The first time I was introduced to Les Misérables was when I was 10 years old. I was in New York City with my family and we were having lunch with my great aunt. After lunch we were going to see a Broadway performance. I was really excited as at that age I was obsessed with musicals and acting, and every Spring and Fall I was in some production or another. When I asked what the play was about my great aunt said, “A man who steals a loaf of bread.” Being a 10 year old, I pictured a man dressed in a black-and-white-striped uniform and hat singing in a happy garden about the loaf of bread he had stolen from a windowsill where it had been left to cool by a woman dressed like a 50’s housewife. I was extremely skeptical. When the curtain rose at that matinee show, however, my skepticism melted away and turned into something else: obsession. I had my parents buy the album, I memorized every song, I even sung “I Dreamed a Dream” when auditioning for a part in The Sound of Music.
On a rainy Wednesday last week, tucked away in a warm theater in a small town two hours north of San Francisco I watched the cinematic version of Les Misérables for the second time. M. sat beside me, and while we had chatted through some of the previews once the movie began we were utterly silent. The first time I had seen the film was when I was home during the winter holidays. My family went to see it together on my brother and my last day. I remember enjoying the film (and crying the moment the movie started), but for some reason this second experience was much more powerful. After the film ended I couldn’t get it out of my head; songs kept playing over and over, emotions kept surging through my veins. I just wanted so badly to be in Les Misérables, which, honestly, is pretty ridiculous. Les Misérables translates to “the miserable ones,” and why on earth would I want to be a character in a story with that title? It didn’t take long for me to figure this out though: I wanted to be part of the passion. Every character in this story is intensely passionate and all of them are fighting for something whether it is a better life, freedom, or love. This kind of emotion and passion are currently missing from my life, but I so desperately crave it that my mind actually wants to propel me into a tragic story.
Wanting to soak up as much of the passion as I can I have decided to read the 1,200-page tome (or 1,400-page tome depending on the copy). The moment I got back into town after M. and my trip to Mendecino county I visited the nearest bookstore to procure a copy. I was surprised, however, to find only one volume sitting on the shelf. Shouldn’t there be a surplus of copies at the bookstore now that the movie has come out? Shouldn’t their be a new edition with a glossy cover displaying Isabelle Allen’s ice blond hair blowing across her dirt smudged face? At this point I became a little frantic. Maybe all the other copies had already been bought up and this was the last one. Who knew when the bookstore would be able to restock their shelves? Any moment now someone might come by and steals this copy right from under my nose. I lunged at the H Fiction shelf, snatched the book, and clutching it closely to my chest hurried to the front of the store.
Once in line I clamed down. The only thing standing between me and reading my book was the two women in line before me. As the second woman went up to pay, however, the feeling of calm began to drain from my body. Les Misérables is French. The original book was written in French. That means this is a translation. That means there are multiple translations. And that means I might be holding the wrong translation in my hand. As the second woman left the counter I madly dashed back into the depths of the fiction section.
Again I found myself standing in front of the H Fiction shelf. To return the book to its place or not to return it? I stared at the book in my hands, at the grotesque drawing of children on the front. What if this is the right copy, but I don’t buy it and when I come back tomorrow to get it, it’s gone? I mean, I need to read it now, I thought to myself. But what if it is a terrible translation and my experience reading this book isn’t as good as someone else’s experience reading a beautiful translation?
Yes, these are the actual thoughts that pass through the head of a librarian’s daughter. So, I returned the book to the shelf and then rushed home to research the best translations. Wilbour is apparently too clunky. Rose’s translation is too modernized, referring to the Thénardier’s Inn as a greasy spoon (seriously, what?). Denny’s version is slightly abridged and doesn’t always offer an accurate translation, but he understands the soul and poetry of the story. The one translator who seemed to stand out as a favorite was Isabel Florence Hapgood who translated the book into English in1887. People seemed truly passionate about her translation, and luckily her translation can be found on Project Gutenberg. Delighted I began to read the html formatted Hapgood translation of Les Misérables.
But it felt wrong. Oh so wrong. Not the translation, but the format. I can’t read this historically rich and deeply emotional piece of classic literature on a 13.6" x 7.6" computer screen. Reading it in this way just made me feel detached. I love the tangibility of books too much. The smell of them, the feel of their pages, the sound they make when a page is turned. I like to write comments in the margins and underline perfectly crafted sentences so that I can read them again and again until they have carved a permanent place in which to sit within my bones. So I stopped reading the online version and eventually returned to the bookstore.
In the bookstore I began to read the volume with the grotesque children on it. In one hand I held this copy and in the other I held my phone displaying the Hapgood translation (thanks, smart phones!). I began to compare the texts. I compared line after line and paragraph after paragraph. Each time the Hapgood version won out, and so I knew it was that version I had to read. And so, thanks to the magic that is online shopping, I found a version of the Hapgood translation for $26.95 on Amazon and purchased the great big beautiful tome immediately. It should arrive on Wednesday. I cannot wait!
And, really, who describes Les Misérables as a story about a man who steals a loaf of bread?