Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ Takes Off in ChinaBy DIDI KIRSTEN TATLOW
…Here in China, the first four pages of Chapter 9, “Scylla and Charybdis,” are read by Dai Congrong in Shanghai (there will also be a reading in Beijing) — though the translator of Joyce’s most difficult work, “Finnegans Wake,” says her contribution was prerecorded earlier this month. “I just sat down and read the book and someone recorded and also videoed it,” she said by telephone from Shanghai, where she is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at Fudan University.
Ms. Dai, 42, says there’s a real fascination with Joyce in China, as people search for new ways to express themselves in a fast-changing society.
A Joyce specialist who wrote her Ph.D. on the Irish author, Ms. Dai began translating “Finnegans Wake” in 2006. In December, she has published Book One (of four) of what is widely recognized as Joyce’s most difficult work, in a joint effort by Shanghai VI Horae Publishers, a private company, and Shanghai People’s Publishing House, a state-run company.
“I’m still working on Book Two. The progress is very slow,” she said. “You can’t translate ‘Finnegans Wake’ quickly, because I have to give footnotes for everything.”
The first, iconic sentence (“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs”) takes up three lines in Chinese but requires 17 lines of footnotes. The challenge began with the very first word: “riverrun.”
“I have to explain every word, as well as the cultural background and the alternative meanings,” she said.
“For example ‘riverrun’ could be ‘the river ran,’ and ‘reverend,’ and the German word ‘Erinnerung,’ ” or memory. “Because this book is about the meaning of memory and time, and why. So even the first word in the book you have to explain.”
“About 8 out of 10 of the words I have to write footnotes,” she said.
But the book’s mind-boggling complexity — native English speakers struggle with it and many have wondered if it was Joyce’s joke — doesn’t explain its popularity in China, where the first print run of 8,000 copies sold out within two months. Some have pointed to the way Joyce exploded hierarchy and meaning by tearing up language itself in the text when it was first published in 1939. It took 73 years to reach China in Chinese, but its message has appeal here today.