Best English Translations of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables

Updated on November 10, 2014
Emile Baynard's famous illustration of little Cosette.
Emile Baynard's famous illustration of little Cosette.

Abridged or Unabridged?

The first step to finding a copy of Les Miserables best suited for your needs is deciding whether you want an abridged translation or unabridged translation. Victor Hugo's original work includes several hundred of 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 reader 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 the following 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 farther 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 in tact.

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


Julie Rose Translation

Rose's translation is by far the most modern, having been first published in 2008. She takes liberty to add 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!

Which is your favorite translation of Les Miserables?

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      Terence Miller 7 weeks ago

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

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      Ems 7 months ago

      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.

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      Mark Kromer 11 months ago

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

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      Alanna 16 months ago

      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.

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      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 17 months ago from Philippines

      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.