“I want to read the best translation of Les Miserables!”

So you want to read Victor Hugo’s phenomenally successful novel about the Paris Uprising of 1832, perhaps because you are interested in French literature, or perhaps because you are a fan of the long-running musical. But you don’t read French. Or you know a bit of French from high school, but not, like, nearly enough.

Not a problem.

English translations have been available since 1862, the year the original was published. There are four English translations in the public domain and another four published in the last fifty years.

Keep reading to learn how to choose an edition that’s right for you.

Les Miserables: Translation History

There are eight English translations of Les Miserables, shown below in chronological order.

Les Miserables: Translation Comparison

Below I have included excerpts of the same passage from all eight translations so that you can compare what the translators’ language sounds like.

“Is Les Miserables the world’s Longest novel?”

The Guinness Book of World Records gives the honor to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past), which is over a million words; Les Miserables is less than 600,000.

Still, opinions are divided according to how length is measured and what is considered a novel. Long, monolithic Asian works, which may be as long or longer when translated into English, include The Plum in the Golden Vase; the Four Classic Chinese Novels: The Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin (aka Outlaws of the Marsh), Journey to the West, and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; and The Tale of Genji.

 “Should I read an abridged version of Les Miserables?”

Lee Fahnestock, in his introduction to the 1987 unabridged Signet Classics edition, naturally advises against it.

While several abridged editions exist in English, that expedient seems a mistake. It is almost impossible to predict the individual detail, the flashing image or human quirk precisely observed, that will burn its way into a reader’s mind for good. The sound solution is to honor the author’s wishes (xii).

Personally, I agree, and I like how long books give the reader time and space to immerse himself or herself in not just the characters and plot but also the setting, style, and themes. But long books take time and focus that you might legitimately want to spend on something else.

The Denny edition moves two of Hugo’s longer digressions (Part 2, Book 7 and Part 4, Book 7) to the end of the book as appendices, leaving the overall numbering intact. See below for a section on abridged editions if you’re interested in something more aggressively shortened.

“Is the novel a lot like the musical?”

If you thought the story was about the French Revolution (1789–1799) and not the Paris Uprising of 1832, you’re not alone. The musical is ambiguous, possibly even misleading. When Hugo’s son adapted the novel for the stage, it didn’t matter to him as much exactly what the specific conflict was, just that there was one, so some of the historical details were obscured or changed.

In “The Legacy of ‘Les Miserables'”, Tobias Grey says the stage musical damages and deforms the original story by making the dishonest innkeepers into comic characters. Um. Okay. I guess you could look at it that way.

The musical differs in that it’s extremely condensed compared to a 1,000-page book. Its duration is about 3 hours. An unabridged audiobook is 58 to 68 hours!

Cosette, a century and a half later

1862 · Charles E. Wilbour · Les Miserables

“Who Was Charles Edwin Wilbour?”

He was an American Egyptologist who left behind a large collection of books, letters, notebooks, and other records which are now housed in the Brooklyn Museum. He completed his translation of Les Miserables in New York before leaving the United States in 1874 to pursue his interest in Egyptian antiquities.

About the Wilbour translation of Les Miserables

The Wilbour translation is the basis of the unabridged 1987 version available from Signet Classics, edited by Fahnestock and McAffee. In other words, in terms of quality, it has been superseded. I feel like the only reason you’d read the Wilbour translation is if you reflexively bought the first cheap paperback to cross your path… which is what I did.

  • It is available free because it is no longer under copyright.
  • It was produced in six months and published in the same year as the original.
  • It was the basis for a pirated version published in 1863 in the Confederate States of America.
  • It uses an old style of English and tries to capture the flavor of the original by retaining French word order—or actual French words and sentences.
  • Marva Barnett: “Which translation of Les Miserables do you recommend?” by Marva Barnett
    “[It is] generally considered quite faithful to Hugo’s original but sounding dated in ways that Hugo’s novel does not. Some readers like Wilbour’s style.”

Extract from the Wilbour translation of Les Miserables:

Get the Wilbour Translation of Les Miserables Free from hathi Trust

Since the copyright of the Wilbour translation has expired, you can get a legitimate copy online for free.

    Download free from Hathi Trust

    Wilbour / Modern Library

    Get the Wilbour / Modern Library edition of Les Miserables

    The Modern Library edition is available as an ebook (9780679641551).

    Buy ebook from Amazon

    Wilbour / Modern Library

    Get the Wilbour / Wordsworth Classics edition of Les Miserables

    The Wordsworth edition comes in two volumes (ISBN 9781853260858, 528 pages, and ISBN 9781853260506, 512 pages). It includes an Introduction and Notes by Roger Clark.

    Buy ebook from Amazon (Volume 1)

    Buy ebook from Amazon (Volume 2)

    Buy paperback from Amazon (Volume 1)

    Buy paperback from Amazon (Volume 2)

    Buy paperback from BookDepository (Volume 1)

    Buy paperback from BookDepository (Volume 2)

    Wilbour / Wordsworth

    Wilbour / Wordsworth

    Get the Wilbour / Dover edition of Les Miserables

    The Dover Thrift Edition is a paperback (ISBN 9780486822181, 1376 pages).

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Wilbour / Dover

    1862 · Lascelles Wraxall · Les Miserables

    “Who Was Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall, 3rd Baronet?”

    He was an English writer and translator.

    About the Wraxall translation of Les Miserables

    As far as I can tell, nobody reads this translation anymore. You can get it for free if you’re interested, though.

    • The text was altered in places to fit the translator’s political opinions. In “The Legacy of ‘Les Miserables'”, Tobias Grey says Wraxall “did not hesitate to alter the meaning of Hugo’s novel whenever he disagreed with passages pertaining to Napoleon Bonaparte’s downfall.”
    • Contains scattered lines of dialogue and passages in untranslated French.
    • It handles wordplay and idioms badly. In “Some Translations of Les Miserables”, Olin H. Moore says Wraxall is “generally much inferior to Wilbour, who in turn leaves much to be desired.”

    Extract from the Wraxall translation of Les Miserables:

    Get the Wraxall Translation of Les Miserables free from Gutenberg

    The Wraxall translation is available in five separate volumes at Gutenberg.org.

    Volume One. Fantine

    Volume Two. Cosette

    Volume Three. Marius

    Volume Four. The Idyll and the Epic

    Volume Five. Jean Valjean

    Wraxall

    1863 · “A.F.” · Les Miserables

    About the A.F. translation of Les Miserables

    Look, seriously, nobody reads this one anymore. You wanna know why?

    • The translation is a pirated adaptation of the Wilbour translation produced in Richmond, Virginia by West and Johnston for a Southern audience. Publishers in the Confederacy chose to ignore Union copyright.
    • Changes to the text were made for political reasons. The translator edited out passages that expressed disapproval of slavery.
    • A special edition was produced specifically for Confederate soldiers, who subsequently began identifying with the downtrodden and calling themselves “Lee’s Miserables”.
    • The first volume does actually render the French better sometimes. Olin H. Moore calls it “distinctly superior to Wilbour’s rendering”.
    • The quality deteriorates. Moore says it becomes “increasingly dependent on Wilbour’s version, whil the war-time paper shortage resulted in longer and longer omissions”.

    To learn more, read “How Les Miserables Became Lee’s Miserables”.

    For example translations from Wilbour, Wraxhall, and A.F., see “Some Translations of Les Miserables” by Olin H. Moore.

     

    Extract from the A.F. translation of Les Miserables:

    Get the A.F. Translation of Les Miserables free from Archive.org

    The AF translation is available in five separate scans at Archive.org. 

    Part I. Fantine

    Part II. Cosette

    Part III. Marius

    Part IV. St. Denis

    Part V. Jean Valjean

    A.F. / West and Johnston

    1887 · Isabel F. Hapgood · Les Miserables

    “Who was Isabel Florence Hapgood?”

    She was an American writer and translator. She was strongly religious, and worked on uniting different Christian denominations. She translated works by Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Dostoevsky, among others. She translated not only Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, but also Notre Dame de Paris and Toilers of the Sea.

    About the Hapgood translation of Les Miserables

    I can’t give this one a strong recommendation… as far as I can tell, it’s used by only three brands. I’d never heard of “King’s Classics” and I’ve never seen “King’s Classics” in person. I suspect there’s nothing special about them. Canterbury Classics and Word Cloud Classics belong to the same company, and they make books that are nice on th outside using free old content. So I expect that the Hapgood translation is adequate but not popular among people who are paying close attention to the quality of the text content.

    • This version is famous for its illustrations.
    • It uses old-fashioned English.
    • It perhaps renders the French badly sometimes.
    • It contains 70 explanatory footnotes.
    • Marva Barnett: “Which translation of Les Miserables do you recommend?” by Marva Barnett
      “Very dated in its style and too often showing a true lack of understanding of French…. includes too many senseless renderings of Hugo’s French…. Many readers enjoy Hapgood’s translation.”

    Extract from the Hapgood translation of Les Miserables

    Get the Hapgood Translation of Les Miserables free from Standard eBooks

    The Hapgood translation is available as an ebook from Standard eBooks.

    Download from Standard eBooks

    Hapgood / Standard eBooks

    Get the Hapgood Translation of Les Miserables free from Gutenberg

    The Hapgood translation is available as an ebook from Gutenberg.org.

    Download from Gutenberg.org

    Hapgood / Gutenberg

    Get the Hapgood / King’s Classics Edition of Les Miserables

    The Hapgood translation is available as a paperback (ISBN 9781774370377, 1172 pages).

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Hapgood / King’s Classics

    Get the Hapgood / Canterbury Classics Edition of Les Miserables

    The Hapgood translation is available as a Canterbury Classics bonded leather hardcover (ISBN ‎ 9781626864641, 1264 pages).

    Buy hardcover from Amazon

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    Buy new or used hardcover from Abebooks

    Hapgood / Canterbury Classics

    Get the Hapgood / Word Cloud Classics Edition of Les Miserables

    The Hapgood translation is available as a “hardcover” (ISBN 9781607108160, 1272 pages). Word Cloud Classics have a flexible plastic/vinyl cover. They’re not exactly hardcovers, but they’re a step up from paperbacks in terms of esthetics and durability.

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Hapgood / Word Cloud Classics

    1976 · Norman Denny · Les Miserables

    “Who was Norman Denny?”

    He was a British writer and translator.

    Biography of Norman Denny at TomFolio.

    About the Denny translation of Les Miserables

    This edition is mostly complete, which is to say, somewhat abridged.

    I’ll be honest, I get bad vibes from Denny’s introduction. He seems to have approached the job of translating Les Miserables with the idea that not just the previous translators’ work but also Hugo’s work desperately needs to be improved upon. So in addition to moving two sections to the back, he abridges whatever he thinks is too long-winded because he’s worried that otherwise you’ll get bored and fail to sense Hugo’s spirit.

    This foreword is unavoidable if the reader is to know exactly what he is getting – not a photograph but a slightly modified version of Hugo’s novel designed to bring its great qualities into clearer relief by thinning out, but never completely eliminating, its lapses.

    If you’re thinking of buying Denny’s translation, read his introduction first and make sure you’re happy with his approach.

     

    Extract from the Denny translation of Les Miserables:

    Get the Denny / Penguin Clothbound Les Miserables

    The Denny translation is available as a beautiful Penguin Classics Clothbound hardcover edition (ISBN 9781846140495, 1232 pages). It contains an introduction by the translator, scattered footnotes, and two chapters converted into appendixes. Cover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith.

    Denny / Penguin Clothbound Classics

    Get the Denny / Movie Tie-In Les Miserables

    The Denny translation is available as a Penguin movie tie-in paperback edition (ISBN 9780143123590, 1232 pages). I believe it contains an introduction by the translator, scattered footnotes, and two chapters converted into appendixes.

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Denny / Penguin

    1987 · Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee · Les Miserables

    “Who are Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee?”

    Lee Fahnestock is a translator and critic. She has been honored by the French government for her services to French culture. Norman MacAfee is a writer and artist. Fahnestock and MacAfee also worked together to translate the letters of Jean-Paul Sartre.

    About the Fahnestock and MacAfee translation of Les Miserables

    I feel like this edition is a good compromise between “time-tested” and “modern”.

    • It has sold well over a million copies.
    • It is the official musical tie-in edition; thus the familiar, unchanging Cosette/Flag logo on the cover.
    • It is the reason fans call Les Miserables “The Brick” (that’s the size and shape of the paperback edition).
    • It is a complete translation, with the authors digressions left in place. It was the only complete edition of the book from 1987 to 2007. ???
    • It is based on the Wilbour translation and retains an archaic flavor.
    • It is considered faithful to the French original but more accessible in that it updates the language in places and removes untranslated French words and passages that would frustrate those with no knowledge of the language.
    • Includes an Introduction by Lee Fahnestock and an Afterword by Chris Bohjalian. It does not contain any notes.
    • Marva Barnett: “Which translation of Les Miserables do you recommend?” by Marva Barnett
      “This edition contains a few errors of translation and more than a few moments in which I had to turn back to Hugo’s original.”

    Extract from the Fahnestock and Macafee translation of Les Miserables:

    Get the Fahnestock/MacAfee translation of Les Miserables

    It is available as an incredibly thick mass-market paperback (ISBN 9780451419439, 1488 pages) and an ebook (ISBN 9781101637777). It contains an introduction by Lee Fahnestock and an afterword by Chris Bohjalian.

    Buy ebook from Amazon

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Fahnestock & MacAfee / Signet Classics

    2007 · Julie Rose · Les Miserables

    “Who is Julie Rose?”

    She is a translator of French. She has translated works by Racine, Moliere, Emile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas as well as Victor Hugo. She has also taught French language and literature and served as an interpreter in Paris. In 2016 she was made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des arts et des lettres by the French government. She loves to read crime fiction. 

    About the Rose translation of Les Miserables

    It is “The world’s first fully original, unexpurgated English translation of Les Miserables” because (presumably) the 19th-century translations edited out some things from delicacy, and Denny’s version in 1976 was edited down, and Fahnestock and MacAfee started their complete and unabridged translation using Wilbour’s. So even though it’s the seventh version, it’s also the first. 

    The text has been aggressively modernized, which is not to my taste. It has been characterized as slangy, wild, and not closely following the original. However, unlike the Fahnestock and MacAfee edition, it contains a lot of additional background information.

    Extract from the Rose translation of Les Miserables:

    Get the Hardcover Rose Translation of Les Miserables

    The Rose translation is available in a hardcover Modern Library edition (ISBN 9780679643333, 1376 pages) and an ebook (ISBN 9780812986556). It contains a biographical note, an introduction by Adam Gopnik, a translator’s preface, a chronology, an epitaph, endnotes, and a note about the translator.

    Buy hardcover from Amazon

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    Rose / Modern Library

    Get the paperback Modern Library / Rose Translation of Les Miserables

    The Rose translation is available in a paperback Modern Library edition (ISBN 9780812974263, 1376 pages) and an ebook (ISBN 9780812986556). It contains a biographical note, an introduction by Adam Gopnik, a translator’s preface, a chronology, an epitaph, endnotes, and a note about the translator.

    Buy ebook from Amazon

    Buy paperback from Amazon

    Buy paperback from BookDepository

    Rose / Modern Library

    Get the paperback Vintage / Rose Translation of Les Miserables

    The Rose translation is available as a paperback Vintage edition (ISBN 9780099529965, 1330 pages) and as an ebook (ISBN 9781407016900). It includes an introduction by Adam Thirlwell. 

    Buy ebook from Amazon

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Rose / Vintage

    2013 · Christine Donougher · Les Miserables

    “Who is Christine Donougher?”

    She is a British translator of works in French and Italian.

    Biography of Christine Donougher at Dedalus Books.

    About the Donougher translation of Les Miserables

    I think I might enjoy this newest translation.

     

    Extract from the Donougher translation of Les Miserables:

    Get the Donougher PEnguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Les Miserables

    The Donougher translation is available as a Penguin Classics Deluxe paperback (ISBN 9780143107569, 1456 pages). It contains an introduction by Robert Tombs, a chronology, a list for further reading, a note on the translation, and endnotes. Penguin Classics Deluxe editions have a “deckle” edge (rough paper at the side) and the paper cover has two extra flaps that folds in at the front and at the back kind of like a dust jacket would.

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Donougher / Penguin Classics Deluxe

    Get the Donougher PEnguin Classics Edition of Les Miserables

    The Donougher translation is available as a Penguin Classics paperback (ISBN 9780241248744, 1456 pages) and possibly as an ebook. It contains an introduction by Robert Tombs, a chronology, a list for further reading, a note on the translation, and endnotes.  

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Donougher / Penguin Classics

    Get the Donougher TV tie-in Edition of Les Miserables

    The Donougher translation is available as a BBC Books paperback (ISBN 9781785944000, 1328 pages). It contains an introduction by screenwriter Andrew Davies.

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Donougher / BBC Books

    Abridged versions of Les Miserables

    About the abridged English Versions of Les Miserables

    If you’re intimidated by long books and mainly interested in seeing what happens to the characters in this famous story, then you’re better off with an abridged edition. Some of the famous digressions describe:

    • Bishop Myriel (Part 1 Book 1)
    • The Battle of Waterloo (Part 2 Book 1)
    • a convent (Part 2 Book 7)
    • street urchins of Paris (Part 3, Book 1)
    • criminal slang or ‘argot’ (Part 4, Book 7)
    • the Paris sewers (Part 5, Book 2)

    The abridged editions may streamline some chapters while leaving out others entirely.

    Barnes & Noble Classics Edition of Les Miserables

    Abridged Wilbour translation. Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781593080662, 896 pages). Edited and abridged by Laurence M. Porter. Includes a list of memorable quotes, a biography, a chronology, an introduction, a note on the abridgement, endnotes, discussions of adaptations of the work, discussion questions, and suggestions for further reading. See a sample and table of contents.

