Les Misérables Les Misérables question

Which translation?
Will IV Will Nov 08, 2011 08:37PM
Which translation do you recommend?

Mike (last edited Dec 08, 2011 09:02PM ) Dec 08, 2011 06:19PM   13 votes
Hi again, Will. :)

As I stated in another thread, I've read 3 different translations of the novel, two of which are unabridged.

I believe the abridged version, which I read in high school a long time ago, was the old Wilbour translation. It was kind of clunky, so I wouldn't recommend that one.

I haven't read the new Julie Rose translation, but I've heard some folks say that she plays "fast and loose" with her translating, almost making an MTV version out of the novel. :)

I have read the two other popular unabridged translations: 1) the Fahnestock & MacAfee version from 1987 and 2) the Norman Denny version from 1976, which is not strictly unabridged but very close.

Which one is "better"? Well, it all depends on what's important to you. You need to ask yourself, "Am I more concerned with direct fidelity to the actual words of the original, or do I want a poetic, forceful translation that's reasonably close to the original but not a replica?"

The Fahnestock & MacAfee version is probably the modern English translation that's the most accurate and closest to the original. But it's rather prosaic and doesn't really "sing," if you know what I mean. OTOH, the Norman Denny translation, which is only slightly abridged (I've heard it's about 100,000 words shorter than the new Rose translation--and some of the other "filler" has been moved to the appendix), carries much of the poetry and force of the original. However, since it is not always a word-for-word translation, at times a bit of accuracy is sacrificed. Denny does mention in his introduction that a good translator should be more concerned with the *intent* and *spirit* of the author, and a translation that is too literal (i.e., a word-for-word rendering) is often not the best way to achieve that.

Here's a little comparison of the three modern versions along with the old Wilbour version. It involves a short description of the character Tholomyès:

“a thirty-year-old, ill-preserved rake” (Denny)
“a high liver, thirty years old, and in poor shape” (Fahnestock & MacAfee)
"a wasted high roller of thirty” (Rose)
"a good liver, thirty years old and ill preserved" (Wilbour)

“un viveur de trente ans, mal conservé" (the original French)

So, it all boils down to whether you prefer absolute accuracy or poetry and forcefulness. I personally would go with the latter. Denny may not do a "perfect" job with his editing and slight abridgment (who could?), but he does do an excellent one. I think he gives the reader the best of both worlds, and his version is still over 1200 pages long. Having said that, I think the other translation is good too, but it's just not "music to the ears" in quite the same way as Denny's, even though it is extremely faithful to the original and much better than the ancient Wilbour translation.

One more thing: Since Norman Denny is British, his version contains some British words and idioms that may be unfamiliar to the American reader. Personally, I think that makes the book more interesting (I'm American), but others may not want to have to deal with any Briticisms.

Hope that helps. Or is everything about as clear as mud now? LOL. :)

Joy (last edited Aug 05, 2013 10:59AM ) Aug 03, 2013 07:59AM   2 votes
I have to say personally I'm a fan of the Wilbour translation. I know some people say it's chunky/clunky...whatever the word... but I think it's richer and deeper. From the Denny you can get the story, and it is probably more user friendly. But something also gets lost in the translation e.g. this is said in chapter 2 by the Bishop to the director of the hospital next door:

"Monsieur le Directeur, I will tell you what has happened. There has been a mistake. You have twenty-six persons in five or six small rooms, while in this house there are three of us and room for sixty. We must change places. Let me have the house that suits me, and this one will be yours."

"Listen, Monsieur Director, to what I have to say. There is evidently a mistake here. There are twenty-six of you in five or six small rooms: there are only three of us, and space for sixty. There is a mistake, I tell you. You have my house and I have yours. Restore mine to me, you are at home."

Victor Hugo (for any of you good people who understand French)
"Tenez, monsieur le directeur de l'hôpital, je vais vous dire. Il y a évidemment une erreur. Vous êtes vingt-six personnes dans cinq ou six petites chambres. Nous sommes trois ici, et nous avons place pour soixante. Il y a erreur, je vous dis. Vous avez mon logis, et j'ai le vôtre. Rendez-moi ma maison. C'est ici chez vous."

