Finnegans Wake Is a Hit in China.

This news is three years old, but I just learned of it, and it’s still of interest; Jonathan Kaiman in the Guardian reports:

After spending eight years translating the first third of James Joyce’s famously opaque novel Finnegans Wake into Chinese, Dai Congrong assumed it was a labour of love rather than money. The book’s language is thick with multilingual puns and brazenly defies grammatical conventions. It begins: “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.”

So the 41-year-old professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University was incredulous when the translation became a surprise bestseller in China after hitting shelves last month. Backed by an elaborate billboard ad campaign, the first volume of “Fennigen de Shouling Ye” sold out its first run of 8,000 copies and reached number two on a prestigious bestseller list in Shanghai, second only to a biography of Deng Xiaoping. Sales of 30,000 are considered “cause for celebration” according to Chinese publisher Gray Tan, so 8,000 in a month has made Joyce a distinctly hot property. Ian McEwan, for instance, is considered pretty buzzy in translation, but the print run of Atonement was only 5,000 copies.

“At first I felt very surprised, and I feel very surprised now still,” says Dai. “I thought my readers would be scholars and writers, and it wouldn’t be so popular.” […]

“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.”

Joyce might complain about the added clarity, but if it helps the book catch on, why not? Readers who really get into it can always attempt the original. (Thanks, Rick!)

Comments

  1. Jim (another one) says:

    ““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”

    Sentences aren’t really a thing in Mandarin; you just keep adding clauses, (without the option of gerundive forms for subordination) and clauses until you get to the end of what you have to say. So that was a good move on her part.

    ” – otherwise, the average reader “would think that I just mistranslated Joyce. So my translation is more clear than the original book.”

    Something is always lost in translation and in this case it was the opacity of the original.

  2. Sentences aren’t really a thing in Mandarin; you just keep adding clauses, (without the option of gerundive forms for subordination) and clauses until you get to the end of what you have to say. So that was a good move on her part.

    Thanks, that’s useful context.

  3. The first full Polish translation of Finnegans Wake was published four years ago. It was truly a heroic accomplishent (considering that several earlier attempts had resulted at best in fragmentary translations). The translator, Krzysztof Bartnicki, spent more than ten years on the job with extreme dedication. The Polish version is faithful to the original even in matters of layout, pagination and Joyce’s numerology (for example, it’s 628 pages long). A must-have for Polish James Joyce fans, of course, but I don’t know how much of a commercial success it’s been.

  4. There is an interesting discussion of the first sentence in Finnegans Wake at The Sentence it Took Joyce Twelve Years to Write.

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