Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

First Impressions of the Donougher Translation

As I mentioned last time, I’ve picked up a new translation of Les Misérables, the 2013 Donougher translation.

I’m at the point where Valjean is about to steal the silver (spoilers!). My first impressions:

Christine Donougher’s translation reads very smoothly. I feel like I’ll get through it faster this time – or would, if it weren’t for all the endnotes describing the outside references. I’m too curious to skip them!

There are a few places where I’ve compared her translation to Norman Denny’s, and they’re fairly similar, but she’s more likely to keep details that Denny glosses over. Msgr. Bienvenu’s gardening, for instance: He’s not familiar with various botanical debates of the day, he just likes growing plants. Denny simply mentions that he took no sides, while Donougher keeps the references to specific scientists and schools of thought, and adds an endnote. Or comparing an ex-con’s reaction to being called “Monsieur” to a shipwreck survivor’s reaction to fresh water – Hugo referenced a particular famous shipwreck, which Donougher explains in a note and Denny just drops as unneeded.

Last time, the opening chapters really felt like a slog, and it took a few weeks for me to get into it. This time, they feel comfortably familiar. It could simply be that it’s only been five years instead of twenty since my last read. Or that I’m older. Or the new translation. Or that it’s 2018.

There’s also a fascinating introduction by Robert Tombs, which covers Victor Hugo’s life, French politics of the time and his involvement with them, and the process of writing the novel. I’d recommend reading through it even if you don’t want to take the time to read the whole book.