Norman Denny, whose translation of Les Misérables was published by Penguin Classics in 1980, and which is probably the translation that most English readers know, did so much smoothing that, even including the two sections on convents and slang that he turned into appendices, his version is still 100,000 words shorter than Rose’s.
“It is now generally recognized”, wrote Denny, “that the translator’s first concern must be with his author’s intention, not with the words he uses or with the way he uses them”. Most of his elisions are surreptitious – confusing images, eccentric aphorisms, strings of apparently superfluous adjectives. He does, however, confess to pruning Hugo’s dizzyingly detailed chapter, “L'Année 1817”, in which the “physiognomy” of the period is constructed out of a hundred or so seemingly miscellaneous facts: imperial Ns were scratched off the face of the Louvre; a steamboat sailed up the Seine and left Parisians unimpressed; little boys were made to wear enormous leather caps with earflaps; Chateaubriand cleaned his teeth at the window of 27 rue Saint-Dominique every morning while dictating La Monarchie selon la Charte; and so on. According to Denny, nearly all the apparently unrelated facts that make up the chapter are “of no great importance”. Evidently, their interrelatedness escaped him, and he chose to ignore Hugo’s concluding remark, which provides a clue to his megalomaniac ambition as a novelist: “History neglects almost all these little details, and cannot do otherwise: it would be engulfed by the infinite” (“l’infini l'envahirait”). Preferring a more conventional and consoling notion, Denny translates the last phrase as “the larger scenes absorbs them”, which is not at all the same thing.
Monday, September 29, 2008
At the TLS, Graham Robb on Julie Rose's new translation of Les Miserables: