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What Is the Best English Translation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables?

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Emile Baynard's famous illustration of little Cosette

Emile Baynard's famous illustration of little Cosette

Abridged or Unabridged?

The first step to finding the copy of Les Miserables best suited for your needs is deciding whether you want an abridged translation or an unabridged translation. Victor Hugo's original work includes several hundred pages detailing things such as convent life, the history of the Paris sewer system, and a lengthy account of the Battle of Waterloo, which took place before the main time frame of the story. While relevant to the main plot of the novel, Hugo's historical tangents are not necessarily required for anybody reading the novel for the first time, and it is up to readers' preference whether they want these parts included in their copy of the novel or not.

C. E. Wilbour Translation

C. E. Wilbour created the first English translation of Les Miserables in 1863, just one year after the original novel was first published. Wilbour's translation, though a bit archaic in its language at times, stays fairly true to the original French version. Often, however, this includes the word order of the French language, which makes the English version a little choppy or hard to understand. However, if you wish to stay as close to the author's original work as possible, Wilbour's translation may be the copy of the novel for you.

Fahnestock & McAfee Translation

The 1987 translation by Lee Fahnestock and Norman McAfee is similar to the Wilbour translation in that it tries to stay as true to the original French text as possible, and has a similarly formal sound to it. However, it differs in that this translation goes further to also translate more of the French terms Wilbour does not, such as the argot slang Hugo explores. For those with little or no French background, but who still want to remain close to Hugo's original text, this translation may be the best suited.

Norman Denny Translation

Denny's 1976 translation is thought by most to be a good balance between Hugo's original text and the readability of modern English. While not considered an "abridged" version, Denny does take the liberty of moving two of the less-necessary lengthy parts to the back of the novel, as appendices. The main point of this translation, according to Norman Denny himself, is to capture the original intent and spirit of Victor Hugo, rather than the word-for-word translation of the text. With that said, this translation may be best suited for those who wish for something a little easier to comprehend, with the spirit of the epic story still intact.

Isabella Hapgood Translation

Isabella Florence Hapgood translated Les Miserables in 1887, and this translation is similar to Wilbour's in that the language used is a little more old-fashioned and fit for the time period Les Miserables was written. This translation is probably best suited for the more visually inclined since it is widely known for including illustrations to go along with the novel's story.

"Les Mis"

"Les Mis"

Julie Rose Translation

Rose's translation is by far the most modern, having been first published in 2008. She takes the liberty of adding little quips here and there that are not explicitly in the original text, which some feel just adds character and voice to the novel. For example, during one of the several chapters on the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon is quoted as calling the Duke of Wellington, "ce petit anglais" -- "that little Englishman." Rose changes this insult to "that little British git." While the language used in Rose's translation is much more modern and easy to read, some criticize it as going too far, and in turn losing some of Hugo's original voice and intent.

Readers Respond!


judith c holder on May 20, 2019:

I simply wish for excerpts in the original French, then a comparison of each translator's version. I want approx. 6 examples & then I will decide for myself. (Yes, I could try juggling multiple copies in the library. . .I was hoping someone would do it here & I could be a bit lazy & benefit from your efforts.)

Alan Parkhill on March 05, 2019:

If Norman Denny is still alive I want to thank him for his excellent translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. He wrote as if Victor Hugo was writing in English. Idioms all seemed to be appropriate all the way through the novel. In my mind's eye I have compared it to Charles Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities' and when the Choir I am in sang the Chorus from the musical 'When you hear the people sing' I resolved to read Victor Hugo's original story. I was presented with the black and red hardback cover by our eldest son after I came home from hospital last October. I started to read it before I heard that the BBC were putting it on. I have just finished reading it before I watch their version. Given the length of the novel, I think they are doing a very good job by leaving bits out. However, I am glad that between Victor and Norman I am able to read the whole text in very understandable English. I saw the musical about 50 years ago and MAY revisit it later. Thank you for this opportunity to contact, if possible, Mr Norman Denny, and to congratulate him on his admirable translation.

ken on February 24, 2019:

i have a new les mis from barnes and noble classics hardcover, but i cannot find what translation it is. any help?

Terence Miller on January 23, 2018:

Bill Homewood has read Les Miserables on Audiobooks. Does anyone know which translation he is reading? It is not apparent on the Naxos label.

Ems on August 16, 2017:

I don't know who William Denner is but the novel in the picture is certainly Norman Denny's translation as I'm reading it right now.

Mark Kromer on April 09, 2017:

I have the black and red hardcover in the picture and it is William Denner's.

Alanna on November 16, 2016:

By far, the best translation is the one by Christine Donougher from 2013. You actually included it in the article, it's the black and red hardcover next to the summary for Rose. It keeps the meaning and impact of Hugo's words, while not sounding too formal and never being a drag. As a plus, the paperback cover is absolutely stunning.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on October 12, 2016:

I never knew there were so many translations of Les Miserables, and I appreciate your explaining how each translation differs from the other. I only know the musical, and when I was a child I read a comic book version of it. But I have yet to read the actual book.