on July 2, 2006
I have both the original Wilbour translation and the Norman Denny translation of this book, and I'd say that the Denny translation is the more readable of the two. Graham Robb, in his award-winning biography of Hugo has called Denny's translation "swiss cheese" and "translation as censorship." However, it's well-written, and the "excised" sections are included as appendices to which any reader can turn. In places where Denny edits the prose, he captures the spirit of the novel.
But the best comparison is made by reading:
here's Wilbour from the beginning of Part Two, Book Four:
"Forty years ago, the solitary pedestrian who ventured into the unknown region of La Salpetriere and went up along the Boulevard as far as the Barrier d'italie, reached certain points where it might be said that Paris had disappeared. It was no longer a solitude, for there were people passing; it was not the country for there were houses and streets. It was not a city, the streets had ruts in them, like highways, and grass grew along their borders; it was not a village, the houses were too lofty. What was it then? It was an inhabited place where there was nobody. It was a desert place where there was somebody. It was a boulevard of the great city, a street of Paris, wilder at night than a forest and gloomier by day than a graveyard. It was the old quarter of the horse-market."
Denny's version of the same passage
" A stroller forty years ago penetrating beyond the Salpetriere by way of the Boulevard de l'Hopital as far as the Barrierr d'italie, would have come to a region where Paris seemed to disappear. It was not a wilderness, for there were inhabitants; not country, for there were streets and houses; not a town, for the streets were rutted like country roads, and grass grew in them; nor was it a village, for the houses were too high. What was it then? It was an inhabited place where there was no one, a deserted place where there was someone, a city boulevard, a paris street, wilder by night than the forest, more melancholy by day than a graveyard. It was the anciet quarter of the horse-market, the Marche-Aux-Chevaux."
on June 4, 2001
A few words of advice about Les Miserables...
Buy an old copy (am I allowed to say that!). I found mine in an antique bookstore. It's an old beat-up hardcover. It just makes the whole experience more...historic!
Dare to read the unabridged edition. If Hugo could have told this story in fewer words he would have. Don't cheat yourself out of the real thing. Charles Wilbour's translation is an excellent one.
Take your time with it. When you get frustrated by lengthy explanations and background information, put it down and come back to it. But don't give up!
Les Miserables is one of the greatest stories every written. Hugo brings to life such weighty concepts as Grace, Forgiveness, Repentance, and Redemption and Salvation. The spiritual imagery is very rich. The interaction between Jean Valjean and the Bishop is absolutely life changing.
"Jean Valjean my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!"
on January 15, 2008
Although Wilbour's classic translation of Les Miserables is excellent, readers may also wish to consider the newer unabridged translation by Fahnestock and MacAfee; apart from being somewhat more natural to Anglophone ears, the latter also contains translations of some of the French verses that Wilbour did not translate (e.g., see Saint Denis XII:6).
on January 23, 2010
I am a university professor -and French by birth and parenthood- and I teach Masterpiece of World Literature. Knowing very well the original text of Victor Hugo and having presented papers on Les Miserables in international academic colloquiums, I decided to put Les Miserables on my program. As the original has quite a voluminous number of pages and I have to cover many pieces, I decided to go for an abridged version of it.
My disappointment is total!!!
1. This is the most ancient translation of Les Miserables made in 1862 (like that the publisher doesn't need to pay any copyright to any translator or author making a full profit) and the English is dated and not always faithful to the original (for instance when Cosette watch herself in the mirror the French original says that she felt like she was ugly [laide] but it is translated homeless (a word my student didn't even understand).
2. In addition, the abridged work made here is one of the worse I have seen. The classic pieces have been removed (like: who was Fantine and how she got Cosette and was abused by a student in Paris and how she was really in love with him - she was a grisette - Fantine selling all she has (hair, teeth ...) to provide for Cosette and becoming a prostitute is removed - the famous episode of Valjean taking Cosette back from the Thenardier is not even there!!!! Valjean giving the factory back to the workers, etc ...). The first part Fantine should be renamed as so much on Fantine has been cut!
The cut is completely arbitrary and there are absolutely no transitions between the cuts! It is a lame work.
I had to make photocopies of the missing text to be able to do my class!
3. To add insult to injury, my bookstore also ordered used version of this book and with exactly the same cover, same ISBN. So i had 48 students in class with the same cover book all the same look but ... from previous editions to the new one, all the pages number were wrong form one version to another because the editor in the last edition decided to increase the font size. There are - at the end of the book- more than 70 pages additional which makes it impossible for students to follow from one version to another and impossible to quote in an academic work!!!!!
This is close to a crime for an academic!
