listen up les mis fandom, let me tell you the story of how the brick was translated into chinese: long story short, love, blood, tears, frustration, and 50 years of pain.
so Yu Fang and Dan Li (I’m just gonna call them Yu and Dan for short) met in university in france studying french lit and violin, respectively. they were first introduced to les mis at a seminar about hugo’s work in ~1921, and literally bonded over their shared love of this book. after getting married and returning to china, they decided to start translating the brick, no big deal, dan finished up to book 3 in 1932 and sent in the preliminary manuscript– only for a military aircraft to bomb shanghai and destroy the press where the manuscript was being held… of course there was no other copy, and years of work were lost in a blaze of flame. so the war came and went and in 1954, when everything was finally sort of okay again, Dan was invited to retranslate the entire thing. so like the trooper he did… up to book 3.
just as he was almost finished with book 3 again… it’s the year 1966 and boom, cultural revolution. the couple were both locked up for their involvement in now-banned literature and endured years of physical, mental, and emotional toil. they were released in 1977 and went home… only to find that the manuscript they’d kept hidden in an old paper box had been torn to shreds by mice and time. dan was 71 at that point, but still tried to secretly retranslate everything for the third time, and he did, up to book 4- but by then, his health was failing and in 1977 had to be admitted to the hospital. up to the very moment he died in hospital, he was still mulling over his old french dictionary and trying to finish his work, nearly nonsensical near the end but still mumbling translations. when he died, his family found bits of his translation of book 5 under his pillow. there was no satisfying conclusion to his nearly 50 years of work (1929-1977).
dan’s death took a hard toll on his wife: she couldn’t sleep or eat but felt like she needed to help him finish his work at all costs- she couldn’t leave the story unfinished. all they’d ever wanted was to give cosette the ending she deserved. so 3 months after her husband’s death, the 74-year-old ate nothing but a bowl of porridge a day and managed to finally finish off book 5 after nine months of doing little else. finally, it was published in 1984 and is now an absolutely renowned edition.
this couple literally had the luck of bossuet and the suffering of valjean, but in the end, however bittersweet the moment, a masterpiece was finally brought alive to an entire nation.
I almost forgot to mention to you guys that today i was highly amused and delighted to discover that my publishing house has an author called Paul Joly who wrote .. L’ABC du Feng Shui.
I mean. Please tell me i’m not the only one thinking it’s an awesome coincidence. The only thing that could have made this even better is if the author had been called “Jean” tbh.
(maybe I should precise that my modern!times!Joly is DEFINITELY an expert in Feng Shui. It’s totally one of his Things.)
hugo: hmm this book is going along well
hugo: hold up, nobody’s died mid-song yet
hugo: better fix that
This is an unusually good examination of Les Mis, the way it’s been received and reinterpreted, and the politics of the story and Hugo himself over his life. And also the intro alone is SO MUCH of what I want to yell at an enormous number of reviews.
What is usually elided in conversations about this show is that one of its defining characteristics is the foregrounding and embrace of an attempt at violent revolution by a group of students with guns. Their rebellion ends in bloody failure but the attempt is honored, not mocked. Forgotten in the tedious critiques of technical nit-picking and whining over the melodramatic plot and its Christian quest for forgiveness, there is a central political problem at the heart of the work which places one man’s quest for redemption against the crucial backdrop of a society under revolution.
Fans describe the story as a universal one of “eternal truths” and societal “archetypes”, but Jean Valjean’s problem is his relationship with a government that not only misuses and perverts its power, but facilitates and reproduces a society that is perversely stratified. Granting that Jean Valjean’s saint-like quest for personal salvation forms the redemptive core of the story, what if the global popularity of this work also echoes the perennial frustration with government’s interminable persecution of innocents and its obsessive zeal for crushing liberatory movements?
The perennial hostility of critics would then remind us more of the nervous murmurs and outright hostility of elites whenever the masses begin to congregate, build barricades, camp out and demand a better world. The tears of the audiences would not remind us that the “people” are easily conned into weeping over a melodramatic spectacle that apes the gospels, but perhaps allows a vicarious vision of rebelling against unjust rule while remaining true to desire and love.
Also, it talks about Louise Michel!
Go read the thing!
i feel like someday, in the les mis fandom and the hamilton fandom and any fandom which has french characters, we’ll need to have a Discussion about pet names. and which ones are/aren’t appropriate for a grown man.
Hugo: They began the prologue, which we will gladly spare the reader.
Hugo: *launches into a detailed account of the prologue*
Whatever you do don’t think about Obi Wan singing Empty Chairs at Empty Tables at the end of Revenge of the Sith
I’ve been reading a lot of Les Mis fics set in Paris lately, and I have noticed that there are certain things about France that other people just don’t seem to know, so I am here to educate you so that you can make wonderful works where the barricade boys are authentically French. This is going to be super long, and I don’t want to force you all to read it, so for those interested my rant about French culture is under the cut.
