Arts, Culture & Media

Translating the Untranslatable: 'Finnegans Wake' in Chinese

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James Joyce

One of the best known novels of the 20th century, Finnegans Wake, has been variously called great, unreadable and untranslatable. It may be all of those; it may be none of them. But right now, it's a literary sensation in China.

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Not every work of literature is destined for the best-seller lists. But recently, James Joyce's novel has been doing very well indeed— in China. Copies of the first translation of Finnegans Wake available in mainland China have sold out.

Books in translation are often popular in China, but they tend to be global bestsellers like the Harry Potter series. So why has a text from pre-war Europe proved such a hit, particularly, one which has a reputation for being almost incomprehensible— even in its own language?

"I realized that Finnegans Wake was a great book," says Congrong Dai, who spent eight years working on the translation. "This book can change the idea of Chinese reader. Besides, introducing this book to Chinese reader is my responsibility."

Joyce's newest translator says that Chinese readers can learn a lot from Joyce's experimental novel.

"Finnegans Wake is a book of freedom," she says. "I do not only mean political freedom. Joyce will create new words to transcend social restraints. So the making of a new word shows Joyce's disobedience."

The creation of new words, the disobedience— perhaps a form of rejection of society— is one of the things that has made Finnegans Wake so notorious, and so infuriating for many readers. Almost every line is alive with puns, filthy double entendres, ancient Dublin slang and quotes from other authors.

Because the language in Finnegans Wake is so dense and complicated, translating it into another language might seem an impossible task. Is it even possible to convey any of this in translation?

"Yes, it's possible and its been done," says Michel Hockx, a professor of Chinese at the University of London. "Most of his work has been translated. Anything can be translated into any language."

Is it more difficult to translate something like Finnegans Wake than any other piece of literature?

"I would say so," Hockx says. "I mean it took the German translator 30 years. And the French translator 18 years. It's really hard. There's so many things that Joyce does with the language in terms of puns, in terms of different etymologies. He just creates a language of his own."

If it isn't exactly beach reading, there could be many reasons why Finnegans Wake has proved a hit in China. After all, there can be many reasons for buying a book.

Some people may "just want to have it on their coffee table," Hockx says. "You know how many people are actually going to read it? I will frankly admit that I own a copy of Finnegans Wake that I haven't finished either. I just felt I had to own it. So there is part of that happening."

Read Congrong Dai's A Chinese Translation of Finnegans Wake: The Work in Progress here. For more on how Chinese puns work, and how some Chinese use puns to avoid censorship, check out this post and podcast.