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Beyond untranslatable words
February 3, 2013 5:15 PM   Subscribe

In 1995, an Atlantic story on the first Chinese translation of Ulysses closed with the offhand remark that "no one in China is offering to translate Finnegans Wake." Today on the (day after the) 131st anniversary of his birth, James Joyce's famously difficult work is a bestseller in China.
posted by Lorin (30 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
What a surprising and wonderful achievement. But with half the original words retained it sounds like a really hard slog for the average reader. If you don't know any English to start with, Joyce's portmanteaus and onomatopoeics must look like total gibberish, and then there's all the cultural references...
posted by Kevin Street at 5:31 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


But with half the original words retained it sounds like a really hard slog for the average reader.

It's a hard slog for the average reader with all the original words retained.
posted by mhoye at 5:34 PM on February 3, 2013 [11 favorites]


(My snarking does not make its bestseller status any less amazing, though. Apologies, carry on.)
posted by mhoye at 5:36 PM on February 3, 2013


Sold out an initial edition of 8000 is enough to make a best seller in China?
posted by idiopath at 5:37 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seriously? This shouldn't even be possible. What's next, an English translation?
posted by uosuaq at 5:39 PM on February 3, 2013 [26 favorites]


Sold out an initial edition of 8000 is enough to make a best seller in China?

That's mass commercial piracy of best sellers for you.
posted by jaduncan at 5:40 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's better in the orginal Klingon.
posted by The Whelk at 5:45 PM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


I actually read an article at about this time in which they closed by asking the translator if he was going to do Finnegan's Wake next, and he answered, "Are you KIDDING?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:47 PM on February 3, 2013


Anyone want to translate "Nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clap can possibly be worth all that circumambient peripherisation." into Chinese?
posted by thelonius at 5:51 PM on February 3, 2013


"Sold out an initial edition of 8000 is enough to make a best seller in China?"

They only printed 8000, and sold out of the whole run in a few weeks. Hence, a bestseller.

I'm wondering now just how you transcribe things like "oystrygods gaggin" into Chinese characters. Does it have something to do with Pinyin?
posted by Kevin Street at 5:52 PM on February 3, 2013


It's important to remember that bestseller does not mean what you think it does even if you know the actual meaning of bestseller.
posted by srboisvert at 5:57 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


A Greek translation of Finnegans Wake is expected soon too. I'm buying it just to see the translator's choices.
posted by ersatz at 6:04 PM on February 3, 2013


The incorrect use of the word "bestseller" in the post is going to derail this conversation. Can you get the mods to change it to "selling well"?
posted by benito.strauss at 6:39 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm curious about the final page. There's no Chinese equivalent of the word "yes"
posted by moorooka at 7:01 PM on February 3, 2013


That's Ulysses, moorooka.
posted by uosuaq at 7:08 PM on February 3, 2013


Article: Explaining the reason behind readers’ fascination, an article in The Raw Story reports:

Me: Oh good, the article will answer my biggest question raised by the article!

Article: Chinese readers are already familiar with other works of the early 20th century Irish writer....“I think it deserves our respect that Joyce created such a rich text.”

Me: No, that doesn't really answer my question.


I would like more details about how technically it actually got translated and if she retained all the multi-language puns etc.
posted by bleep at 7:09 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


duh uosuaq, this is a thread about tranlating ulysses, right? I'm wondering how they translate Molly's "yes" when the word has no Chinese equivalent. A problem as basic as this gives you an indication of the difficulty involved in the project.
posted by moorooka at 8:20 PM on February 3, 2013


Okay so I didn't get past the first link...
posted by moorooka at 8:25 PM on February 3, 2013


Unfortunately, more detail on the translation itself seems to require access to the James Joyce Quarterly. Some interesting bits about translating Joyce did turn up in this old AskMe question.
posted by Lorin at 8:36 PM on February 3, 2013


I guess the interesting thing is it took the translator 10 years for the first volume. "Joyce himself admitted (or boasted), he expected that it would take people fully 300 years to understand the book’s full meaning." Jiang Xiaoyuan, a professor at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University, as saying: “Joyce must have been mentally ill to create such a novel.”
posted by stbalbach at 8:38 PM on February 3, 2013


Apparently the French translation took 30 years. It was frankly vexing how scant information is on this or any translation of Finnegan's Wake outside of academia, so I apologize for the subsequent thinness—I guess there's just no market for longform pieces on translators of experimental Irish novels.
posted by Lorin at 8:51 PM on February 3, 2013


duh uosuaq, this is a thread about tranlating ulysses, right? I'm wondering how they translate Molly's "yes" when the word has no Chinese equivalent. A problem as basic as this gives you an indication of the difficulty involved in the project.

Famously, Backstroke of the West had the same problem. Just as well Joyce was writing in English, because Irish doesn't really have any words for yes or no either - for yes you could say tá (which doesn't work as a standalone word) or the contraction sea - is ea - it is - but neither map directly onto the English word.
posted by kersplunk at 9:09 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm still waiting for the English translation of Finnegan's Wake.
posted by deathpanels at 9:15 PM on February 3, 2013


Sales may be due to the advertising - "One reason for its popularity may be advertising. The Chinese translation of "Finnegan's Wake" is said to be the first book to be the subject of a billboard campaign. Billboards promoting the novel went up in Shanghai and other major Chinese cities."
posted by unliteral at 9:27 PM on February 3, 2013


On a pedantic note, the book is called Finnegans Wake. Finnegan's Wake with apostrophe is this.

I like the idea of there being multiple Finnegans.
posted by kersplunk at 9:36 PM on February 3, 2013


“Joyce must have been mentally ill to create such a novel.”

ha ha ha...um....

Carry on.
posted by mule98J at 9:37 PM on February 3, 2013


This story with no extracts is like "DINOSAUR CIVILIZATION UNCOVERED / Early mammals used as record players, tennis racquets" with no pictures.
posted by No-sword at 1:15 AM on February 4, 2013


"Dai Congrong, who spent eight years translating it, said at a forum in Shanghai that she didn’t fully grasp the novel but that it wasn’t intended for easy comprehension. She says she kept the Chinese version that way."

Anyone here seen the translation?
posted by BWA at 4:32 AM on February 4, 2013


I guess the interesting thing is it took the translator 10 years for the first volume. "Joyce himself admitted (or boasted), he expected that it would take people fully 300 years to understand the book’s full meaning."

*snerk* I visited the Joyce Center when I was in Dublin in '98; I was the only guest even there that afternoon (it was the off season), so the proprietor - whom I later learned was one of Joyce's nephews - stopped to chat with me now and again as I wandered. At one point he saw me taking a photo of a mural they had, which depicted scenes from Ulysses. He asked if I'd enjoyed the book, and I admitted that I'd tried to read it a couple times but hadn't been able to finish it. "Well, it is a very dense book," he reassured me. "Lots of people can't really get through it the first time."

"Yeah," I admitted, "but I've tried four times and haven't been able to finish it."

He cracked up. "Ah, darlin,'" he said, "it took me twelve tries!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:45 AM on February 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


FW is a lot easier to read and understand in Chinese I have discovered.
posted by Postroad at 9:27 AM on February 4, 2013


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