Reading about Yanase Naoki’s translation of Finnegans Wake into Japanese makes me wish I knew the language:

To get an idea of how Yanase has added his wordplay to Joyce’s, look at the first word, “riverrun.” Yanase has emulated Joyce here by creating a new Japanese word composed of the kanji for “river” and “run.” However, the pronunciation of this kanji compound (indicated as sensou by the furigana above it) is also a homonym of the word for “war.” Yanase explains that war and conflict are recurring themes throughout Finnegans Wake—from the Fall of Adam and Eve to the present. But sensou can also mean “ship window,” an image linked to the river…

Via No-sword:

The legendary Japanese translation of Finnegans Wake was released in cheap paperback format and nobody told me. I had to find out via a bookstore display in honour of St Patrick’s day. That hurts, Japan.
Anyway, I found it. After I came to, I bolted to the cashier and bought all three volumes instantly, partly because I want to reward YANASE Naoki (or his estate. I don’t know.) for his complete freaking insanity, God bless him, and partly because, damn, it’s Finnegans Wake in Japanese, yo.

He goes on to give a brief description of the first thunder word (which he helpfully transliterates).

Incidentally, my first link (for the translation) is part of a site, Japanese in the Age of Technology, that looks extremely useful for anyone trying to learn the language or just interested in how it’s been adapted to the computer age, with brilliant use of Shockwave Flash: the WaPro section, for example, shows you how text was input on the first Japanese word processor. And when I have time I want to fully investigate the section on The Encyclopedia.


  1. There’ll be maybe 2 people alive who’ll be able appreciate such a thing. The bloody is totally incomprehensible in any language.

  2. I disagree. Plenty of grad students of English read and enjoy the work each year. It has am entirely coherent plot, and most puns should be understandable to anyone who has a few languages under their belt. It is only pedestrians who either lack the necessary training or give up after the first few pages that think the book is “totally incomprehensible.”

  3. I agree that it’s not nearly as opaque as it’s made out to be. A useful hint is to read it out loud; it becomes much clearer that way. (It also helps to look at a companion book or two, just to get an idea of how it works.)

  4. aldiboronti says

    If they can translate Rabelais into Japanese, they can translate anybody!
    “Watanabe studied in Paris before the Second World War. When he told his academic supervisor about his ambition to translate Rabelais into Japanese, the eminent elderly French scholar answered the aspiring young Japanese student with the phrase: “L’entreprise inouie de la traduction de l’intraduisible Rabelais” (the unprecedented enterprise of translating into Japanese untranslatable Rabelais). Another French scholar answered with blunt astonishment: “Belle entreprise Pantagruélique” (an admirably Pantagruel-like enterprise). In spite of all this not only did Watanabe accomplish his great enterprise in a poverty- stricken environment during the War and the American Occupation, but he also did his best to transplant into the confused and disorientated Japan of that time the life and thought of those French humanists who were the forerunners, contemporaries and followers of François Rabelais.”

  5. I dipped into Finnegans Wake a few months ago and found it playful and jolly. You have to get away from the idea that you should or can understand everything, but people who dabble in foreign languages or difficult texts of any kind already have to do that.
    I think that the professionalization of high-level literary studies in the university, with the emphasis on right answers and expertise, risks ruining books like Rabelais and Joyce.
    Not that Screech’s annotations of Rabelais aren’t wonderful. But you have to remember that Joyce, Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, et al, were at a very deep level, screwing around.
    Was Screech from Newfoundland, btw? What a name!
    Allow me to reiterate my monomaniacal insistence that whoever chose the phrase “lower material bodily stratum” to designate one of Rabelais’ main themes has a lot to answer for. I hope and pray that it was the translator and not Bakhtin himself who was responsible.
    However, whoever’s responsible for that phrase should NOT be put up against the wall and shot, because it would be bad taste to joke like that about a guy who, in reality, was very lucky not to have that happen to him.

  6. (It also helps to look at a companion book or two, just to get an idea of how it works.)
    Wold you care to recommend any? I’ll get around to reading it someday, and I’d like to be prepared.

  7. A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake was very helpful to me. All wheat no chaff in that one.
    I’ve heard that A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake is also very good, but can’t vouch for it.

  8. You sure can’t go wrong with the Reader’s Guide or anything by Tyndall. The Skeleton Key book is essentially obsolete; it contains vast numbers of howlers now exposed by FW scholarship (not to be confused with the infamous Joyce Industry, which disdains FW for the most part).
    Danis Rose, who constitutes a FW Industry all by himself, is engaged (or has he finished? I’m out of touch) on a multi-decade effort to demonstrate in detail exactly how Joyce constructed FW out of the phrases he wrote down in his vast store of commonplace books. If FW weren’t so portmanteau-y and punny, it would be 6-10 times longer even than it is.
    But above all, get your own copy and write lots of notes in the margin. You’ll need ’em. Here’s one of my favorite (rather long) sentences from 4.18-28, which should be fairly easy for people on this blog. References to Ibsen, Freemasonry, the Bible, T.S. Eliot (aka Helveticus), puppetry, Irish beer, English law, Chinese geography, and Anglo-Irish authors are entirely intentional. Note also the hidden HCE, the initials of the book’s hero.
    “Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen’s maurer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofarback for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy (one yeastyday he sternely struxk his tete in a tub for to watsch the future of his fates but ere he swiftly stook it out again, by the might of moses, the very water was eviparated and all the guenneses had met their exodus so that ought to show you what a pentschanjeuchy chap he was!) and during mighty odd years this man of hod, cement and edifices in Toper’s Thorp piled buildung supra buildung pon the banks for the livers by the Soangso.”

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