'm so jealous you thought of it. I enjoy looking at the differences between translations too, it's especially fascinating. I need to get into the Les Mis podcast sometime soon. I've caught up and finished Volume 1, but need to catch up a little bit more to participate fully again.

    1. I thought you would appreciate the start of this post Louise :-)

      The podcasts are fabulous - they'd be great for listening to on a long car trip.


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.