Personally, I think the Denny translation gives the gist of the matter: the Bishop wants to change houses because he recognises that the Director needs more space. But the Wilbour has the advantage of not only being the closest to the original French, but also in it I think you can better appreciate playfulness and wit of the Bishop. This adds to the depth and your conception of the character. When you read a book, especially a book like Les Miserables, which is classed an as epic drama, you don't just want to know the story, you want to experience it. You want to understand each character, with all their different idiosyncrasies, and how they choose to express themselves is a big part of that. It's also why most people would chose to read the unabridged version.

If I use the analogy of a painting of a boat: with the abridged version you come to know that it is a painting of a boat. But with the unabridged you see what type of boat, how big it is, the lake it is on, whether you can see the captain on deck, the sea life surrounding the boat, the waves in the lake on which the boat floats etc. The Denny translation is a photograph of the painting, though you can see all this detail, it's never as good as the original, where you can also see the brush strokes. Strictly speaking to really experience the original everyone would have to learn French, and read the exact the words of Victor Hugo, but seeing as this is not very likely, I think the Wilbour is a pretty close second. And though you may have to read some of the stuff in the Wilbour translation twice, just to make sure you understood everything, ultimately I feel it's worth it.

Darren (last edited Jan 26, 2012 07:33AM ) Jan 26, 2012 07:31AM   2 votes
The problem I had with the Rose translation is that she tends to be too modern with the text. It's pretty jarring. Referring to the Thénardiers' Inn as a "Greasy Spoon" throughout the book and Monsieur Gillenormand calling his nephew a moron are just two glaring examples. As I said in my own review, modern language like this has no place in a 19th century novel. It's unfortunate because this edition has some of the best translated passages yet seen for this great work, but the all too modern language ruins it.

I bought an e-copy of the Hapgood translation for my nook and from what I have heard around here and other forums it's not that bad. I'm in the middle of another book right now and this one is next on my list. Has anyone else read the Hapgood translation and if so, what did they think?

i have just read the Christine Donougher translation, she has called it The Wretched- do not know accuracy but it is certainly easy, fluid, and more expressive than my memories of the Lee Fahnestock translation read from 1987...

The sentence I look for when judging a translation is at the beginning when M. Myriel encounters Napoleon. In French "vous regardez un bonhomme". This of course means a goodman (archaic), an ordinary man, or in the context of the page, surely, a little man. So I beleive the translation should say "you see a little man, and I see a great man". All the translations I have found translate it as "you see a good man and I see a great man" which doesn't really make sense here. Having said that I do like the translation by Isabel Hapgood which has beautiful prose. The translation by Yves Gobin is useful as literal text for anyone studying the French language, but has no feeling for the poetry of the English language. Re. Helen's remark above, I am used to the old-fashioned style of towns being represented by, for instance, D--, which was done by the Brontes, so this doesn't bother me in the Hapgood translations. Any other recommendations of different translations are welcome as I read this book repeatedly.

Sairam Ts "good man and great man" does make sense because what follows is "Each can profit by it".
Feb 20, 2017 12:02PM

Don't get Hapgood! It's awful and lazy. Denny's very pretty, but if you're planning to analyze the book, don't get his translation. The Fahnestock/McAfee translation is really good, but it can be a drag. I wholeheartedly recommend Donougher. Donougher is easy to get through, while still retaining most of the impact and nearly all of the meaning. Definitely get Donougher, this from a huge Les Mis fan :)

My favorite is Denny's translation. Far smoother than a couple of others I attempted to read.

Rob (last edited Oct 08, 2016 10:39AM ) Oct 08, 2016 10:32AM   0 votes
I think the latest translation by Christine Donougher for Penguin is the best one. It is modern without sounding awkward. It also has lots of footnotes.


By the way most of the translations seem to leave out Joly's death scene.

Hm. Mine says: "Tholomyes was a fast man of thirty, and badly preserved." - That's the translation of Hapgood as far as I could figure out.
So far I like the translation.

