The Surprising Eschatology of Les Mis image

The Surprising Eschatology of Les Mis

Everybody knows that translations are never as good as the original. People often say that when they read something in translation, if only because it rather smugly communicates that they know the original language. It's one of those commonplaces that prompts everybody who hears it to nod sagely, along with "sequels are never as good as the original (except The Godfather)", and "the film's never as good as the book (except Lord of the Rings)". The Italians even have a pithy expression for it: traduttore traditore. Translation is treason.

Which makes Herbert Kretzmer a remarkable individual, at two levels. For one thing, translating a libretto from one language to another sounds fiendishly difficult to me, even at the best of times. When the script is French, and the novel on which its based is French, and all the characters are French, and the story is about as French as it could be, it must be nearly impossible. But Kretzmer’s ‘translation’ (scare quotes intentional, on which see below) of Boublil and Schoenberg’s original libretto for Les Misèrables not only gets everything rhyming, with the right number of syllables per line, but it also turns some reasonably good French lines into some profoundly stirring English ones. More remarkably, however - and in all that I’ve read about Les Mis and the gospel in the last month, I have not seen anyone pick up on this - it also radically changes the eschatology of the story. It turns the finale on the barricade, which represents the eschatological perspective of the whole piece, from a bland, humanist expression of French modernism to a thoroughly biblical vision of restoration and new creation.
The opening stanza of the finale, which is a reprise of the famous “Do you hear the people sing?”, is more uplifting and confident in English, for a start. Boublil’s version runs:

À la volonté du peuple dont on n’étouffe jamais la voix,
Et dont le chant renaît toujours, et dont le chant renaît déjà,
Nous voulons que la lumière déchire le masque de la nuit
Pour illuminer notre terre et changer la vie.

We want the light to tear through the night, light up the earth and change our lives. Nice, but speculative, and hardly a resounding call of hope that would lead the people on the barricade to raise their fists in triumph. Kretzmer’s rendering, however, focuses on the hope of the wretched (which is, of course, what ‘les misérables’ means), and turns it from vain wish-fulfilment into a strident certainty:

Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth there is a flame that never dies:
Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise!

That grammatical change, presumably, could represent nothing more than French caution and Anglo-Saxon confidence - the same thing that makes English orchestras ‘play’ pieces and French orchestras merely ‘interprète’ them. There is nothing uniquely biblical about a confident view of the future, even one that sees the poor blessed and the lost found (although the two are often connected). But the next stanza puts Kretzmer’s reworking of the show’s eschatology beyond doubt. The French version goes:

Il viendra le jour glorieux, où dans sa marche vers l’idéal
L’homme ira vers le progrès du mal au bien, du faux au vrai.
Un rêve peut mourir, mais on n’enterre jamais l’avenir!

Groundless, naive, Whiggish humanism. The glorious day will come, when in humanity’s march towards our idealistic future, we will progress from being bad to good, and from false to true, for no particular reason; dreams may die, but you can’t bury the future. What bunk. What a bizarre way to conclude a musical with such rich religious imagery, and such thoughtful reflection on the nature of the soul, sanctification, grace, law and gospel. And what a contrast to the vastly superior, and soaringly Isaianic, vision of the English version:

They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord;
They will walk behind the plough-share; they will put away the sword.
The chains will be broken, and all men will have their reward!

Freedom, a garden, farming, universal peace, an end to captivity, and eternal recompense: it’s hard to think of three lines in Christian hymnody that better sum up the prophets’ depiction of the new creation. I presume Kretzmer lifted it straight from Isaiah 11, but wherever he found it, it certainly wasn’t the French original score. Perhaps it came from Victor Hugo himself; not having read the book, I wouldn’t know. The point is, it is a stunning, sweeping portrayal of the world to come as articulated by the apostles and prophets, and to hear it sung triumphantly by Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and co, as the hope of restoration beyond death for those who have suffered injustice in this life, is extremely moving. Evidently, it has power to move secular people as well, as anyone who was seen the show or the film will testify; we are hard-wired that way, to believe that the restoration of all things, the cosmic justice of God, the dikaiosunē theou, is on its way. No wonder the audiences clap.
The final insult of the French version is the final chorus:

Joignez-vous à la croisade de ceux qui croient au genre humain!
Pour une seule barricade qui tombe, cent autres se lèveront demain.
À la volonté du peuple, un tambour chante dans le lointain.
Il vient annoncer le grand jour et c’est pour demain!

Join in our crusade with those who believe in the human race! For every barricade that falls, a hundred new ones will spring up tomorrow! To be fair, this crass humanism was typical of nineteenth century Europeans, so it’s probably somewhat realistic, but as a closing chorus to an intelligent and often very Christian story, it’s extremely disappointing. Kretzmer focuses his lyrics back on the new world he’s just referred to, and removes those who believe in the human race altogether:

Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing? Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring when tomorrow comes!

Again, this might reflect a specifically Christian hope, or a chastened view of le genre humain that fits better in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth, or even the perspective of Victor Hugo himself. Whatever the source, though, the finale of the show (and the film) in English represents a robustly Christian eschatology - far more biblical than the French version, and substantially more biblical than a number of Christian hymns (“when Christ shall come and take me home”, “fit us for heaven to live with thee there”, and the rest of the usual suspects). A new creation, universal shalom, gardens and farms triumphant over weaponry and war, new life for those who have suffered injustice, true freedom of which revolutionary rhetoric is merely a shadow, the breaking of every chain, and eternal recompense. For me, that is at least as intriguing and uplifting as the much more famous portrayal of law and grace.
Obviously, if you haven’t seen Les Mis, then none of this will be particularly interesting. But then again, if you haven’t seen Les Mis, you probably haven’t lived.

Andrew is now on Twitter as @AJWTheology

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