Re-Reading Les Misérables

Thoughts and commentary on Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.

When Javert Loses His Cool

When Javert shows up to arrest “M. Madeleine,” he’s really out of sorts. At first you can only tell by the fact that the buckle of his collar was slightly out of place. Then he forgets to actually produce a warrant, and can’t quite get the words out.

Javert did not say, ‘Let’s get a move on!’ He said, ‘Lessghehmwuhahn!’ No spelling can do justice to the way in which it was uttered: it was no longer human speech, it was an animal roar.

I’m really enjoying some of the wordplay in the 2013 Christine Donougher translation of Les Misérables. It’s apparently in the original, but the last translation I read sacrificed a lot of it to make the text read more smoothly.

Not that I can read the French, but it’s clearly the same description:

Il y eut dans l’inflexion qui accompagna ces deux mots je ne sais quoi de fauve et de frénétique. Javert ne dit pas: «Allons, vite!» il dit: «Allonouaite!»* Aucune orthographe ne pourrait rendre l’accent dont cela fut prononcé; ce n’était plus une parole humaine, c’était un rugissement.

The last time I read Norman Denny’s translation (1976):

Javert said: ‘Then be quick about it.’ He spoke the words in savage haste, running them together in an unintelligible growl that scarcely resembled human speech.

It does get the same idea across, and it does flow better. But it’s not quite as viscerally satisfying.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the Isabel Hapgood translation (1887) on Project Gutenberg:

There lay in the inflection of voice which accompanied these words something indescribably fierce and frenzied. Javert did not say, “Be quick about it!” he said “Bequiabouit.”

Awkward by today’s standards, but then it does read like a nineteenth century English language novel, which makes sense.

Interestingly, it turns out that there’s another English translation from 1887 [correction: it was 1862], from a different publisher. Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall:

“Come, make haste—”

There was something savage and frenzied in the accent that accompanied these words; no orthographer could write it down, for it was no longer human speech, but a roar.

OK, sort of splitting the middle, trying not to do the undignified spelling, but still alluding to it.

What’s interesting is that of the four versions I’ve compared, the two women are willing to go for a comparable translation of the growl, but the two men sort of step around it. It’s like they thought this was too serious a book for something like that. And I’ve noticed a lot of places where the humor and wit comes through better in Donougher’s translation than Denny’s.

Update: Three More Translations

It’s February 2021 now, and I’ve picked up a few more translations. Let’s see how they approach the same passage.

Charles Wilbour (1862), one of the first to translate the novel into English, actually did try to translate the growl. The fact that (as I now understand it) Wilbour was American and Wraxall was British might have something to do with the different approaches.

“Hurry along.”

There was in the manner in which these two words were uttered, an inexpressible something which reminded you of a wild beast and of a madman. Javert did not say “Hurry along!” he said: “Hurr-'long!” No orthography can express the tone in which this was pronounced; it ceased to be human speech; it was a howl.

And while the specific choice of words seems a bit too polite, mashing them together sounds like “hurl,” which fits the moment better.

From what I remember, Lee Fahnestock and Norman Macafee (1987) based their translation on Wilbour’s, modernizing the language rather than starting over, and you can definitely see similarities:

“Hurry up.”

In the inflection of those words there was an inexpressible something, part wild beast, part madman. Javert did not say, “Hurry up!” he said, “Hur-up!” No spelling could express the tone in which this was said; it was no longer human speech; it was a howl.

I think I would have gone with “Hrup!” myself. 🤷‍♂️

And finally, Julie Rose (2008):

“Move it!”

There was in the tone that accompanied those two words something wild and frenzied. Javert did not say “Move it!” he said “Mout!” No spelling could render the tone in which this was uttered; it was no longer human speech, it was an animal roar.

“Roar” or “growl” seem to fit better with Javert than “howl,” and “Move it!” does seem more his style than “Let’s get a move on!”

So as it turns out, of the English translators only Wraxhall and Denny skipped the word-smashing entirely. But everyone translated “Allons, vite!” differently!