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Customer Review

56 of 61 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading but..., March 14, 2009
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This review is from: Les Misérables (Modern Library (Hardcover)) (Hardcover)
I have to say that this is one of the most captivating and masterful books I have ever read. Victor Hugo has a very unique writing style and I feel that this is something that the translator should try to reproduce as closely as possible. While the book is certainly not abridged, it is edited in other ways that don't make sense. The translator adds her own voice to the translation, especially by inserting contractions and modern prose. I understand that one of the purposes for creating a new translation was to make the old-fashioned prose easier to read and understand. There are certainly many horrible editions out there that are both hard and painful to read. However, the book sometimes comes off as casual and out of place, since it is so grounded in historial detail.

The main problem I have with this edition is that it doesn't exactly supply the right emotional depth that was in the original. I first read the Signet Classics edition, which is very literally translated at times during the dialogue, but translates the meaning behind the characters' words very well. In that edition, the dialouge seemed stilted but gave a better tone to every scene. Julie Rose's dialogue is easier to read and sounds right to American readers, but she often makes changes and additions to Hugo's writing that don't feel right. To me, it sometimes fails to convey the emotion behind the scene. Making something easier to read should not be the main goal of the translator. And while she mentions in her introduction that the book was very dear to her and she was careful in rewriting it, there are some moments in the book when the writing seems awkward even if you're reading it for the first time. Compare referring to someone as 'a beautiful slab of marble' to 'a beautiful statue.' The choice is the translator's, but it seems at times that she didn't think hard enough about how her writing sounded. Her writing is far improved from those editions that translated a chapter entitled "The Blotter Talks" as "A Drinker is a Babbler", because she can capture the actual meaning of the French words and switch it into understandable English, but it feels like something is missing from the original.

Since it is possible (though extremely difficult) for me to read the French original, I will probably have more complaints about the translation than those who are reading the book for the first time. If that's the case, I would recommend the Signet edition, particularly if you already feel daunted by the size. The Julie Rose translation is actually larger and longer than the French original, and since she adds rather than deducts from nearly every passage, it can be hard to read. To me, the Signet edition retains the feel of the original and better reproduces the characters. While the writing is much clearer than the original translation and many other editions, it isn't contemporary, and it may be easier for you to read Rose's edition. In either case the book is magnificent, but if you read and love one translation, I would look at the other just to compare. You'd be surprised just how different they are.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 31, 2009 1:12:41 PM PDT
Thank you for your informative review, and for your helpful comments at the end of mine. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them! I really was hoping to take French again this summer, but my college doesn't offer it. I'd love to brush up on my French sometime, since it's such a beautiful language. My hat's off to you, to be able to read the Hugo original.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 7, 2009 12:16:44 PM PDT
annica says:
Thanks! I won't pretend that it's easy, but it gets easier the more you read, especially since Hugo tends to repeat some of his favorite words... I think you can learn a lot more by reading or immersing yourself in a language by going to a foreign country than by taking a class; reading has helped me become much more familiar with recognizing different verb tenses. Try reading a children's book in french, one of the first ones I read was Le Petit Prince which is written very simply and is a beautiful book.

Posted on Apr 10, 2010 9:00:14 AM PDT
rater25 says:
"Making something easier to read should not be the main goal of the translator." Exactly!!

Posted on Jan 18, 2011 8:30:53 AM PST
By 'easier' do you mean dumbed-down/simplified or do you mean that it has been translated in a more English friendly, and therefore, more fluent to the English reader, than other translations? I understand being a literary purist, if anything, I have leanings in that direction myself, but if Ms. Rose's translation makes Hugo's work more readable, more understandable, is that really a crime? Books are written, for the most part, to be read. Some authors, it is true, seem to hold themselves above their audience and seem to write things simply for the sake of being inaccessible, but these authors are rarely valued by anyone who does not mistake egoism for cleverness. Sometimes humans have a tendancy to mistake confusion and lack of direction for cleverness and depth, but I think most intelligent persons are able to make a distinction between these traits. So, I just wanted to understand exactly what you mean by "Making something easier to read should not be the main goal of the translator." Because, if you mean that the translator is not to take the work she is translating and make it enjoyable by people of another language (in this case, English) I disagree. Different languages have different syntax and ways of expressing ideas that would not be readily understood by people of another language. Sometimes, a sacrifice of exact translation in favor of expressing the beauty of a story seems to me unavoidable. I can't read French. If I were to read an exact translation of Victor Hugo's work in English, can you honestly say that I would have a fair chance of enjoying the book as is my right as a reader?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 8, 2013 6:18:01 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 8, 2013 6:20:13 AM PST
A. Carmack says:
Rose's translation jars the sensibilities of the reader by her use of informal, almost slang words and phrases. It is the novel that should do this, not a "hip" translation. Therefore, does her translation make the novel more readable? No, by far. If this were the only English translation of Les Misérables, I might slug through it, but I would probably learn French instead, rather than subject myself to her groovy word choices. Given that there are other translations, eminent and readable, this one should be trashed and the others treasured.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 12, 2014 5:57:08 AM PST
E. Kahn says:
Most critics of Rose's translation seem to think that there was no such thing as slang, dialect or jargon outside of modern America, that literature and literary language must always be high flown. Most of the characters in Les Mis are the dregs of the earth, either economically or morally; believe me, they didn't speak the king's/emperor's French. Master translator John Ciardi was once criticized for the vulgarity of the language of Dante's Inferno. But Dante deliberately matched the language of his damned souls to their moral status with slang you wouldn't use around your kids. As literary translators, our job is to translate meanings, character and atmosphere not just words or the exact replication of the syntax of another language. Yes, there is a certain amount of interpretation and subjectivity that goes into translation; it's not, after all, rocket science, but an art.
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