Comparing Three Translations of Les Miserables

I recently started reading Les Miserables. I’m up to Part III and–no surprise–it’s amazing so far.

It had a rocky start, though. I researched translations and couldn’t find one that stood out, so I figured I’d just try the old original standard translation from the 19th century, the Wilbour translation.

I only got a few pages in before getting tired of the pretentious contortion of it all. I decided to find a copy of Denny’s translation from the 70’s. My local library district actually didn’t have that one, but do you know who did? The library at the school where I work! How great is that?

And from page one I loved it. I don’t know how well it reflects the French, but this English version hums and sings for me with pitch-perfect tone.

Here are two passages I really like so far, compared between three popular versions: Wilbour’s, Denny’s, and the recent Julie Rose translation.

This is the end of Part II, chapter 8:

Denny 1


Wilbour 1


Rose 1


Besides seeing how awful my picture of the Denny text is, the biggest shock here is Rose: I’d read that her translation is too modernized, but that doesn’t apply here–her 21st century version is very close to Wilbour’s 19th century version!

But Denny’s is the one that strikes me as the most natural, fluently lyrical type of prose.

Another comparison, from Part III, chapter 2. Note the same things here.

Denny 2


Wilbour 2


Rose 2



























One comment on “Comparing Three Translations of Les Miserables

  1. Interesting that translations are so very different. I read two versions of Les Misérables. I first started with the abridged and felt like something was different-don’t know what translation that was. Then in 2015 over summer, finally got around to reading the unabridged book and that version felt like a masterpiece.

    I managed to read the unabridged version of the story in less than one summer. The knowledge of the musical is what helped me get through. I was able to make up major characters and write in names of songs. If it wasn’t for the musical, I would never have been interested in reading this book

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