Joyce classic a bestseller in China

Thu, Jan 31, 2013, 00:00

Finnegans Wake is just as challenging a read in Chinese as in the original, but that has not stopped readers in China turning a new translation of James Joyce’s dreamtime masterpiece into a bestseller.

“Reading Finnegans Wake is like looking at the sky, or the whole world. It’s like a garden in Suzhou, carefully arranged and selected,” translator Dai Congrong, an associate professor of Chinese language and literature at Shanghai’s Fudan University, told The Irish Times.

Translating Joyce’s cyclical, often arcane, work of comic fiction took her eight years, but a first edition of 8,000 copies of Finnigen de Shoulingye sold out within three weeks of going on sale on Christmas Day.

This is more than double the original print run of Finnegans Wake in 1939 of 3,400 copies, though Joyce didn’t have a major advertising campaign to help him.

Clearly an enthusiast, Ms Dai compares Finnegans Wake to Taishan, one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China.

“Taishan is different from other holy mountains. It’s enormous, and when you look at it, it’s more than one mountain: there are several mountains making up Taishan,” she said.

Ms Dai visited Dublin in 2004, but found understanding the dialect difficult. She returned last year, having taught both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake in the meantime, and worked long on the translation.

“I found reading Finnegans Wake really helped to make understanding the language in Ireland easier,” she said. “The reference to John Joyce Co – I thought this was two companies, but when I went last year, I realised my mistake. I also understood street names better.”

The challenge of rendering Finnegans Wake into Chinese was enormous, particularly as written Chinese is composed of ideograms, characters that represent an idea or concept, rather than phonetic letters.

“I considered creating my own Chinese characters but it’s very difficult to put so many meanings in one character. In the end, I chose just one meaning and put other meanings in the footnotes,” she said.