Finnegans Headache

Andrew McGarth considers the difficulties of translating Joyce’s byzantine final novel into Chinese:

Dai Congrong started translating the book in 2006, but didn’t publish the first part of her translation until early 2013. Part of the reason it took so long is that Finnegans Wake, while challenging enough to read in English, is even more difficult to translate, owing to James Joyce’s puns, allusions, and multi-layered meanings which baffle most native English speakers and often lose their meaning in translation. The novel has been deemed “untranslatable” and the translations that are successful tend to be consuming: the Polish version took 10 years to finish, the French version 30 years, and the Japanese version took three separate translators after the first disappeared and the second went mad.  …

Dai’s translation only covers the first third of the book and clocks in at 775 pages; for comparison, the full English text is 676 pages long. Most of the extra pages can be attributed to footnotes and annotations, which were needed to make sense of the novel. According to the Wall Street Journal, the first sentence of Dai’s translation is accompanied by two definitions, five footnotes, and seven asides that explain the possible intended meanings for the word “riverrun” and the allusions to an 18th century academic named Giovanni Battista Vico, and for later sentences in the book Dai had to create new Chinese characters to capture sounds from the novel. Talking to Reuters after the book’s release, she said she started having doubts early on, when after two years of work she had yet to translate one word.

Relatedly, illustrator Stephen Crowe, who is translating Finnegans Wake into images for his project Wake In Progressdiscusses how the book has changed his approach to reading:

Most books develop their themes through the plot and the way the characters change over time. Finnegans Wake uses those techniques to some extent, but mostly [Joyce] uses others. The most important one is probably the leitmotif. He marks out different ideas with certain words, letters, numbers or rhythms, so you can trace the development of each idea according to the way he develops the motif. Like in music. Repetition is what powers the whole thing. But reading the Wake teaches you to read in a Wakean way. After a while, you find yourself reading conventional books with half an ear for all the words they repeat and the images they reuse. After all, any story is basically a collection of themes organized in a certain way. That’s one thing that you can definitely take from reading the Wake: it makes you re-evaluate everything you think about reading and writing.

Previous Dish on Joyce here, here, and here.