Let me say for starters that I like reading novels in translation -- more, in many ways, than novels in my own mother tongue. When you read a novel in your own language, after all, there is only one version of it -- the author's. That leaves you with only one interpretation until other people are brought in -- your own. When a novel is translated, each translation is slightly different and you can read other translators' interpretations of it and marvel and the subtle distinctions to be made no matter how it is done.
Nonetheless, some translations are better than others. And one of the greatest mistakes one can make in translating is being too literal. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I don't much like the translation I have. It is apparently an updated version of a translation that came out shortly after the book was published and suffers from two main vices -- it is too literal, and at times it fails to take into account how the English language has changed since the original was written.
Some parts, I will concede, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to translate because they express things for which there is no equivalent. It may be highly significant whether characters address each other as "tu" (familiar) or "vous" (formal), but how do you convey it in English, which makes no such distinction? Some translations use the first name as the equivalent; others simply use the French (or other foreign) word, and both translations are defensible. Hugo also has a whole section on argot, the elaborate slang of a sub-culture, used as a code to keep the dominant culture from understanding. He then has a chapter in such heavy argot that it requires extensive use of footnotes to be comprehensible, even in French. How can one possibly translate such a thing?
But there are other parts that can be translated, but are done best if one recognizes that, although English has many words of French origin, their meaning in English is not truly the same as their meaning in French. To take a very basic example, Jean Valjean is forever described as "straining to see through the obscurity." Obscurity is a French word with a very similar-sounding counterpart in English that does not mean the same thing. No one in English, in 1862 or today, ever strained to see through the obscurity. The proper word is "darkness." Likewise, there are frequent references to "miasmas." I believe "miasma" was more likely to be part of an English working vocabulary in 1862, when swamp gas was thought to cause disease, but it was never a synonym for foul smell. Thus when Jean Valjean emerges from the sewer, it sounds ridiculous to say, "The miasmas, the obscurity, the horror, were behind him."* It is much better English to say, "The darkness, stench and horror were behind him." Not only is obscurity something quite different in English than darkness, but I am sure that no English-speaking sewer ever contained anything as fancy as a miasma -- just a plain old Anglo-Saxon stench. And if one sees a man traveling through the sewer with a (seemingly) dead body on his back, in French it may be "assassination in flagrante delicto" or even "assassination caught in the very act." In English, he is a murderer caught red-handed.** Or consider when the author (with proper Victorian delicacy) hints that Jean Valjean harbors carnal feelings for his adopted daughter without being aware of it, and qualifies, "less a sentiment than an instinct, less an instinct than an attraction." Presumably "attraction" had less of a sexual connotation then than it does now. But the these days the sexual connotation is there, and unless it is intended, the translator would do well to use some other expression.
But these at least are mere irritations, nothing that would cause serious confusion. Other poor translations really can distort the meaning. A major pet peeve of mine is the use of "livid" to mean pale. Yes, I know, you don't have to tell me, the English word livid comes from the French word "livide," which, does, in fact, mean pale. The original meaning of livid in English was pale. The use of "livid" to mean uncontrollably angry is really short for "livid [pale] with rage," apparently on the belief that people who turn pale with rage are far more angry and dangerous than people who turn red in the face.*** Livid may, in fact, have meant pale in English in the 19th Century. All of this notwithstanding, the normal use of "livid" in English these days is to mean uncontrollably angry. It's not so bad to use livid to mean pale when the pallor is caused by sickness, injury or death. (Though I still think there are better words to use). But what happens when Javert tells Valjean (then mayor of a small town) that he denounced him as a convict? "The mayor became livid." In today's English, that is a terrible translation! Rather than saying the mayor turned pale (which is what the original text intends), it suggests that he became uncontrollably angry, a reasonable response, especially if the accusation is false. My updated version contains a much better translation, "The mayor's face turned ashen."
More confusing is when Jean Valjean says he served in the "galleys" or is even referred to as a "galley slave." "Galley slave," in English has a very narrow and specific meaning. It refers to the convict chained to an oar, relentlessly forced to row, as fast as possible, until he dies of exhaustion. And although I have long associated the practice with ancient times, that association is apparently false. The practice of a convict chained to an oar was not used in ancient times, but dates back only to the 16th and 17th centuries. It ended in the 18th century when that type of ship became obsolete, but the outdated term "galerien" continued to be applied to any convict at forced labor, and the prison where such convicts were held continued to be referred to as "galleys" even though they were not ships. So, when Victor Hugo uses the terms "galley" and "galerien," how does one convey what he (presumably) intended -- not just the denotation of a convict at forced labor, but the connotation of brutal men being brutally mistreated, people at once victims of and menaces to society? Definitely not with the terms "galley" or "galley slave." In English the term denotes a practice the reader must surely know was certainly no longer in use by the 19th Century and connotes only a victim, not a evil-doer. How does one translate it when Jean Valjean tells the court that the "galleys"make the "galerien"? Surely not (as the original Wilbour translation had it), "The galleys make the galley slave." This over-literal approach has none of the emotional impact that Hugo must have intended. "[T]he galleys make the convict what he is" conveys a little more, but not much. "The jail makes the jailbird," says another translator, attempting to use more familiar and emotionally resonant terms, while keeping the similarity in sound between the prison and the prisoner. But still it lacks punch. My favorite translation that I have seen so far has been a simple and unpoetic, "The prison makes the convict." It may not have the likeness in words, but it conveys well that brutality brutalizes, that people who are menaces to society learned their craft in prison.
confesses his past to his son-in-law, one translation is "I was in the galleys." Another is "I was on a chain gang." Well, now, to an American, a chain gang certainly denotes convicts at forced labor, and in chains. It does a reasonably good job of connoting the mixture of pity and revulsion I think Hugo wanted to convey -- men who are both menaces to society and victims of it. It also comes with a host of other connotations -- a certain historical and cultural context, a certain type of forced labor (usually chipping rocks or building roads or railroads, not doing loading or maintenance on a ship, as Valjean apparently did), and even a certain type of uniform. So I will acknowledge that a French galley is not precisely the same as an American chain gang. But "chain gang" is probably a closer approximation for convicts at forced labor (and in chains) than any other expression we have. So it will do as a reasonable approximation.
*My apologies that the links I offer do not generally match the quotes used. The links are to an updated version of a 1879 translation by Isabel Hapgood. My quotes are from the printed version in my possession, an update of a 1863 translation by C.E. Wilbour, and sometimes from the original Wilbour translation.
**This is a long-standing pet peeve of mine in Spanish as well. The Spanish words "asesino" and "asesinato" are equivalents of the English "murderer" and "murder," not "assassin" and "assassination." The difference is not just that assassination refers to a very narrow and specific type of murder in English -- the political killing of someone in high office -- but that it lacks the emotional punch of a simple "murder."
***I don't know. I personally have never seen anyone turn pale with rage.