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Les Misérables: Julie Rose’s Victor Hugo

December 31, 2012

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 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.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2012 1:19 pm

    I bought this translation a short while ago, but have not read it. But I was disturbed by this Amazon review. (Follow link to read it) What do you make of it?


    I did see the recent film, but would not call it “spectacular.” It seems even less fair to call it a “version of the major Broadway musical adaptation of the English translations of the French novel.” The musical was written in French, and Herbert Kretzmer adapted the French lyrics of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel.

    It opened in France, and then at the Barbican Center, and then at Palace Theatre, and then at the Queen’s Theatre — all at London, and continues to show there. All of this under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company — so if one is not willing to call this a French production, then it really should be the London musical adaptation based on the French musical adaptation of the French novel.”

    The production did not come to Broadway until two years after the London show began and unlike the London show, it did close on Broadway in 2003 (it was revived in 2006-2008). It is not currently showing on Broadway.

  2. December 31, 2012 2:41 pm

    I’m waiting on my copy of Rose’s translation to arrive. After I’ve read it, and have compared it more with Victor Hugo’s language, then I’ll be in a better position to make a judgement about how fair the amazon reviewer might be. Since the film has come out, I’ve seen a number of quotations from book readers (from the Rose translation) that make me want to read it. One, for example, seems to capture some of the wordplay of Hugo rather well:

    Diminuer le nombre des ténébreux, augmenter le nombre des lumineux, voilà le but. C’est pourquoi nous crions: enseignement! science! Apprendre à lire, c’est allumer du feu; toute syllabe épelée étincelle. – Victor Hugo

    To reduce the number of those filled with darkness, to increase the number of those filled with light, that is the goal, that is why we cry: education! knowledge! science! To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable spelled out sparkles. – Julie Rose

    You and I will just have to choose different adjectives for our opinion about the film.

    On the musical, yes, my family has seen it in London and on Broadway, and the link I provided in my post actually leads you to a history of it: As you can read there, the suggestion is that Kretzmer collaborated with Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (and Natel). Kretzmer, nonetheless, has been very clear that it was also his reading of English translations of the French novel that led to his work:

    He is, however, very clear about his contribution. He did not merely translate Les Misérables – his French is “wretched”. He read Victor Hugo’s novel in English and worked with a literal translation of the French libretto….

    He cites I Dreamed a Dream as an example. The literal translation of the [Boublil] French lyrics is: “I had dreamed of another life/In which my life would pass like a dream/I was prepared for all follies/All passions which arise.” Kretzmer’s interpretation [inspired also by the translated-into-English novel] elevated it to “I dreamed a dream in time gone by/When hope was high and life worth living/I dreamed that love would never die/I dreamed that God would be forgiving…”

    So I’ll stick by how I open my post above, if I myself was not being clear when using a synecdoche (Broadway musical) for the whole musical adaptation phenomenon.

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