The Everyman’s Library Wilbour edition versus my Signet Classics paperback.

It’s always a problem (really the first time I’ve had this problem, personally) when you read something translated. There’s the problem of which translation you pick. Who is easier to read? Who is the most accurate? Will my copy be true to the source? How much gets lost in translation? And with a book the length of Les Mis, you wonder if anything’s going to be cut out.

After reading reviews, it seemed that the Lee Fahenstock and Norman MacAfee version was the one to go with. It also helped that the cover said “The only complete unabridged paperback edition” which in retrospect, it didn’t mean that there were no unabridged hardcover editions and the Penguin Classics paperback also looked sufficiently hefty to be uncut.

It irks me greatly that the cover to the Signet Classics paperback advertises the musical. I have never seen the musical and while I intend to, heard it is really good, and will probably enjoy it immensely, I feel that to have this monument wrapped up in a contemporary reinterpretation is sort of like buying a Sherlock Holmes book with Robert Downy Jr. and Jude Law on the cover. I resent the fact that it says “Now a magnificent theatre musical” on the footer and even the tricolour Cosette. It’s a beautiful design but it’s not for a book.

Waiting at a bookstore today, I found the Everyman’s Library hardcover edition of Les Mis with the original Charles E. Wilbour translation. From my understanding, this translation was done a few months after the original French publication and while Fahenstock and MacAfee’s translation was based off Wilbours—changing some parts to modernize the phrasing—I can’t help but feel like if I switched editions, I ought to read it from scratch again.

But why is this even a consideration? I suppose I do like the idea of an original translation and having skimmed some of it, it seemed digestible enough. It also had a far lovelier cover design (none of that musical peddling) opting for the original etching by Émile Bayard of Cosette with the broom. It even had, on the last page, a small paragraph describing the typography used in the book (Bembo) with a short history of it and why it was chosen. Anything with that sort of care for such details deserves my money. It is a wonderful edition and it is not too expensive either, yet I would have to start from the first chapter again! As of writing this, I have just finished the first book, Fantine, which already clocks in well over two hundred pages. Alas, back to my ugly paperback.