Wednesday, 27 November 2013

I order you to buy my friend Christine Donougher's "The Wretched", the new Penguin translation of "Les Misérables"

I was reading Witness (1952), the 800-page autobiography of the former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers last week, when I came upon a five-page section about the enormous influence of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables on this extraordinary man's life. This was a coincidence (or, as I prefer to believe, an example of Jungian synchronicity) because my wife and I were due to attend a launch party at the weekend for the new Penguin translation of Les Misérables by our friend, Christine Donougher, who I've known since university, and who is married to an old school chum, the journalist and art historian Rod Conway Morris (a link to whose website can be found in the right-hand column of this blog).

Christine translates contemporary and classic books - mainly novels and short story collections - from French and Italian into English. I'm trying to figure out how many she's written to date - judging from this Amazon page, it's about 20 (she's coming over for dinner soon, so I'll ask). The Wretched is undoubtedly her longest work to date - let's face it, it's one of the biggest classic translations anyone can undertake: the hardcover edition, including her notes at the back, runs to an eye-watering 1,475 pages, which means it outstrips the Penguin edition of War and Peace by a comfortable 70 pages. No wonder this marathon venture took her over three years. I think we can safely conclude that her reserves of intellectual stamina and powers of concentration are cosmic. Fortunately, she's also an extremely gifted writer - I know, because I've read some of her previous translations (Tales from the Saragossa Manuscript - available here - is a particular favourite).

I've never read Les Misérables. I only know it from the excellent 1935 film version starring Frederic March and Charles Laughton, and that endlessly-played clip of Anne Hathaway singing "I Dreamed a Dream" live in the film of the musical released last year, which is very moving (here). But I reckon it's time to take the plunge: I've ordered Christine's translation (available from Amazon, here) and that's my Christmas reading sorted. Even if a friend hadn't produced a translation of this massive work, I think Whitaker Chambers' description of the extraordinary impression the novel made on him would have convinced me to finally read it:
"In its pages can be found the play of forces that carried me into the Communist Party, and in the same pages can be found the play of forces that carried me out of the Communist Party. The roots of both influences are in the same book, which I read for almost a decade before I ever opened a Bible, and which was, in many respects, the Bible of my boyhood." 
(Coincidentally, Chambers also translated some two dozen books, some French, but mainly German - including Bambi! - but he never did anything on the scale of The Glums.)

In case you were wondering, the party - which, fittingly for such a literary event, took place in Hampstead - was excellent.


  1. The new translation is really really good. I posted a review here:

    1. Thank you very much, Anonymous - splendidly informative and knowledgable review: I've emailed Christine Donougher to make sure she sees it!