I do not know which edition of Han of Iceland, aka Hans of Iceland, is best, but I recommend you avoid the edition published by the Federal Book Company, New York (year of publication, I do not know). The translation is not well-done, it has numerous grammatical and spelling mistakes (out of place periods and commas; the use of “you” instead of “your”), it is not very “lyrical”/”poetic” (which it would need to be to do justice to Hugo) and it appears to be abridged: it seems to be missing passages that are in the edition published by, for example, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston, 1894 (University Press, John Wilson and Son, Cambridge).
I found a few examples of the differences between the two editions really quick. (I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this; and the fact that I type slow will be tedious and time-consuming enough.) These are the first few examples I came upon in paging through the books.
Part of the story takes place in Drontheim, “one of the four principal cities of Norway.” (p. 13 of the Little edition.)
“At the time when the action of the story takes place, in 1699, the Kingdom of Norway was still united to Denmark.” (p. 13, ibid.)
Drontheim was a port city. “In the center of the harbor, within canon-shot of either shore, the solitary fortress of Munckholm reared its walls upon a mass of wave-washed rocks, — a gloomy prison-house, wherein, at the time of which we are writing, a prisoner [Schumacker] was confined, whose sudden disgrace, following upon a long period of prosperity, made his name famous.” (p. 14, ibid.)
In the first pair of excerpts, people are in a public charnel house in Drontheim, discussing the death of a Captain. Someone says the Captain was probably murdered by the demonic character Hans of Iceland. They then talk briefly about Hans.
I find the Little edition more efficient and flowing in this passage (p. 12):
“What sort of man is this Hans, pray?” some one inquired.
“He’s a giant,” said one.
“He’s a dwarf,” said another.
“Has no one seen him?”
“The first time that any one sees him is also the last.”
The Federal edition says (p. 12):
“What kind of man is Han?”
“He is a giant,” answered one.
“No, a dwarf,” contended another.
“Has nobody ever seen him?” cried a third.
“Those who see him for the first time may reckon it their last.”
The next pair of excerpts show a difference in translation style, as well as translation substance: in the Little edition, a sergeant in Munckholm said something to himself; in the Federal edition, the sergeant speaks to “those around him.”
A stranger in the story is being taken by boat to Munckholm. A sergeant hears the boat approach an iron gateway, and says (p. 17):
“That must be Captain Dispolsen at last!” said the sergeant, opening the little barred window which looked out on the fiord.
“Who goes there?” the sergeant cried in a hoarse voice.
“Open!” was the reply; “peace and safety.”
“Every one is not admitted here! Have you a pass?
“I must see for myself; if you lie, by the bones of my patron saint, you shall taste the water of the bay.”
He closed the wicket and turned away, adding to himself: —
“It’s not the captain, after all.”
A light shone through the iron gateway; the rusty bolts creaked; the gate swung open and the sergeant examined the document which the new-comer handed up.
While the Federal edition says (pp. 14-15):
“That is no doubt Captain Dispolsen,” observed the sergeant, as he stood watching at the small grated window looking on to the gulf.
“Who comes there?” cried the sergeant, as a boat was rowed alongside the iron door.
“Open,” was the reply, and, giving the password, “Peace and Safety.”
“No one enters here without an order of admittance. Have you yours?”
“I will soon prove the truth of that, and if you lie, by my patron saint, I will give you a taste of the gulf water.”
Closing the window, he remarked to those around:
“That is not the captain.”
The light gleamed on the rusty bolts as they creaked in the sockets; the bars were withdrawn, the door slowly rolled on its hinges, and the sergeant now scrutinized the parchment presented to him by the new-comer.
Let’s see: gates usually “swing” open, they do not usually “roll” open; “examine” works better for me than “scrutinize;” the last paragraph of the Little edition I find more efficient than that of the Federal edition; “fiord” is a better term for that part of the world than is “bay;” etc.
As background for another pair of excerpts, the stranger can’t take a diamond buckle into the prison; only royal personnel were allowed by law to do so. The sergeant tells the stranger to take off the buckle before entering the castle. What is the stranger’s response?
The Little edition says (p. 18):
The young man, without replying, removed the contraband buckle, and tossed it to the fisherman who had brought him, in payment for his services. Fearing that he might regret his generosity, the fisherman made haste to put a broad expanse of water between benefactor and beneficiary.
While the Federal edition says (p. 15):
The young man made no reply, but unfastening the forbidden jewel, he tossed it as payment to the fisherman who had rowed him across. The latter, on seeing the value of the gift, fearing the donor might repent of his generosity, quickly took to his oars, so as to place the greatest possible distance between the benefactor and the favor.
Using the word “favor” so a word similar to “benefactor” is not used is not a virtue, is not a broader use of language, is not more mastery of diction — it is a failure to capture the power and poetry of language. Also, the Federal edition would have read better if it had said “The latter, seeing…and fearing….” Maybe the author used “on” before “seeing” so he had some variety of language — i.e., so he had a parallelism fault?
When the stranger who has entered Munckholm is talking to Schumacker, their exchange about the stranger’s recent travels goes like this in the Little edition (p. 29):
“How did you come to Drontheim?”
“In the saddle.”
“How did you come to Munckholm?”
“On a boat.”
While in the Federal edition they say:
“How did you reach Drontheim?”
“How did you come to Munckholm?”
“In a boat.”
The first has parallelism. The second does not.
On p. 298, 529, and 530 of the Little edition appear one of the names of Ordener Guldenlew, the hero of the story: Count Danneskiold. What might that name be related to in later literary history?
Hans of Iceland reveals Hugo in his beginning glory. It is not as good as Les Miserables, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ninety-Three, Toilers of the Sea, or The Man Who Laughs, but Hans was Hugo’s first work. Hans shows Hugo in his youth, not yet a mature writer, but it does show some characteristic Hugo traits: poetic description, mastery of language, and a masterful weaving of events. It all came through even in the Federal edition I read.