Finnegans Wake in China by jjqblog
January 29, 2013, 3:21 PM
Filed under: Publications

In JJQ‘s recent special issue on translation (46.4), Congrong Dai describes some of the difficulties she faced in trying to produce a Chinese translation of Finnegans Wake.  In December, she brought this long project to conclusion and it turns out that the book has rapidly gained a strong following in China, having sold out its initial print run of 8,000 copies in under a month.  News media, including the BBC, have picked up the story and we will link to the reports they appear.

As Congrong wrote in JJQ, translating the Wake posed enormous difficulty: puns, portmanteau words, and the echoing density of its phrases cannot be easily carried over from English into Chinese.  To deal with some of these challenges, she initially planned to create a series of entirely new Chinese words, a process that yielded fascinating results: “In the Chinese language a word can be the combination of several characters.  For example, ‘wake’ (the ritual meaning) would be translated into a word with three characters” that would combine the meanings of “vigilance,” “awake,” and “rebirth.”

Conrong goes on to note that process of inventing words in Chinese is incredibly complex and would require a knowledge of history, linguistics, and tradition so deep as to rival Joyce’s own command of English.  She has thus opted to begin with a more traditional style of translation, which will often limit the multifold meanings of the original text.  She still plans to release the more ambitious version–replete with its array of new Chinese words–at some point in the future.  Given the immediate success of this initial endeavor, however, it’s clear that her decision to begin more simply was a good one.  And it’s a real pleasure to know that Joyce’s final work has now gained an even broader global audience.


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