Finnegans Wake Recently Translated into Chinese

More than one reader has asked “when will it be translated into English?” However, late last year the first Chinese translation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake 芬尼根的守灵夜 was announced and garnered quite a bit of attention for translator Ms Dai Congrong 戴从容. Here’s an example of the reportage: 

Finnegans Wake: Huge in China
by Kevin Murphy, Melville House
January 30, 2013

Dai Congrong, one brave translator
Dai Congrong, one brave translator

“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….” (Via Melville House, Finnegans Wake: Huge in China)

Quoted in PublishingPerspectives, Ms Dai said “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.”

The Chinese Wikipedia article about Finnegans Wake comments on and compares the English and its Chinese rendering by Ms Dai. The opening sentence of Finnegans Wake (actually the last half of the last sentence in the book) “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs” is given as “长河沉寂地流向前去,流过夏娃和亚当的教堂,从弯弯的河岸流进,流经大弧形的海湾,沿着宽敞的大道,把我们带回霍斯堡和郊外”.

“riverrun” becomes 长河沉寂地流向前去 or “long river silently flowing forward” – nine characters.  Translating “riverrun” is a substantial obstacle – the very first word in the book is invented – it exists in no dictionary (at least until Joyceanisms started to slip into the lexicon). Ms Dai has chosen to “explain” the word and, as she is translating into her own language, we can assume that “long river silently flowing forward” is what she believes her Chinese readers would best appreciate.

For “past Eve and Adam’s” we are given 流过夏娃和亚当的教堂 or “flowing past Eve [夏娃] and Adam [亚当]’s church….” The translation and its annotation are combined here when “church” is added – the Chinese reader is relieved of the necessity to consult the annotation for Eve and Adam, which all but natives of Dublin most likely must do.

Next, we swing into “from swerve of shore to bend of bay” 从弯弯的河岸流进,流经大弧形的海湾 or “flowing past the curving shore into the great arch if the bay….” One might have tried to capture the meter of this phrase, even the alliteration, as with 从河岸的弯曲流经海弯的岬角. But as we are not translating into our native language, we would have no idea how a Chinese would read such a phrase. This is an example of some of the things that get lost in translation.

Finally, we end with “brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs” 沿着宽敞的大道,把我们带回霍斯堡和郊外 or “following along the spacious roadstead, we are brought back around to Howth Castle and Environs.” Here the “commodius [宽敞的] vicus [hamlet, village] of recirculation [回]” is rendered with common sense the Chinese reader easily can understand, and Joyce’s word games are left to footnotes and annotations. Joyce’s implied “roadstead” is made explicit with  大道, “we 我们” subs for “us,” and “recirculation” is economically  disposed of with one character, 回. We might point out, also, that classical Chinese is often just as obscure as Finnegans Wake and, so, those few classical Chinese scholars who remain today would be well prepared to deal with Joyce’s obfuscations.

Opinion of Finnegans Wake has always been divided and its reception caused the author still more increase of the grief amassed by his earlier books, but it would appear that a small clutch, at least, of Chinese have taken to the book, in common with the other small groups worldround who make a pastime of deciphering Finnegans Wake. Joyce once remarked that in the 1930s a correspondent told him that there was a group of Chinese ladies in Shanghai who met twice a week to discuss his mistresspiece Ulysses, so there would appear to be precedent for ALP* clubs in China.

There are, of course, stacks of books replete with annotations explaining Finnegans Wake – one of the first to weigh in was the renowned Joseph Campbell. Another (painless) approach is the online annotated Finnegans Wake.

*ALP – Anna Livia Plurabelle, the principal female character in Finnegans Wake.

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