In 2013 an unusual story made the headlines both in China and internationally: a third of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s infamously difficult final novel, had been translated into Chinese and was a bestseller. There are a number of things that are surprising about this. Firstly, it was astounding that anyone had even attempted this; and secondly, the fact that it was a bestseller.
A unique and ever-changing writer
James Joyce is a titan of English literature (or rather, literature written in English – as he was Irish). His first literary efforts (poems, short stories, a play and a novel) weren’t very successful, but when he published his second novel, Ulysses, in 1922, he instantly became world-famous. The novel seemed to create a whole new way to write fiction, and Joyce had delivered it in an elegant, poetic manner that earned him the label of genius from more than a few people (Ernest Hemingway wrote to a friend: “Joyce has written a most goddam wonderful book”.)
However, Joyce’s writing style didn’t stop changing. Now famous, and able to commit to writing full-time, he spent the next seventeen years writing his next novel: Finnegans wake. Apart from a devoted few, this novel didn’t receive the same praise. Its bizarre style almost defies definition. It is written in wordplay, which is delivered in long ungrammatical multilingual sentences that often require an understanding of many obscure allusions as well as French, Latin, Italian and Norwegian (amongst other languages) to decipher. Translating it into Standard English would be difficult enough, let alone into any other language. Here, for example, are some passages from different parts of the book:
Now it is notoriously known how on that surprisingly bludgeony Unity Sunday when the grand germogall allstar bout was harrily the rage between our weltingtoms extraordinary and pettythicks the marshalaisy and Irish eyes of welcome were smiling daggers down their backs…
What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishygods Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh! … Killkillkilly: a toll, a toll.
…the shuddersome spectacle of this semidemented zany amid the inspissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles, édition de ténèbres (even yet signs the Most Different, Dr Poindejenk, authorised bowdler and censor, it can’t be repeated!)…
‘Usylessly unreadable’, indeed! When the book was published in 1939 (shortly before Joyce’s death), H. G Wells wrote to the author: ‘… you have in your crowded composition a mighty genius for expression which has escaped discipline. But I don’t think it gets anywhere. You have turned your back on common men — on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence, and you have elaborated. What is the result? Vast riddles.’ Evelyn Waugh, a former admirer, called the novel ‘gibberish’. And Nabokov, who always maintained that Ulysses was the seminal masterpiece of 20th century literature, said he ‘detested’ Finnegans Wake, which he called: ‘a cold pudding of a book, a persistent snore in the next room.’
An ominous task
As I imagined, Dai Congrong, the novel’s Chinese translator, found the task difficult. She claimed that the translation took a physical toll on her body, as she lost sleep obsessing over completing the job. Finishing just one third of the novel took her 8 years. I was baffled at the sheer scale of what Dai was claiming to have achieved. However, I knew that she wasn’t the first to have attempted translating the novel. It took the French translator of the novel thirty years to complete, and the Japanese version required three translators, as the first one disappeared and the second lost his mind before the third finished the task.
Dai told reporters that she had to shorten many of Joyce’s sentences for her translation, otherwise, “[the readers] would think that I just mistranslated Joyce. So my translation is more clear than the original book.” This, I think, provides us with a hint: perhaps translating such a text is a highly subjective task. Critics can’t even agree on how to summerize its plot in English, so how could it ever be faithfully translated into another language? Here, I am sure that ‘sense’ is everything, and that there are unknown numbers of possible variations to how a text so dense with riddles can be translated. After all, how can a book that is so unreadable in English be truly translatable into another language?
But why was this translation so popular? It doesn’t seem like there is a simple answer to this question (Dai herself was surprised by its success, having previously only expected academics and literary types to be interested in it). However, it seems that there was a precedent: Joyce’s other major novels, Portrait of a Young Man, and Ulysses, both sold very well when they were translated in 1975 and 1990 respectively.
Perhaps to better understand why Joyce sold so well in China, it is best to remind ourselves of his reputation in the West. Ulysses was held aloft as ‘the greatest novel ever written’ (or at least a contender to that crown) by many of Joyce’s piers, who thereafter naturally considered him a genius (Scott F. Fitzgerald offered to throw himself out of a window in honor of the writer when they met in Paris, an offer Joyce declined…) With the success of Ulysses, Joyce obviously felt compelled to keep his writing style ‘evolving’. His reputation meant that whatever he published next would generate interest. People willing to jump out of windows for him would also be willing to submit themselves to a more painful experience – reading Finnegans Wake.
If this novel’s sudden popularity in China teaches us anything then, it’s that Chinese consumer’s tastes are similar to Westerner’s tastes, and that they have a hunger for Western culture in all its forms! As Shen Yun (assistant research professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences) points out in his enlightening article on the matter: “First Love, Last Rites, probably the most popular McEwan book in China, has sold more than 100,000 copies. Any McEwan novel is a likelier bestseller than Finnegans Wake. Likelier still are the Harry Potter books – seven volumes have generated ten million sales – and The Da Vinci Code.”
So ultimately, the story of Finnegans wake‘s success in China shows us just how deep China audience’s interest in Western culture is, and how they are as susceptible to promotion and pretension as Westerners are!