Therefore, I DO NOT RECOMMEND THIS VERSION.
Buy the original and read portions of it rather than this! I do recommend warmly the original text of Hugo. Julie Rose is the one who made the most recent translation. Rather go for this last one.
on May 12, 1999
I love the film adaptions and musical of Les Miserables, but they can't even compare to the greatness of this piece of literature. It's such an epic story, covering such topics as justice vs. the law, and ultimate love and self-sacrifice. Everyone can find something to relate to, something to learn from, and something to enjoy in this novel. The characters truly do come alive in this novel, from the center and hero of the story, Jean Valjean, to the minor characters. I particularly was touched by the story of Fantine, a "minor" character but easily my favourite. This character falls from innocence, and eventually makes an ultimate self-sacrifice for her daughter. I found myself unable to put the book down on many a late night, but especially so on the chapters concerning Fantine. Of course, perhaps my love for "classics" and "epics" and "historical romance" may have helped me enjoy the book so, as I know many people who could barely get through the first 20 pages of the 1400 + page novel. Some people may not have the patience to go through the Waterloo part, etc. It is a quite detailed book, and it does go very much "off-topic" a few times. But I still enjoyed every single word. I hope the size of the book won't make people think twice about reading it, it really is best unabridged. I have read the abridged version and it is quite confusing, and you miss several moving scenes. In my own opinion, everyone should read this book, unabridged...and prepare to be amazed!
on October 2, 2001
I won't attempt to extensively review this classic, except to say that it's one of the most readable, involving, uplifting books you'll ever read, *if* you enjoy the kind of long, detailled 19th century novel that you really can immerse yourself in.
I'd like to point out some positives of the Penguin edition, since editions can differ greatly in attributes. The Penguin is almost unabridged, but not quite (in case the low price had you wondering). It still checks in at a hefty 1232 pages, and has been trimmed by the translator only of some [here are his words]: "passages of mediocrity and banality....which may cause the reader to lose all patience.... The translator can, I maintain, do something to remedy these defects without falsifying the book." So it won't please absolute purists, but it is very much more complete than are some of the smaller mass market editions.
It's a larger format ("trade") paperback. This 1976 translation is by Norman Denny, and I love it. It's warm and readable, and he spells out place names instead of keeping to the old convention of calling Myriel the "Bishop of D----." I highly recommend this edition.
on June 28, 2006
... but this was the most popular book, read by soldiers, North and South, during our Civil War. We should be better for hearing democracy in Beethoven, piety in Bach, compassion in Mozart -- and perhaps we do, one person at a time, but I fear we are always running out of time.
I read this book thirty years ago, over two winters, setting it down midway in March 1977 I believe. I had heard a near-complete reading on NPR, spread over at least a month of Saturday afternoons. I always made sure I was home for that; I was a single parent, then, father of a seven year old boy. To use a cheap term of the day, I could 'relate' to Jean Valjean, and I was thrilled by the music that opened each episode: the March to the Scaffold from Berlioz' "Symphony Fantastique." After the final episode, I went out and bought the Modern Library Giant, and began to read.
The radio production was not complete! While I found the details surrounding the Battle of Waterloo truly informative -- the description of the battlefield as a captial A was a vivid model of simplicity -- the long section on the history of the nuns' order where Valjean and his young ward take refuge, and where she is educated, invited a lot of skimming.
Skim where you will, but try to read the complete book. At some later time you can return to those pages you skimmed, and discover what you missed.
Les Miserable, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Joseph and His Brothers, Remembrance Of Things Past (okay, In Search Of Lost Time), Ulysses -- all of these demand much of us, particularly our time. That is a good thing, considering the many ways modern life invites us to waste time, and I could not begin to choose the best among these. Fortunately I don't have to; I might run to "As I Lay Dying" or "Lord Jim" instead.
Meanwhile, I'm glad I devoted a chunk of my life to this book. I do know I emerged a better man for that, and how sad I was when I read the final page, and closed the book.
on November 16, 2012
Instead of being the Donougher translation, as advertised, the text in this edition is that of the earlier Penguin translation by Norman Denny. This may disappoint some buyers, but as all I was looking for was a nice, hardcover edition of this fantastic novel (which happens to be my absolute favorite), I was very satisfied. The cover is very nice, and the pages are light, thin and smooth, as I tend to enjoy best. There is a very nice silk bookmark in between the pages, just as the other recent Penguin Classics editions have included.
Five stars for the book itself, and the quality of this edition, but I have to subtract one for not being the new translation that was being advertised. I heard that the Donouhger translation was simply not ready for press, so the Denny translation was substituted. If this is the case, I can forgive it, but Amazon ought to have updated their information before release.
