nce your work is published, dear author, it’s pretty much out of your hands. Readers will translate it into their own internal voice, or aloud, or if you’re lucky into another language altogether. They’ll read it alongside the news and in competition with their to-do list, or maybe in the company of reviewers, social media flashes, or conversation among peers. Being read might be an uncomfortable experience, or it might be a flattering one, but without it the work is incomplete.
“All art traffics in some kind of translation,” Jennifer Grotz suggests in a poem midway through this issue, about a painting more than four hundred years old. It’s probably not worth thinking about this too much, but your work might also have to contend with time: What will it mean six months from now, a decade, a century, should we humans live to see another century? Earlier in the issue, essayist Matt Jones considers what happens to meaning over, say, ten thousand years, wondering, how can we communicate with the future?
Lately I’ve been reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which is only 150 years old but certainly of another time and place. I’ve been reading it in conversation with this issue of NER, and with the previous issue, and probably with the next one too. Or I should say, I’ve been reading Julie Rose’s Les Miserables, because, as the translator she chose every word on the page, and is my guide and Hugo’s intermediary.
Reading this book is something of a guilty indulgence. It’s a classic, certainly, but one tinged with the melodrama of the Broadway musical, and at 1,200 pages it takes up as much space as four or five contemporary novels. Also it’s from old white Europe—what news could there be? But in my off hours, I wanted to get immersed in a heavy book, a nicely printed one, as an antidote to so much fragmented online reading and the roar of the present. To experience something like time travel, but to a place many people had been before. Plenty of books would’ve fit the bill, but this one had happenstance on its side: my husband proofread it for Modern Library, so we owned a copy, and the ruddy-cheeked girl from its spine had been staring at me since 2008, when the translation was published.
Perhaps this is not news, but one thing this book makes clear is that, in their misery, cruelty, and nobility, people have not changed. Here is a parade of the dispossessed, along with self-righteous young liberals, buffoonish old bourgeois, and thousands willing to kill for an idea they have a contradictory understanding of, at best. This is the story of Jean Valjean, Marius, and Cosette, but more than that it is a series of exuberant mini-essays about politics, first love, slang, riots, military maneuvers, and crime.
The plot itself is full of wild coincidences and character types—worse than Dickens, who was writing around the same time—as if there were only one police inspector in all of Paris, one reformed convict, one abused prostitute. Its artifice rattles my modern-to-postmodern sensibilities, and it can be downright sentimental, worthy of the musical’s maudlin “I dreamed a dream.” But I find myself willing to set aside expectations of verisimilitude and a hunger for interiority, because there’s so much to be gained here by focusing instead on the intricacies of great movements of people, of types even. The book is packed with revelatory treatises on the psychology of politics and on the power of poverty and hunger to spur people to action—not always, but sometimes, toward righteousness.
Few readers would have had the patience for all this, though, if it weren’t just such a pleasure to read these sentences. Word by word the pages tumble forward with so much energy and imagination that even the most esoteric arguments gather the force of a tidal wave. The notorious fifty-page section on the Battle of Waterloo, for example, is pure music. Even when the particularities of the topic are lost in the pile-up of clauses, details, and asides, it’s a joy to go along for the ride. It’s often hilarious, and always, eventually, some kind of revelation shines straight through to the contemporary moment.
“Reverence is good, too much reverence is enfeebling,” Julie Rose said in an interview about her work. “We translators need to be humble and cocky at once; we need to relax. For translation is an intuitive art.” The same might be said for reading. Go boldly forth into that poem, that essay, that vocabulary or formal conceit you don’t immediately understand, and relax, let it reveal itself to the part of your mind that is not so guarded. “It’s time we heard less about what is ‘lost in translation,’” she continued, “and more about what might actually be gained.”
Reading itself is a kind of translation. This becomes clear to me every time we hold an NER Out Loud event, or produce the related podcast. When readers who aren’t the authors present stories and poems from this magazine, they bring their own voices, their own experiences to the texts, and it’s never the same as how I heard them. Despite that I’ve read these same pieces many times over, I always hear something new. It must be strange, and probably startling, for the writer to hear their words in a different voice—but those words are there to be read, finally. To hear them aloud is to witness a gift being received.
Reading anything is a plunge into the unknown, and a book like Les Miserables needs to be read more than once for the reader to get even half of it. I’ll be lucky if I finish it once before the summer issue is out, much less ever find the time to parse the intricacies of those arguments. Even so, I know this book will stay with me, has become part of me. Victor Hugo is a voice in my head now, singing along with the twenty-eight authors in these next pages. Julie Rose is a voice in my head now too. Or is that really still just my own voice, tuned to play a new score?