Sunday 25 February 2018

Reading Finnegans Wake in Chinese!

John Boland

Most of us can't read Finnegans Wake in English, so how is it translateable into Chinese?

Ask Dai Congrong, whose Chinese version of the first third of this modernist landmark has been something of a hit in her native country, the initial print run of 8,000 having sold out within a month of publication – not too surprising in a society where Joyce is revered by literary scholars and adventurous readers.

Her translation of this first third, which took her eight years, runs to almost 800 pages, which is a good deal more than the book in English, though many of these pages are of explanatory annotations – which are no doubt a boon to nonplussed readers.

But seemingly the task of translating Joyce has been more than just mentally exhausting for the 42-year-old Dai Congrong, who's an associate professor at Fudan University. "My body suffered", she told a journalist, "I looked older than I should be".

And when asked when her rendering of the book's other two-thirds might be completed, she wearily replied: "Don't ask me, I don't know any more than you do. May God give me the courage to finish it".

It's well known that Joyce's pursuit of his genius frequently took its toll on those who were close to him; now seemingly it's doing the same to interpreters on the far side of the globe – previously a would-be Japanese translator went unaccountably missing, while another was reported to have gone mad.

Perhaps that's the way Joyce would have wanted it – certainly Finnegans Wake makes no concessions to the ordinary intelligent reader.

But if you want to have another go at it, or even make a first attempt, there's a new illustrated edition of it available from the Folio Society.

The price is a whopping £99 (€120) but as a Folio book it's bound to be a beautiful object to hold and look at even if the actual text defeats you.

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