“Finnegan” Awakes in China

James Joyce’s famously impenetrable novel Finnegan’s Wake has been published in China. And it’s a bestseller!

I’m blogging this just because a) I’m a lit geek, and b) it’s just weird.

Dr.  Dai Congrong has spent 8 years translating a completely untranslatable novel into (according to the original article) “Chinese,” by which I assume they mean Mandarin.

The translator, God love her, became obsessed with the work and the massive challenge it involved:

She describes translating Joyce’s famous stream-of-consciousness writing style as an enormous challenge.

“The things I lost are mostly the sentences, because Joyce’s sentences are so different from common sentences,” she says, adding that she often broke them up into shorter, simpler phrases – otherwise, the average reader “would think that I just mistranslated Joyce. So my translation is more clear than the original book.”

Yet she took great pains to remain as faithful to the original as possible. “For example, there was a phrase in Finnegans Wake that said ‘sputtering hand’, which might mean shaky. If I translated it as ‘shaky hand’, that would be OK – in Chinese it’s a good sentence. However, I just translated it as ‘sputtering hand’. Sputtering and hand cannot be put together in Chinese grammar, but I put the two together anyway.”

Dr Dai was originally cowed by the scale of the undertaking – the French translation took 30 years to complete – and occasionally considered quitting. “It is a kind of torture,” she said. “In China, translation is not regarded as an academic achievement – I have to publish first, and then give my own time to translation.”

The book sold out its whole first printing and is now #2 on the Shanghai bestseller list.

By the way, this was only the first third of the novel. She plans to continue with the rest, if it doesn’t kill her first:

“My body suffered from the work, working every night,” she said. “I looked older than I should be. My eyes became dark, and my skin wasn’t that good either.”

I like the cut of her jib! She pours her life into a completely quixotic task and is willing to keep charging forward.

Now maybe someone can translate it into English.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • http://www.parafool.com victor

    That is cool. I tried pasting some excerpts into Google Translate and it basically choked on them, so there are still some things humans can do better than computers. Take that, Deep Blue and Watson!

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    I tried pasting some excerpts into my head, and *I* choked on them.

    I never finished it. Ulysses was enough.

  • Maggie

    This is awesome.

  • deiseach

    This is insane, but it’s the kind of human insanity that becomes greatness (and it’s way better than plotting the downfall of civilisation to be replaced by our perfect robot overlords).

    God bless and keep her! :-)

  • http://moralmindfield.wordpress.com Brian Green

    What a fascinating story, thanks for sharing it. I’ve always avoided Joyce, though I know those (who also like psychedelic drugs) who have enjoyed Finnegan’s Wake.

    And by the way, written Chinese has no dialect as far as I know. Because it is in characters that have no relationship to the spoken sounds (unlike an alphabet), written Chinese is the same no matter what dialect of Chinese is spoken. The written language unifies the culture more than the spoken. I’ve always found it fascinating that two mutually unintelligible speakers of Chinese dialects can both read the same book, no problem.


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