April 22, 2014
The challenge of translating Finnegans Wake
by Andrew McGrath
Last year Shanghai People’s Publishing House released the first part of Dai Congrong’s Chinese translation Finnegans Wake. The book was an instant bestseller, clearing through its initial print-run of 8,000 copies in one month. It is now in its second print-run of 5,000 copies and is still being discussed. Shen Chun recently wrote in The London Review of Books about the reception of Finnegans Wake in China—Shen attributes most of the popularity for the incomplete book to the heavy marketing push—and the struggles Dai is facing in finishing her translation. Her responses when asked when the translation will be done include “May God give me the courage to finish it” and “Don’t ask me. I don’t know any more than you do.”
Dai Congrong started translating the book in 2006, but didn’t publish the first part of her translation until early 2013. Part of the reason it took so long is that Finnegans Wake, while challenging enough to read in English, is even more difficult to translate, owing to James Joyce’s puns, allusions, and multi-layered meanings which baffle most native English speakers and often lose their meaning in translation. The novel has been deemed “untranslatable” and the translations that are successful tend to be consuming: the Polish version took ten years to finish, the French version thirty years, and the Japanese version took three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad. Translating the novel was taxing on Dai as well, both physically and mentally, as The Guardian noted in its coverage of the book’s release:
She often quarrelled with her husband (he wanted her to go to bed; she wanted to stay awake and translate), and was driven to distraction trying to balance the project with family. “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.”
Dai’s translation only covers the first third of the book and clocks in at 775 pages; for comparison, the full English text is 676 pages long. Most of the extra pages can be attributed to footnotes and annotations, which were needed to make sense of the novel. According to the Wall Street Journal, the first sentence of Dai’s translation is accompanied by two definitions, five footnotes, and seven asides that explain the possible intended meanings for the word “riverrun” and the allusions to an 18th century academic named Giovanni Battista Vico, and for later sentences in the book Dai had to create new Chinese characters to capture sounds from the novel. Talking to Reuters after the book’s release, she said she started having doubts early on, when after two years of work she had yet to translate one word.
Despite her pessimistic view of ever finishing the next two parts of her translation, Dai believes she has conquered the Finnegans Wake. In an interview with Lifeweek she told the reporter: “I cracked every word and every sentence of the book, I found the logic linking the sentences.”