I'm about 70% done reading the Hapgood translation and I'm quite loving it. The language reminds me quite a bit of the style and writing of Dickens (it's more the grammatical form and word choices of the 1880s, that I'm particularly thinking of). I tried reading another translation, but it just felt "too modern" for a book set it the early to mid 1800s.

But, I'm sure it's more of a personal taste than anything else. I've read other older books (from 800ad Japan) in various translations and some do well and some do horrid (translating).

Eman (last edited Jan 02, 2013 12:05AM ) Dec 31, 2012 09:20PM   0 votes
how can I read the edition I want??

Is there an outstanding critical edition of Les Miserables out there that someone would recommend (ala Norton's Critical Edition series)?

M 25x33
Rob No. Surprisingly the novel isn't subject to much critical study.
Dec 13, 2015 10:48AM

Just wanted to say thanks for writing this post, helped me decide on what version to get!

Bárbara (last edited Feb 27, 2013 07:50PM ) Feb 27, 2013 07:50PM   0 votes
Hi! I was wondering, since I want to buy my copy in english (I already have it in spanish but the translation is rather disappointing) which translation should I buy that has the sentence "Enjolras grasped his hand with a smile." (I ask this because I mostly come across the translation as "pressed" or something like that. I specifically want it to say "grasped" haha)
Anyway, thanks in advance :)

I'm planning to read it unabridged and would really like an answer as to which translation is best, too.

I just finished the Fahnestock 1987 "Unabridged Translation based on the Classic C.E. Wilbour Translation", as it's described on the title page.

Fahnestock states his goal at the end of the Introduction: "For this revised edition, our aim has been to move the phrasing and vocabulary forward, closer to contemporary usage and occasionally closer to what we take as the author's original intent, but never to lose the basic fabric, which is still Wilbour's Hugo, the verion that has endured." Language 'moved forward'I still kept my Kindle handy to look up a lot of unfamiliar words.)

Since my school days' French and Latin are really week I deeply appreciated that this version provides footnote translations of poems and songs in the text while my poor French still enabled me to appreciate to an extent their beauty in French.

Mike above said he found Fahnestock's a 'rather prosaic' translation; however I appreciated the intent of being as accurate as possible and still found the language so poetic it took my breath away. I could hardly put it down.

I've read the Modern Library translation which is by Julie Rose, and I found it very tight and readable. Then again, I haven't had any experience with other translators. Hope it helps.


I'm planning on embarking up on the journey of reading this book. I have three versions at the ready: the Lee Fahnestock/Norman MacAfee translation, the Julie Rose translation, and the newer Christine Donougher translation. Of these three translations, which can I count on for ease of understanding?

Fatma (last edited Mar 18, 2016 06:08AM ) Mar 18, 2016 06:07AM   0 votes
It makes me wonder so, to read some comments saying that old translations must be difficult to read. How do you read Austen, the Bröntes and Dickens then? Do you have them translated to modern English? What a strange thing to say!

Ben (last edited Oct 28, 2016 05:23AM ) Oct 28, 2016 05:23AM   0 votes
After comparing several e-book editions, I decided to go with the Hapgood translation. The Fahnestock & MacAfee version doesn't appear to be available for Kindle or iBooks, so I took a look at the Hapgood, Denny, Rose, and Donougher versions.

Of these four, Hapgood's is the only one that uses a semicolon in the second sentence, as Hugo does in the original. "C’était un vieillard d’environ soixante-quinze ans ; il occupait le siège de Digne depuis 1806” becomes, "He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D— since 1806."

Literalness is important to me: as much as possible, I want to read Hugo, not someone else's "improved" version of Hugo, and a literal translation is far easier to read side by side with the French.

While not perfect, this edition of the Hapgood translation by Maplewood Books had the best formatting of the versions I considered: https://www.amazon.com/Misérables-Ill...

Here's a short story on NPR.org web site mentioning Julie Rose and her translation work on Les Mis.


By the way, a new American movie is launching.