Really good post, thanks a lot! There’s stuff that I wanted to say though:
– coffee to go & names on cups do exist, but only in Starbucks bc well, it’s American (but tbh I don’t really see Enjolras going there bc too capitalist for him haha). But yeah in any other cafe you would have to sit down with an actual cup
– drive-through doesn’t really exist (except in some McDonalds I think), but takeout does, in ‘foreign food’ restaurants like chinese, japanese, indian or pizza places
– French people do seem rude to foreigners… that’s because of the way we approach interactions in the public sphere I guess. I noticed that in the US, people would randomly start talking to strangers in the bus or other public places “like hey how are you/what are you doing here”; French people would never do that. That just seem weird and off to us and we’re like “why is this guy even talking to me? i don’t even know him”. You can ask for directions or the time though, we don’t bite.
– In stores, taxes are already included in prices. I know, unbelievable.
Nice! Just want to clarify or add some points:
– if we don’t give tips, it’s because the service is included in the final price, but you can let 1, 2 or 3 (at the very max) euros if the waiter was very nice. Same for the hairdresser (I don’t know why).
– saying “mon cher” is weird indeed (unless you’re a sarcastic little shit), but we say “chéri(e)” (really common, especially for old couple) or “mon/ma chéri(e)” for loved ones.
– even if you’re a socialist, you will criticize the government, frenchs criticize everything because there is nothing worse than something you can’t criticize, that’s how you start totalitarism
– we mostly study french books in school, like for example if you want them to study theatre, make them read Molière instead of Shakespeare, it doesn’t mean we don’t read him too, it’s just the way they teach french (Molière, Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Rimbaud & Verlaine, etc etc)
– don’t know how it is in America, but back when I was in school (the law changed since then here) we could study latin and ancient greek quite easily
– It’s common for the “Collège” and “Lycée” to propose school trips (that can last a say or 2 weeks) to another part of France or another country, with my schools I went to England, Italy and Greece (and had I don’t remember how much trips into France)
– regions aren’t the same in France, our accents, our culture, the way we greet people, our food etc etc…
– we start school at 3 years old. The “maternelle” is for kids from 3-6, then you go to “L’école primaire” (the primatory school), from 6 to 11, then to “Le Collège” (secondary school) from 11 to 15 and then to “Le lycée” (High school) for 3 more years (from 15 to 18) and after that you can go if you want to the University.
– Before the “maternelle”, you can be placed into a “crèche” (nursery), have a nurse (really common, they take some kids at the same time) or stay at home with your parents. I don’t remember but I think it’s not an obligation to start school at 3, but everyone does it nonetheless.
– It’s not uncommon to finish your day at 17h or 17h30 when you’re in high school, and when you’re home it can be past 18h/18h30 or even later
– extrascholar activities are not a thing; you can do what you want with your time outside the school (if you have any) but it will not serve any purpose to enter anything
– school uniforms are not a thing
– nearly everyone had a “manga phase” during their teen years, mangas are everywhere
– but we mostly have BD
– now we have BDs that look like mangas
– it’s common for an high school to be on strike when the teachers are (so even if your teacher doesn’t do it, you may not be able to enter the school)
– we love japan so much people started talking about a “japanisation” of the country some years ago
– our big exam at the end of high school, le “BAC” is important, even though not as much as it was
– depending on the regions, you can “swear” a lot… but it can also not be considering swearing… I live in the South of France and everyone says “Putain” a lot (it’s like “Fuck” I guess here) and even if we don’t say it in the news or when you’re in front of your boss (I think I did it actually and he did it too), it doesn’t really matter here
– halloween is not a thing, not with the kids on the street, people may try to do it, but we may see like 1 or 2 kids on your door this day, it’s mostly to party in costumes nowadays
– no pumpkin-carving
– sometimes, but it’s rarer each year, during the summer we have block parties… It’s just a big reunion of the people living in the streets and everyone is cooking something… but like I said, it’s something quite rare now
– majority at 18, after that, there is no limit anymore for anything like you have in america
– administration is hell in France, everyone knows and hates it
– christmas is technically a thing, but less and less with years too, we still have christmas markets (during december) and some street decorations
– we don’t sing in the street… never
– we don’t hug strangers like they do in Brazil ^^ We’re maybe latins, but we’re still a little bit uptight for that, we’re not going to get angry for that, just a bit odd, that’s all. But we have free hugs too here! (and we call them “free hugs” because the translation is too weird)
Sharing this with everyone else in the Les Miserables community who might find such resources useful, and who has not yet encountered this book. 😉 I mean, hey, this book was published in 1837. It has descriptions of places, prices of things, routes, statistics, faculties, subjects and lecturers at the schools and academies…
Go nuts, you guys.