On the first page of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce creates a word to describe the sound made when the heavens opened and Adam and Eve fell to earth.
This is it: Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonn-bronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawns-kawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk.
Now imagine having to translate that into Chinese, a language in which each word is an established character (or a combination of two or three characters) and in which sounds tend to be percussive and short.
That was one of the many challenges faced by Dai Congrong, a professor of English literature at Shanghai’s Fudan University. Little wonder Dai spent eight years translating the first book in Joyce’s four-part, stream-of-consciousness novel.
But it seems Dai must have done something right, because her translation has become a surprise hit. By the end of January it had risen to number two in the sales rankings in Shanghai and might even have dislodged the book in first place – a biography of Deng Xiaoping – had shops not run out of copies.
Its publisher Gray Tan is now hurriedly printing a second edition.
Dai explains the book’s popularity thus: “My translation is lucky enough to appear in a period when more Chinese readers have high education and want to read serious, enlightening and challenging works. People living in big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen are not satisfied with popular culture and want to learn new things. Finnegans Wake is said to be a book that could inspire new ideas.”
Dai adds that she also benefitted from Gray Tan’s decision to run a billboard campaign publicising the novel – called Fennigen de Shouling Ye in Chinese – as well as to print the book in the classical style with characters running down the page. Dai thinks this adds to its esoteric quality.
Finnegans Wake is notoriously hard to translate (and tougher still to read, many would say) with the German version taking 19 years to appear, and the French version 30. Dai told WiC she had to break up some of Joyce’s long, dream-like sentences so they would make more sense to the Chinese reader but that she always tried to stay true to their original meaning.
“I chose the most difficult but the most convincing way to translate, that is, to list all possible meanings that I knew of most words used in Finnegans Wake, instead of only choosing one or two meanings. I think many Chinese readers were moved by my hard work.”
And hard work it was. Professor Dai admits she often quarrelled with her husband by staying up late to work on the translation. She says her eyes and looks have suffered as a result of the undertaking, too.
In many ways that echoes the experiences of Joyce himself who spent 17 years writing the book, during which his mental and physical health deteriorated.
But unlike Joyce, who died two years after he finished the work, at least Dai is able to enjoy the fruits of her labours. Oh, and start on translating the remaining three books in the Finnegans Wake saga.
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