Chris (last edited Feb 13, 2014 06:20AM ) Feb 12, 2014 07:38PM   0 votes
Quite correct. But if it of any significance, the city referred to as D---- is almost certainly Digne, which is a wonderful old city about 100km north of Toulon. Valjean made his way north on foot. Digne was on one of the main roads through the Haute Provence in those days. Bypassed by autoroutes nowadays, but well worth a visit.

The other places mentioned in the first chapters are all real, Brignolles, Sisteron, Draguignan, etc., in the region around Digne or between there and Toulon.

I have an online version of the Isabel Hapgood translation and a hardback from the 1930s of the "official" Lascelles Wraxall translation. Both of them have a 19th century feel to them which I find more comfortable. Referring back a previous comment about the use of "Greasy Spoon", I just shudder to think what would happen if someone today translated "Jane Eyre", "Pride and Prejudice" or "Clarissa" into today's American English and used a 21st century word. Ugh!

Emma (last edited Apr 01, 2013 01:39PM ) Apr 01, 2013 01:34PM   0 votes
Ok so this would be my first time reading Les Miserables, and I was think about getting the Wilbour translation for the nook, but you (Mike) mentioned that it was kinda "clunky" so you didn't recommend it, I just wanted to know what exactly you meant by that, and, for anyone who knows, since it would be my first time, is there one that be better for me, understanding wise but still poetic and possibly close to the original? If that's possible?

The Christine Donougher version is probably by far the best translation. The language is modern yet still traditional with lots of useful footnotes.

I've read the one by julie rose and it very easy to follow, would definitely recommend it

Stephen (last edited Feb 12, 2016 11:16AM ) Feb 12, 2016 11:14AM   0 votes
I know this thread has been silent for a while, but I found it so interesting and helpful that I thought I would throw in my two cents. There hasn't been much said about the Hapgood translation, so here is my experience:
My wife and I have been reading Les Miserables aloud together; she on her Kindle and me from an old paperback copy I've had for years. At first we just downloaded one of the cheapest unabridged kindle editions we could find (the Xist Classics edition) which turned out to be the Hapgood translation, while my paperback copy was the Fahnestock/MacAfee translation. For a little while we tried to make it work, but ultimately decided to spend some extra money to have the same translation.
We decided on the Fahnestock/MacAfee version. From our experience of reading the two side by side, Fahnestock/MacAfee was more understandable. There were certainly times when we preferred the wording of the Hapgood translation, buy typically it was the other way around.
Interestingly enough, my only complaint about the Fahnestock/MacAfee version is the substitution of the anonymous place names with the supposed real names ("D----" for "Digne," etc.). All in all however, I would strongly recommend the Fahnestock/MacAfee translation.
Whatever you're decision, you're in for a treat. Les Miserables is a fantastic piece of literature!

I am planning to get either Signet Classics or Everyman's Library... Can someone advise which one I should go for? Thanks in advance!

Bryn (last edited Dec 26, 2011 04:58PM ) Dec 26, 2011 04:54PM   -1 votes
Oh, a person who knows - Mike - can I ask you?
I have the Norman Denny in paperback. I got a Mobi edition on Kindle, that tells me the translator is Isabel Florence Hapgood; but when I googled a sentence, I got told a different translator (forget who). And being an e-book and old I don't quite trust the accuracy of the info (as in, who cares? dead old translator).
But I love love this, better than Denny.
The sentence I googled - when I HAD to know who translated this - 'The mist, gloomily empurpled, magnified the star. One would have called it a luminous wound.' If that sounds over-the-top, it's the whole passage on Jupiter setting (Cosette at the well, just before she meets our hero). And again and again I've thought, wow the power in this language; and I've checked the Denny version, mostly to the detriment of Denny.

Though he too has 'luminous wound' - that's a bit odd?

I just finished the Charles E. Wilbur translation in the Everyman's Library collection. I'd not read the story before but the translation was on the whole fairly excellent. Of course I'd like to know a bit more of the French for when they left it in to give authenticity to the poems and so forth...

i have the hapgood kindle version but even in the first chapter am noticing there are typos and missing words..."he is the mayor of D--" the whole name missing... I am seriously thinking of getting the denny instead...

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