Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, and a tangent.

The only problem with Les Misérables is that I couldn't read it in French. And it makes me want to learn French just so I can read it properly. It's my age-old question - what did I read here, Victor Hugo, or Julie Rose?

This issue frustrates me. I read a translation of a classic and I love it, but I feel like I've not quite got what I ought to have got. That's not the translator's fault, it's the nature of the beast. The novel, this absolute epic, appeared to be flawless, which made me wonder just how much better would it have been in its original language.

What really made me question this was the slang (and there is a chapter called "Slang", but the problem was there long before that). For example,

"Monsieur," the elder boy said bashfully, "aren't you afraid of policemen, then?"
Gavroche merely answered: "You baby! We don't say policemen, we say cops."
"But, golly," said the boy, "we didn't have a home to go to anymore."
"Little nipper!" Gavroche went on. "We don't say home, we say digs."
"And then, we were frightened of being all alone at night."
"We don't say night, we say curfew."
"Cops" is believed to derive from the Old French caper, or "to catch". "Golly" means God, which works as well, and "curfew" is Anglo French, however "digs" was not used until 1893, over thirty years after the publication.

Believe me when I say: I am not criticising the translation. I am not qualified, for a start, and one reading of one edition of Les Misérables does not make me the expert. What troubled me was some of the slang seemed so modern (even though some of these words have been used since the 14th Century), it made me not just wonder but feel frustration at not knowing exactly what Hugo wrote himself. I don't know which words he used and it annoys me that I would have to ask someone. I have never considered why I prefer reading English novels by English or British writers, but this I think is one of the reasons: I don't need to even consider potential problems with translation. I don't, however, believe that this is a good enough reason to stop non-English writers, it's simply a matter of ease ("ease" meaning laziness in this instance!).

And, as I'm on a tangent here, this problem does exist to an extent with American literature. The world is so influenced by America, and in England we take on board so much of their influence, but at the same time, it's assumed by many Americans that we know what they mean when they talk of various topics, use certain words or jargon, or discuss their politics, whereas actually, a great many of us don't. I remember a conversation with an American man; he thought it was laughable that I didn't know he was referring to what we call "pop" when he said "soda". But really, why should I know that? But there's the rub: I should have done. I really don't like that assumption, at times, these assumptions are offensive.

But, this has nothing to do with Les Misérables. I'm just thinking of other examples of words "lost in translation". Les Misérables was amazing, and actually very nearly went wrong: I read the first chapter and hated it, but someone on Twitter said it was one of his favourites so I decided to make an effort. Sometimes, it doesn't matter how much effort you put into a book, but sometimes it really does. It's no good, picking up a book to read another chapter and assuming you'll be bored (and I do do this). But the effort paid off, and it is one of my favourites. Fantine is a character that will stay with me for life. Her story was tragic, yet what came from it was beautiful. There were so many wonderful passages, and some of the more sociological or philosophical commentary was stunning. I want to read more, and because I have so little knowledge of French history and politics, as well as being woefully under-read with French Lit, I have no confidence to expand on this. But I loved it, and it went very nicely with War and Peace. It's an exciting book: it was a wonderful experience to read, and makes me itch to read so much more just so I can appreciate the book more. It's one of the very few books I will re-read.

And it's funny, I don't revere books or authors. For as much as I love Virginia Woolf, I am happy to say I did not enjoy The Years, didn't understand The Waves, and did not get Between The Acts, but with this: I think it's the only book I feel a sort of reverence for. I feel like anything I didn't like about it (not that I can think of anything off-hand) is my short-coming, and not Victor Hugo's. I am so looking forward to reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the next month!

And I'll leave you with my favourite, much-quoted passage:
I met in the street a very poor man who loved. His hat was old, his coat was worn; there were holes at his elbows; the water got into his shoes and the stars got into his soul.
It's a poor way of assessing a book, but I will say - when I put this quote on Tumblr, it was, by far, one of my most reblogged posts!


  1. The soda-pop thing is actually regional in the US. I use "pop," only SOME parts use "soda," some say "soda pop," some use "coke" (for everything), and I'm sure there's others. American English is so full of regionalisms, I think it is unfair to expect all Americans to understand all terms much less those living outside of the US. So, no, you shouldn't have been expected to know what he meant.

    OK, to the topic at hand, the issue of translation is something I've thought about a lot in the last couple years, and one of the reasons I'd really like to boost my Spanish. I've thought about English-language books I've read and how hard they might be to translate. (I can't imagine the difficulties with Shakespeare.) I've read translated works and wondered how they compare to the original. When I read Divine Comedy I had a dual-language text so I could compare the original, and I could see how the (excellent) translation lacked--it is impossible to perfectly reproduce Dante's rhyme scheme and rhythm in English, for instance.

    One of the bloggers I read, Richard at Caravana de recuerdos, reads Spanish-language books in the original Spanish and will often comment on variances he sees when comparing the original to a translation--jokes lost, slang muted, the loss of the familiar vs. formal "you" in English. It's a tough issue because, really we can't all learn all languages for the books we might want to read, so in a sense we rely on the translator to intermediate for us and create a work that is both true to the original but sensible in translation.

    I'm glad to hear you loved Les Miserables. It's on my list, although the length is a touch intimidating! I'm really looking forward to Hunchback as well.

  2. As an American, I couldn't help chuckling when you mentioned things "lost in translation". This is especially tricky with the written word, since we don't have facial expressions and voice inflection for support.

    Enjoyed your post. Les Miserables is on my bookshelf. I hope I can get to it soon!

    Wishing you Easter blessings :)

  3. I agree with Amanda, you shouldn't be expected to know what he meant (though some Americans I know expect to be understood wherever they go). I sometimes feel like my slang and colloquialisms are half American and half British, which seems to do nothing but confuse people wherever I go!

    I love your thoughts on the inherently problematic nature of translation. I'm about to sound like a complete snob here (and maybe I am), but I often have difficulties reading translated novels. The language frequently feels stilted to me; it lacks the natural flow and rhythm of writing not locked down with the task of conveying the meaning of words and ideas to a whole new set of readers. And, I'm ashamed to say, this often results in my abandonment of the translated work.

    I'm trying to do better with this though and make new efforts to read outside of texts written in modern English, I'm missing out on so much.

  4. Wow, that is beautiful writing, often quoted or not! I've been thinking about reading this but (like Clarissa!) I take it as a very good endorsement if you have enjoyed it :)

  5. I read most novels in English which is my second language. I prefer not to read any novels written in English and translated into Danish because I'll much rather read what the author actually wrote and not what the translator thinks the author wrote - not to mention that sometimes the translated editions are abridged as well. With that being said, I can't read French or German or Japanese or whatever good enough to read a novel so I have to read a novel so I have to rely on the translators. I do think a lot of translators do a marvelous job in making us able to read novels published in other languages so I'm grateful for that - while still wishing I could read them as the author wrote them.
    Later this year, I plan on reading Les Miserables and despite reading it in translation, you have really made me look forward to reading this novel.



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