Finnegans Wake: Huge in China
by Kevin Murphy
Imagine the consternation translator Dai Congrong felt when she came across the following passage in James Joyce’s notoriously baffling Finnegans Wake:
“What clashes here of wills gen wont, oystrygods gaggin fishygods! Brekkek Kekkek Kekkek Kekkek Kekkek! Koax Koax Koax! Ualu Ualu Ualu Quaoouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons catapelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod’s brood, be me fear! Sanglorians, save! Arms appeal with larms, appalling.”
Despite the complexities of Joyce’s language — that unending stream of puns, portmanteaus, and lexical associations — Dai toiled, for ten years, and recently achieved what she set out to do: translate Wake into Chinese.
Along with the accolades she deserves for tackling such a project, Dai can take satisfaction in her hard work paying off. In fact, the first Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake is selling so quickly that it has gone through an initial print run of 8,000 copies since its late December release.
The Shanghai People’s Publishing House published the book, and, according to company spokesman Wang Weisong, its success had been “totally unexpected.” Explaining the reason behind readers’ fascination, an article in The Raw Story reports:
Chinese readers are already familiar with other works of the early 20th century Irish writer. The Chinese edition of “Ulysses”, considered his masterpiece, went on sale in 1995.
Literary critic Liu Wei told a recent seminar on “Finnegans Wake” that the book — the plot of which remains open to interpretation — deserved respect.
“Modern writers share a common sense of doing interesting textual experiments … among this group of writers, Joyce has the most intensive sense of all,” he said, according to an online transcript.
“I think it deserves our respect that Joyce created such a rich text.”
A rich text indeed. Some might argue too rich. Famous for dividing critics, Finnegans Wake has almost as many detractors as proponents. Ezra Pound, an adamant supporter of Joyce, said of the book: “Nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherisation.”
Another friend of Joyce’s, literary critic Oliver Gogarty called it “the most colossal leg-pull in literature.”
Here’s D.H. Lawrence: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage-stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed in the juice of deliberate journalistic dirty-mindedness — what old and hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all-new!”
And Vladimir Nabokov: “Nothing but a formless and dull mass of phony folklore, a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room [...] and only the infrequent snatches of heavenly intonations redeem it from utter insipidity.”
Regardless of the criticism, Joyce’s work is indisputably unique, and nothing if not bursting with ingenuity — an attribute Dai was mindful of in her translation:
“I was aware about how tough it would be from the beginning. Yet without Chinese translation, the book would remain a mystery for Chinese readers, especially those who love James Joyce.”
In her translation, Dai retains about half of the author’s original words, and has put every possibly meaning of some of the more complicated words in the book’s copious footnotes. “Many words in this book have very rich meanings, and that’s why people find it hard to get it right. As a translator, I think I tried to not translate each word and sentence, only based on my own understanding. This way, we can leave more space for the readers.”
One final point. Dai’s translation is of Book I only. She does not know when Book II will be done. In her defense, the French translation took thirty years, but who knows, what with all the clamor, if Chinese readers can wait that long.
On the other hand, maybe Book I alone will suffice, as some Chinese readers already sound as if they’ve have had their fill:
“Finnegans Wake is a book for book collectors and critics, but not for readers,” one reader said.
Others were more emphatic. Jiang Xiaoyuan, a professor at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, said: “Joyce must have been mentally ill to create such a novel.”
Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.