Friday, February 8, 2013

"Fennigen de Shouling Ye": "Finnegans Wake" gets translated into Chinese

James Joyce's cerebral masterwork Finnegans Wake has confounded readers and critics through most of the twentieth century, and continues to be literature's most un-read classic well into this one. Many people can claim at least a passing acquaintance with Ulysses, its central characters of Leopold and Molly Bloom, and understand the novel's journey through one day in Dublin. Finnegans Wake is a monumental retelling of an entire life, as if one day in the Irish capital were merely a draft exercise in putting a life on paper. 

Imagine the peril of translating the book into a foreign language.

The Guardian UK reports that a university professor in China has completed a translation of the book's first third into Mandarin -- the twists, turns and doublings of Joyce's English notwithstanding. And in a country where a biography of Deng Xiaopeng tops the best-seller charts, Fennigen de Shouling Ye has sold an amazing 8,000 copies in the first month since its publication.

Here's an excerpt of the Guardian article.

After spending eight years translating the first third of James Joyce's famously opaque novel Finnegans Wake into Chinese, Dai Congrong assumed it was a labour of love rather than money. The book's language is thick with multilingual puns and brazenly defies grammatical conventions. It begins: "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." 
So the 41-year-old professor at Shanghai's Fudan University was incredulous when the translation became a surprise bestseller in China after hitting shelves last month. Backed by an elaborate billboard ad campaign, the first volume of Fennigen de Shouling Ye sold out its first run of 8,000 copies and reached number two on a prestigious bestseller list in Shanghai, second only to a biography of Deng Xiaoping. Sales of 30,000 are considered "cause for celebration" according to Chinese publisher Gray Tan, so 8,000 in a month has made Joyce a distinctly hot property. Ian McEwan, for instance, is considered pretty buzzy in translation, but the print run of Atonement was only 5,000 copies. 
"At first I felt very surprised, and I feel very surprised now still," says Dai. "I thought my readers would be scholars and writers, and it wouldn't be so popular." 
She traces her love of Ulysses back to her time as a doctoral student at Nanjing University in the late 90s – the novel was first translated into Chinese in 1995. With some prodding from her academic adviser, she decided to tackle Finnegans Wake in 2004 and signed a translation contract with a publishing agency two years later. 
Joyce is a recent arrival to China. His work was shunned as bourgeois western literature under Mao Zedong – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man wasn't translated into Chinese until 1975, a year before Mao's death. And not for lack of demand. When a Chinese version of Ulysses hit shelves just under 20 years later, it promptly sold 85,000 copies... 
... She often quarrelled with her husband (he wanted her to go to bed; she wanted to stay awake and translate), and was driven to distraction trying to balance the project with family. "My body suffered from the work, working every night," she said. "I looked older than I should be. My eyes became dark, and my skin wasn't that good either." 
Her contract covers the remaining two-thirds of the novel, and despite the long hours, she has no qualms about continuing. "I think it's a very great book – after I read Finnegans Wake… I'll think oh, this writer used a sentence that's too traditional, too simple, and if he can experiment more with his sentences then he might be able to express different things."

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