Translation Matters

Something a little different from my usual cross-stitch focused pieces today, kids. I finally finished reading Les Misérables. This was a huge deal for me, because I started reading it in possibly my first year of uni (maybe third or fourth? I’m bad at remembering dates). I’d discovered that you can get classic books for cheaps from the uni bookshop (a discovery that provided me with much and more pleasure, as I grew first more and then less pretentious).

I got quite far through, up to Marius’s falling in with the students, and then it was the holidays, and moving out of one accommodation into another, and I lost the book somewhere between dorm, mam’s house, dad’s house and the new dorm. I might even have lost it between first year and the yawning blank of second year, which I spent in Japan. These things happen. One of the big lessons I’ve learned about moving and travelling is that books are most often sacrificed to the twin gods of luggage allowance and practicality.

This is why I loved Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom, with her suitcases filled with nothing but books.

So, I never finished Les Mis, until I got a Kindle for Christmas and realised I could get it (again) for free.

I couldn’t remember the translator of the first copy I read, but I do remember that it was slightly abridged. It cut out the book on Victor Hugo’s Thoughts on Yaoi Nuns, and possibly his epic description of the battle of Waterloo.

I was delighted that the Kindle copy didn’t cut out a single word.

However, it was by no means an easy read. And this wasn’t Hugo’s fault! Sure, I complained hyperbolically about his cutting up his action scenes to explain the workings and history of Parisian sewers, or his essays on young love, or misfortune, or revolutions (I loved his thoughts on revolutions. I want them written on the insides of my eyelids so I can dream about them), but the truth is, Victor Hugo is a good writer. At his best, you’re halfway through another of his fascinating essays before you realise that he’s done it again, and even at his worst, when the intense run of essays in the middle of the book get a little wearing, you push through because you need to know what happens to his characters, and you need to know more about his world.

The first problem I had with this version wasn’t even to do with the translation – it was the formatting. Now, formatting on an e-book is possibly even more important than formatting in a dead tree book. In a dead tree book, purely by virtue of its having been printed by a real publisher, it has some authority. It is a Real Book. It is Literature. And, because it was typeset and formatted and all that other stuff we pay for when we buy a book, it’s probably formatted pretty well anyway.

With an e-book, you know that everyone and her dog can upload a book and sell it. If you’re anything like me, you’re leery of reading things on Kindle that you’ve never heard of. Much like the proper formatting of a CV and cover letter for a job, an e-book needs to be well formatted in order that the reader will even give it a chance. It’s one of millions of applicants, and poor formatting is the first red flag. Les Mis is a big title, which carries a lot of weight on its own, but this didn’t excuse the terrible formatting of the frequent poems, songs and verses.

Hugo loves his poetry, songs and verses. They showcase regional dialect and slang, popular ideas, the criminal argot. They’re basically the whole chronicle of the gamins. They are everywhere. This translation does not format them at all. They’re stuck in italics, fine, that’s usual, but there are no line breaks (you have to read them in your head, guess the meter and try to find the rhymes that way), and often they aren’t even divided from the normal text. What were these people thinking?

More than that, the second problem I had with this translation, is that the poems are all left in French. They come with footnotes you can follow to the translation, but that’s not the point. Having to follow a footnote to a translation which should have been in the text in the first place is jarring. Now, I read French pretty well. My BA is in French and Japanese, and I took every French literature module that fit into my schedule. I appreciate that these poems etc are difficult to translate, because of all of the archaic, obsolete words. I get that.

Guess what?

I’m the reader. It’s not my problem.

You may as well write a terrible book and explain it away by saying, “Oh, but this plot twist was hard, so I just ignored it.” Bullshit.

Not only this, but Marius’s ridiculous love letter to Cosette? All left in French, translated as a footnote. Two or three pages of solid French, just left in there. What about all the people who don’t read French? Why the hell should they keep reading?

