The first book I’ve bought this year happens to be a new translation of a book I already own. I know, I know. It weighs in at 1330 pages and almost 2lbs too.
I couldn’t help myself though.
Les Miserables happens to be a book I loved in my early twenties when I read the Michael Denny translation. I remember it well. It was November, there was torrential rain every day and I had about fifteen days of holiday leave still to take that year. So I took them all. I stocked up on soup ingredients and spent about eight or nine days reading, taking long hot baths, making bread, eating soup, drinking red wine and watching the rain. And crying. I seem to remember this is one of the few books I’ve ever read that made me cry. That week or so is one of the most vivid reading memories I have.
But I have been curious about just how faithful the Denny translation is for a while. You see, the Denny is well known for it’s slightly arrogant approach to both Hugo and the original text. It dumps two sub-plots in the appendices, ruthlessly ‘tidies’ the text of elements that Denny thought were superfluous and consequently massively abridges throughout the book. It’s 100,000 words shorter than Julie Rose’s 2007 translation (even if you include the appendices), something that Vintage’s promotion of the new version made much of.
And so, when I saw all the various editions piled up in a bookshop – the new film image covered edition, the cloth bound, the older standard editions – well I realised I actually did want a copy of the Rose version to compare to the Denny and it became the first book I bought in 2013.
I’m hoping for a rainy week or two in February. :)
It’s been criticised for some mistakes, some misjudged or missed puns and the odd modern word but I suspect any new translation of such a huge work (in every sense of the word) would have a tough job winning over critics and make plenty of mistakes. I am focusing on, and delighted by, the prospect of reading an unabridged version by a translator who appears to adore the original and Hugo.
I’m hoping to find what Jeanette Winterson did when she said:
‘God is in the detail, and Julie Rose has returned all the detail, and made a language that is rich and gorgeous. This is the one to read – more than a thousand pages of it, and if you are flying, just carry it under your arm as you board, or better still, re-book your holiday and go by train, slowly, page by page.’
If nothing else, it’ll be fun to compare them all the translations properly over a couple of years and lots of red wine… ;)