Die Elenden

I recently finished all 1,462 pages of Les Misérables, which I began reading the day after Donald Trump was rejected by a majority of American voters and thereby elected President. I first read Les Misérables in my 20s, then again in my 30s (in German), and now again in my 50s. It is a tale of great humanity that bears revisiting, and Victor Hugo’s keen mind and exquisite prose come through beautifully in the translation by Lee Fahnenstock and Norman MacAfee based on the classic C. E. Wilbour translation (Signet Classic).

I wonder that the title is never translated into English. The Germans call it Die Elenden. Clearly, The Miserable or The Miserable Ones does not work well. If tradition were otherwise, how would one translate the title into English? I would propose The Downtrodden. (Some adjectives work as nouns, others don’t.) One could also take more liberty and translate Of Human Misery (with a nod to Maugham). Wretched and forlorn are also evocative words that fit the bill. And I can’t help but think of the huddled masses welcomed (in principle) by our Statue of Liberty.


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