EDIT: This information has since been rectified. Amazon low lists the book as being the Norman Denny translation.
on February 9, 2014
I am sure that most people reading this review will already be familiar with the story of Les Misérables. You may have seen the hit musical, the movie based on that musical, a television adaptation or one of the many non musical movie adaptations. Needless to say Les Misérables is a story that has proved to be timeless and the social issues it examines are just as relevant today as in 1862 when the novel was first published. Part of the appeal of Les Misérables is that it has many themes and contains elements of many genres. Generally the novel is classified as a romance (in the style of say Walter Scott) but it is also a social commentary, a historical study of Nineteenth Century France, an examination of the human condition (the discussion of the moral dilemma faced by Jean Valjean in the first part of the novel is the most gripping thing I have read in any text), a love story, a detective story and an adventure story. Les Misérables has something for everyone. That is why I think the novel has a universal appeal.
The novel also contains spiritual themes. The novel is popular with many conservative Christians but to be clear Hugo never mentions any particular religion. There are biblical allegories for sure in some parts of the novel but Hugo is more concerned with the spiritual side of man than organised religion. The introduction mentions Hugo started his own religion that is still practiced in Vietnam.
The novel has a reputation for having long digressions. This is true but I also think it is part of the charm of the novel. Les Misérables is not just about the story of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to 19 years in the prison hulks for stealing a loaf of bread or Fantine, a grisette who has been kicked to the ground by life and is now struggling to find money for her daughter, or Marius, the son of a soldier who fought for Napoleon, raised by his royalist bourgeoisie grandfather. Les Misérables is more than that. It is also an outlet for Hugo's views on poverty, prejudice, war, nationalism,modern France, the criminal justice system, capital punishment, architecture, monasteries, and the Paris sewer system amongst other things. Many have said that Les Misérables is in part about Victor Hugo. One journalist writing just after Hugo's death said that Les Misérables contained "all that Victor Hugo knew and was expected to know". I fully agree with this. Les Misérables is as much the story of Victor Hugo as the story of Jean Valjean. If you read Les Misérables, you are going deep into the mind of Hugo. This makes reading the novel a rich and rewarding experience. Without the digressions, the novel would feel rather empty. If you have watched any of the TV or movie adaptations, you are missing out on some wonderful insights that only the novel can give you.
One of Hugo's strengths is his characterization. Marius and Cosette are more rounded characters in the novel than in the movie adaptations. Likewise the nine principal members of the Friends of the ABC student group are sketched out in great detail and you soon become acquainted with their various personalities unlike the movies which only focus on the leader Enjolras.
Do not be put off by the size of the novel. The text is actually very readable and you will find that you will get through the novel quite quickly. I actually found the novel much more readable than some shorter works by Dickens.
Now onto the translation. First a little bit of translation history. American Charles Wilbour was the first to translate the novel and his version was published by Carleton in 1862 just months after the novel was published in Brussels. The fact that Wilbour, at the age of just twenty nine, completed the translation so quickly is astounding. The translation is very close to Hugo's French and is highly regarded. The set was plagarised in the South in 1863 during the Civil War by publishers West and Johnson who removed many of the anti slavery texts that Hugo wrote. Thankfully once the war had ended, Carleton's one volume edition of Wilbour's original became the most dominant version and was constantly in print. An abridged version of Wilbour's translation was released in the UK by Catto & Windus in 1874. The unabridged version was finally released in the country in 1890.
The only downsides of Wilbour's translation are that it contained no footnotes and French verse parts were not translated. This was rectified in 1987 by an updated translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, released by Signet. The vocabulary is more modern so the translation will appear more readable to someone who finds 19th Century texts difficult. This is the most common paperback version in the USA and has the musical logo on the cover. It is unabridged like the original Wilbour, has full place names instead of dashes (so you get Digne instead of D-, this was a revision Hugo himself made to the text in 1881) and French verse parts are translated into English in footnotes.
Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall's translation was the first to be released in the UK and appeared in 1862, just before the release of the last volume of Wilbour's translation in America. Wraxall's translation was the only one to pay copyright to the publishers. It was advertised as the most "literal" translation. It is abridged as it deliberately misses chapters and books (Wraxall gives his reasons for this in the preface). The text was even further abridged from the fourth edition onwards. The omitted parts were translated in the USA by J Blamire for the 1886 Deluxe Edition by Routledge and this same text was used for the 1938 Heritage Press release with illustrations from Lynn Ward. Little Brown also supplemented the Wraxall text in 1887. Later reprints by various publishers, such as Allison & Co, supplemented the text using Wilbour. Even with the supplementations, the Wraxall version is still very poorly regarded. Hugo himself even voiced his disapproval.