These weren’t isolated incidences. The language was erratic, trying to preserve an old-fashioned feel in places and then completely not bothering later. At one point, when describing the kinds of people who frequent the sewers, the text reads “[Thieves, something else,] and chauffeurs (brigands).” What?! What was the point in that? IF YOU MEANT BRIGANDS, THEN JUST SAY BRIGANDS! WE HAVE A WORD FOR THAT IN ENGLISH! YOU ACTUALLY JUST USED THAT WORD YOURSELF, SO YOU CLEARLY KNOW! What’s the point in bringing in a French word for which we already have a meaning, and a meaning vastly different from what’s meant?

Another thing was the way the puns were translated. I.e., they weren’t. They just weren’t translated at all. I’m not kidding. Marius talks about “an antique memory”, and his grandfather says “Of course, you’ve just reminded me! Moire antique! That’s what I need!”

Any idea what that’s all about? Well, in French Marius probably said something about “une mémoire antique”, from which you can get “moire antique” quite easily if you’re not quite listening (and who would ever listen to Marius rambling on about his love affair? Dude. You are not the only person to find a lady attractive), but there’s no reason at all that his grandfather would make this connection from English. (Also what is moire antique? Some kind of fabric, I assume, but no idea.) It’s ridiculous. It happens all the time. Like, I get it. We don’t have the equivalent of these words Hugo insists on using. There are ways of translating puns. Either you find an equivalent (perhaps losing the meaning to retain the feel) or you ignore it and cut it out. You don’t do… whatever that was. You just don’t.

This translation is threadbare, for want of a better word. There are plenty of slip-ups that I recognise because it’s the kind of thing you do, as a student, or when translator fatigue sinks in. You see a word in katakana that looks like an English word (konsento? Obviously consent!) or a French word that is also an English word (actuellement? ACTUALLY) and stick it right in. Except whoops, konsento means mains plug and actuellement means currently.

The French word order shines through as well, so I found myself sometimes having to try to work out what the French said in order to get a handle on the meaning, which is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you want from a translation. What if it was a translation from Russian, or German, or Chinese, or any of the hundreds of languages that I don’t speak? I mean, how many people know that “to render someone a souvenir of something” means “to make someone remember something”?

The tu/vous divide was translated through the use of “thou” for “tu”, a choice of which I’d doubt the wisdom in our modern day, where “thou” is associated with the Middle Ages and Christian prayers, and therefore formal, but this can be excused. I’ll explain later. Basically, though, it did make me wonder whether translations can date. Can they? Should books be retranslated every  hundred years or so, to be localised for the contemporary audience? If so, would that mean old books would have  to be “translated” into modern speech? I guess not, that sounds ridiculous. Still, though.

You see, I first assumed that this was an amateur translation. I thought that someone had decided to translate Les Mis because it was out of copyright, and stuck it up on Kindle for fun.


Isabel Hapgood translated it in 1887.

Because of this, I could forgive some of the strange word choices (the word “adorable” is used so many times) because language evolves, blah blah, and I assume the original meaning of “thou” was at least closer to the surface than it is now. That said, there’s no excuse for just how shoddy this translation is. Yeah, it’s a long book, and it’s hard, and she totally made sense out of some of Hugo’s more complex ideas, but the woman hung out with Tolstoy and translated The Brothers Karamazov. No excuse.

Or rather, maybe this is the excuse. She’s known for translating from Russian. I haven’t read any of her Russian translations; maybe they’re better. It seems eminently obvious that Russian is her preferred language to translate from, though. This is why translators usually only stick to a single language, I suppose. This is proof that just because you can read French books, that doesn’t make you a French translator. Just because you translate Russian books, that doesn’t mean you can translate French ones.

And the translation is IMPORTANT. It should be, like the formatting, invisible. I’m not going to get into the Venuti argument of exoticism vs ethnocentrism, that’s not what I mean. I mean that, regardless of whatever style of translation you choose, whether you leave the culture intact or localise something completely, the words that the reader reads should be natural. The source language should not be left in to muddle things up. This isn’t a palimpsest, it’s a novel.

But I must say, Victor Hugo is an absolutely fabulous writer to be able to shine through such an appalling translation.

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