Les Miserables Book Movie Tie-In CoverI learned three nice things about the Kindle movie tie-in edition of Les Misérables today:

  • It’s only $3.
  • It’s the same translation (Norman Denny, 1976) that I’ve been reading from a big stack of paper.
  • Page numbers match the print edition I’ve been reading, at least where I’ve spot-checked.

This will be great for times that I don’t want to lug around the brick, or that I’m out and about and want to work on my next article, or that I planned on reading something else and changed my mind.

Les Miserables: The BrickI’ve occasionally looked at the Isabel F. Hapgood translation (1887) on Project Gutenberg, just to check against something closer to contemporary. It’s very different. It is written in 19th century English, after all, and both writing style and language have changed significantly since then.

There are several other modern translations available. When I started this re-read, I considered looking up either the Fahnestock & MacAfee (1987) or Julie Rose (2009) translations. What I found online suggested that the former sacrificed readability in favor of accuracy to Victor Hugo’s text, and the latter tried so hard to be modern that it set up a cognitive dissonance between the setting and language. (This will become less important over time.) I suspect the Fahnestock & MacAfee translation is the one I looked through in a bookstore back in high school, comparing chapters I had recently read and wondering why they made the choices they did.

In the end, rather than look for a new edition, I reached for the old Penguin Classics copy that has been sitting on a succession of bookshelves since my teen years. I haven’t regretted it. Maybe when I come back to the book again a few years down the line I’ll check out another translation. But when I do, I’ll probably just read it instead of commenting on it. Update: Five years later, I came back to the book and read the 2013 Christine Donougher translation. Here are my first impressions.

2020 Update

The Denny translation is no longer available as an ebook. I couldn’t find it on Kindle, Nook, Kobo or even Google Play. I wonder if it’s gone out of print, which would really be a shame.

To make matters more confusing, Amazon doesn’t always match translations between different editions, hasn’t added the translators to most of the listings, and tends to mix reviews from different editions together. There’s no way short of previewing the book to really be sure which one you’re getting. Update: That hasn’t stopped me from trying to sort it out!

I found this funny review of Les Miserables (the book) [ack! link deleted!] on GoodReads via Kobo. It’s been 20 years since I read it myself, but it rings true.

…you will not read the abridged version. Don’t you dare. Don’t even think the word “abridged.” Yeah, I know, Victor Hugo frequently turns away from the main narrative to focus on side characters, historical events, religion, philosophy, and other subjects. That’s why this isn’t called “Jean Valjean’s Excellent Adventure.”

The review even mentions the Paris sewers. Because, really, it would have to.

The crazy thing is that, after seeing the movie, digging out my own review of the new stage version, and stumbling on this review of the book…I’m starting to consider re-reading the novel. Because obviously I have gobs of spare time and no new books to read. And at 1200 pages, it’s only 1 1/3 times as long as A Memory of Light! By page count, anyway. It’s not as if the Les Mis edition I have has tiny type, making those page counts not comparable. And it’s not as if Victor Hugo’s prose is that much denser than Robert Jordan, right?


If I do this, it’s going to take me months.

On the other hand, Katie suggested I could live-tweet the re-read. It would be slow, but hey, it could be interesting.


Update: I’m moving forward with the re-read and online commentary!