    Buy ebook from Amazon

    Buy hardcover from Amazon

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    Wilbour / Barnes & Noble

    Dover Edition of Les Miserables

    Abridged Wilbour translation. Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780486457895, 304 pages).

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Wilbour / Dover

    Ballantine Edition of Les Miserables

    Abridged Wilbour translation. Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780449911679, 336 pages). Includes an introduction by James K. Robinson.

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    Wilbour / Ballantine

    Fawcett Movie tie-in Edition of Les Miserables

    Abridged Wilbour translation. Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780449300022, 416 pages). Includes an introduction by James K. Robinson.

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Wilbour / Fawcett

    Enriched Classics Edition of Les Miserables

    There is an Enriched Classics version of Les Miserables (ISBN 9781416500261, 656 pages). It has an introduction by Margaret Brantley, a chronology of Victor Hugo’s life and work, an essay on the historical context of the novel, endnotes, interpretive notes, critical excerpts, questions for discussion, and suggestions for the interested reader. 

    Since it’s only 656 pages, it’s DEFINITELY abridged. Not sure which translation this is; could be Wilbour or Hapgood.

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Puette

    Macmillan Collector’s Library Edition of Les Miserables

    The books in the Macmillan Collector’s Library series are SMALL hardcovers with gilt edges, a ribbon marker, and real cloth binding. As long as you’re okay with a small font size, they are suitable for collectors or as gifts. Available as a hardcover (ISBN 9781909621497, 472 pages) and an ebook (ISBN 9781509845187).

    “This abridged version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece was published in 1915 with the aim to provide ‘a unified story of the life and soul-struggles of Jean Valjean.” Not sure which translation this is; could be Wilbour or Hapgood.

    Buy ebook from Amazon

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    Macmillan Collector’s Library

    Barnes & Noble Collector’s LIbrary Edition of Les Miserables

    Available as a hardcover with bonded leather covers and gilt edges, (ISBN 9781435163690, 928 pages).

    Not sure which translation this is: could be Wilbour or Hapgood. I do not know whether this edition is abridged, but if all the text is in there, it’s a tight squeeze.

    If you like how it looks but aren’t keen on whatever text is inside, you can buy a book safe from Book Rooks made of this exact edition.

    Buy hardcover from Amazon

    Buy hardcover from BookDepository

    Buy new or used hardcover from Abebooks

    Barnes & Noble Collector’s Library

    Further Reading for Les Miserables

    The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Miserables by David Bellos

    “Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.” ―Nina Martyris, The Paris Review

    This book is available as a paperback (ISBN 9780374537401, 336 pages), a hardcover (ISBN 9780374223236, 336 pages), and ebook (ISBN 9780374716295).

    Read the review in the New York Times.

    Buy ebook from Amazon

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Buy hardcover from BookDepository

    David Bellos

    The Temptation of the Impossible by Mario Vargas Llosa (translated by John King)

    “Mario Vargas Llosa, helps us to appreciate the incredible ambition, power, and beauty of Hugo’s masterpiece and, in the process, presents a humane vision of fiction as an alternative reality that can help us imagine a different and better world.” Princeton University Press

    This book is available as a hardcover (ISBN 9780691131115, 208 pages).

    Buy hardcover from Amazon

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    Mario Vargas Llosa

    Victor Hugo: A biography by Graham Robb

    “Both necessary and highly readable, and easily outclasses all existing Hugo biographies in English.” New York Times Book Review front-page review

    This book is available as a paperback (ISBN 9780393318999, 720 pages).

    Buy paperback from Amazon

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    Graham Robb (paperback)

    “Books Like This Cannot Be Useless”: The Political and Popular Reception of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables in Civil War America by Emily S. Turner

    In her 116-page Senior Thesis for Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut, Turner concludes: “The story of Les Miserables, whether in the form of a novel, a play, or a musical, has helped Americans come to terms with violence and uprising during the most turbulent times in the nation’s history.”

    Read Thesis

    Emily S. Turner

    Les Miserables: Best Translation?

    Les Miserables: Best Translation

    There is no one best translation. I think we can all agree that the “A.F.” translation is the worst, though!

    If you’re looking for an unabridged translation, I think the unabridged 1987 Signet Classics Fahnestock/MacAfee translation is a good compromise between “tried and tested” and “modern”. For an edition with helpful notes, I would definitely choose Donougher over Rose.

    For Discussion

    Which translation have you read?

    Which book cover do you like the best?

    Have you read any other books by Hugo?

    Let me know in the comments!