Les Misérables: Julie Rose’s Victor Hugo
With the spectacular film version of the major Broadway musical adaptation of the English translations of the French novel playing in theaters worldwide, there’s a renewed interest in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
Julie Rose – the writer/translator who wrote in 2007 “the first full original unabridged translation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel” – is back on the talk-show circuit. She has spoken recently with Australia Broadcasting Company’s Margaret Throsby. If you listen to the podcast, then you hear Rose repeat how the translator finds herself in a relationship with the original author that is much like a marriage. She finds herself needing to be “faithful.” And in the Translator’s Preface, Rose says so.
The refreshing thing is that Rose does more than just remain faithful like a wife to a husband. In the same Preface to her translation, she claims she’s out to prove Hugo wrong in certain ways. Here’s a clip from the amazon.com preview (my highlighting):
The month after Rose’s translation came out, Rick Kleffel of NPR quoted her as confessing not wanting to follow the author in how he himself turned out. Here’s the humorous line:
I was very worried about losing my hair and becoming fat which Hugo did, you know, by the time he was writing it. You almost go into a trance-like state to be able to sustain [Les Miserables].
The year after Rose’s translation was published, Ron Hogan began corresponding with her and blogged some of her translation philosophy and practice (see also here). She made clear that she doesn’t always exactly faithfully follow Hugo. Her Napoleon and his are a little different (and I know this is something she’s taken some flack for — blogger Saki thinks Rose “misfires” there); nonetheless, she expresses some original authorial/translational intention:
Adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing: maybe translating is also doing math, musical math. If so, additions need to be kept to a minimum according to the requirements of intelligibility, subtractions even more so, but the chopping up of syntax and the multiplying of sentences is often essential.
With Victor Hugo’s monumental Les Misérables, I felt the need only very occasionally to add, for reasons you may well imagine, but never to subtract. In the description of the Battle of Waterloo, for instance, when Napoleon refers to his nemesis, the Duke of Wellington, as ‘ce petit anglais‘, I couldn’t stop my Napoleon from adding a noun: ‘that little British git’. Call me a jaded modern Australian, but for me, ‘that little Englishman’ just didn’t get the withering contempt with which the mere descriptive ‘anglais’, coloured by the ‘petit’, was charged in the Hugo. The Victor Hugo I came to know, a man with a great sense of humour, would have laughed, I like to think.
Translators of Hugo traditionally never add, they subtract—and rather cavalierly at that. Certainly the exact nature of Hugo’s feel for the idiosyncratic and the particular, his celebration of sheer excess, is lost in the process. That’s the conclusion I reached as I read the two best-known English translations—Charles Wilburs’ 1862 version and Norman Denny’s from 1976—while I was working through the first and second drafts of my Misérables (precisely to make sure I left nothing out).
That she’s intent on not leaving anything out and that she adds sometimes actually does not mean that Rose’s translation is unwieldy or even necessarily longer than the translations of others. Here’s Kleffel’s side by side comparison of one passage:
Here’s the original from Victor Hugo (1862):
Charles Myriel, nonobstant ce mariage, avait, disait-on, beaucoup fait parler de lui. Il était bien fait de sa personne, quoique d’assez petite taille, élégant, gracieux, spirituel; toute la première partie de sa vie avait été donnée au monde et aux galanteries.
Those of us reading Rose’s translation are happy how she’s come to know Hugo and has shared him with the rest of us this way.