July 11, 2014

“Take two ‘Ulysses’ and call me in the morning”: translating Joyce for health and pleasure


Salah Niazi. image via Ahewar.org.

Salah Niazi. image via Ahewar.org.

Our past investigations on this blog into the singular world of translators who’ve embarked on books by James Joyce have indicated that translating Joyce is not good for your health and well-being. Recall Dai Congrong, currently translating Finnegans Wake into Chinese, who said in an interview that “My body suffered from the work, working every night… I looked older than I should be. My eyes became dark, and my skin wasn’t that good either.”

But Salah Niazi, Iraqi poet, takes the opposite view. Niazi, who has been working on a translation of Ulysses into Arabic since 1984, began the project initially for health reasons. In a recent interview for Channel 4 News, Niazi explains his reasoning:

“I was protecting my health from the news of wars in Iraq. I couldn’t bear to watch day and night on television. Many a friend, Iraqi friends in Europe whom I knew, had heart attacks.

“So to protect my health, I said let me go and do something very difficult and forget about all the wars and killings. (…) I decided to go for Ulysses.”

However, the benefits don’t come easy.

“It hurts, even physically. Your neck is hurting, your eyes, your mood, your relationship with your wife, with the house, with friends, all will differ when you go fully to read Ulysses.”

In other words, the intense absorption that translation involves can keep you from obsessing about the problems of the world… but it’ll still probably fuck up your neck. But it’s worth it: Niazi argues that the experience of reading Ulysses closely — and translators read perhaps the most closely of all — can liberate the reader from even the most fundamental aspects of identity:

“In six months, you will find yourself on a different plane. You are a different person. You have the right to change your name, your country, your status — anything!”

Well, maybe. You might also after six months feel like a refracted version of Leopold Bloom, or James Joyce, or just like a very tired person with a very short pencil stub.

Still, knowing how much effort has been expended in the undertaking, and how much it served as a refuge for the one undertaking it, makes the final result even sweeter. Here’s Niazi reading the first few lines of his translation:


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.