The Wraxall translation was also heavily plagarised by others. The translation by William Walton et al. (actually a pseudonym of John Thomson of the Philadelphia Free Library), released in 1892 by the publisher G Barrie, borrows heavily from Wraxall.
Isobel F Hapgood's translation first appeared in 1887 and was published by Thomas Crowell. Hapgood's translation was generally very well regarded at the time, although some of the language used has become outdated. Hapgood's main defect is that she misses out the Cambronne section. This omission was restored by a handful of publishers in the early Twentieth Century including John Wannamaker, Dumont and Century Co. Crowell continued to publish a copyright version without the supplementation so it is clear that Hapgood did not approve of such additions.
In the 1890s Henry L Williams released a translation. This translation could almost be considered an adaptation. Williams specialised in cheap dime novels and his translation (if he did actually translate it himself) is a dumbed down and heavily abridged version issued to cater for the "lower end" of the market. His translation is called "The Outcasts".
The early years of the post war era was mainly filled with adaptations and abridgments of Wilbour's text (a famous abridgment by James K Robinson reduced Wilbour's text to under 400 pages). Norman Denny was the first person to offer a new translation in the Twentieth Century. This is the most common version available in the UK, released in 1976 by Folio Press (with bizarre illustrations) and by Penguin as a paperback in 1980. Highly readable but Denny takes great liberties with Hugo's text and a lot of material is omitted. Two sections are moved to the end of the book as appendixes. Penguin continues to print this but thankfully they have now released this superior translation by Christine Donougher.
Finally in 2008 an unabridged translation by Julie Rose was released by The Modern Library in the US and Vintage in the UK. The main criticism of this translation is that the vocabulary is very modern and at times feels awkward. For instance Rose uses the term "slimy spook" to describe Javert in one section. I have never heard this term before and I cannot imagine it being a good translation of the French term Mouchard. I do respect Rose for translating such a difficult text. Her translation just didn't click with me.
So now we come to the new translation by Christine Donougher. So why is this translation superior to the others? It is complete and unabridged, unlike Denny, Wraxall and Hapgood. It doesn't feel like the language has been dumbed down, unlike Rose. It has excellent notes and footnotes, unlike Wilbour and the updated versions of his text. The text flows well. I would say the closest translation to Donougher in terms of style is probably Hapgood. It is certainly as readable as say Denny.
The introduction, translation notes and timeline are fascinating. I think the publishers made the right decision in choosing Robert Tombs, a history Professor, to write the introduction rather than say a English Lit Professor. This means we have a greater emphasis on the historical aspects of the novel. Donougher's notes on the translation are quite interesting, especially how she dealt with Hugo's discussion of slang. The timeline is a lot more detailed than the ones given in previous translations and offers a wonderful overview on the life of Victor Hugo. The notes section at the end of the book is excellent and helps give the context to many scenes in the novel. My only complaint would be that the notes at the end of the book should reference which page number the note relates to.
Apologies for the extended essay. In summary Christine Donougher's translation of Les Misérables is the best version available in English and I would advise all fans of the novel to buy it. Well done to Penguin for publishing this splendid edition.
on March 28, 2000
I am now fifteen I was fourteen when I first saw the musical on PBS and absoulutly loved it. My parents bought the musical for me for Christmas. My brother and I both loved it, and we have memorized nearly all the words. I then became intrested in the novel which I knew was like a million pages long, but I love to read and I loved the musical, so I decided to go for it. I thought it would take me months to read, but it was so intriguing that I finished it in one week (and yes is was the unabriged version). The last night I just read all night long until I finished it. It is sometimes hard to remember that the characters are not real people. I love every character, even Javert. I love the chapters in which Hugo takes us inside the minds of Jean Valjean and Javert. I am afraid I disagree with a earlier review which states that the death of Enjolras and Grantaire was the most moving part of the book although it was extremely moving, the death of Jean Valjean was the most moving, I mean it makes you cry for thirty pages, what can be more moving? In my personal opinion this is the greatest book ever written, but I have never read "War and Peace" which I hear some people think is the best. FYI: Leo Tolstoy said that Les Miserables was one of the greatest, if not the greatest novel ever written, but that was before he wrote "War and Peace".
I noticed that alot a people feel this book is extremely long and I have to admit that some parts weren't entirely necessary, but I still would recommend reading the unabridged version, you just can't get the full depth of the story unless you read the full version.
To sum it all up read the book and go see the musical they are both exellent.