Found in Translation – Frank McNally on echoes of James Joyce in Japan and a rediscovered ‘Ulysses in Irish’

 James Joyce: no escaping him, even in Japan. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

James Joyce: no escaping him, even in Japan. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty

 

There is no escaping James Joyce, even in Japan. Last weekend there, I learn, not long after the Irish rugby team laboured to victory over Russia, another representative of this island was playing goalkeeper for a football club in Osaka.

His name is Niall Killoran, a 27-year-old twin whose brother Colin has also played professional soccer in Japan, where both were born, of Irish and Japanese parents. They make an interesting story in themselves, but the Joycean link is that they are descendants of Mendel Altman, a councillor on Dublin Corporation in the early years of last century, who followed his brother Albert into City Hall.

“Altman the Saltman”, as Albert is known in Joycean circles (the family business, based at Usher’s Island, was salt importation), has emerged as a strong candidate to have been the main real-life model for the hero of Ulysses, Leopold Bloom.

The claim is not uncontentious. Conventional wisdom insists that Bloom was a composite of several historical figures.

But like Bloom, Altman was a left-leaning Irish-Jewish nationalist, friendly with Arthur Griffith. This and his family circumstances (including even the location of his grave in Glasnevin, close to where the fictional Paddy Dignam was buried in Ulysses) make a compelling case.

Scholars in the US, especially, see him as the “missing link”. Indeed, a new front in the campaign has been opened recently, via the latest issue of the Journal of Modern Literature, where a first-rank Joycean, Neil Davison, argues that the spectre of Altman also haunts one of Joyce’s “Dubliners” stories: Ivy Day in the Committee Room.

Set on October 6th, the anniversary of Parnell’s death, that explores the moral vacuum in Irish politics that followed. In an essay for the JML, Davison suggests it makes more sense when read in the light of Saltman’s career, and that it is the earliest evidence of memories of Altman influencing Joyce’s “interest in labor as a promising route towards colonial independence”.

But returning to the subject of Japanese football, and Niall Killoran, he plays for a team called Tiamo Hirakata, in Osaka. The Italophile Joyce might also have enjoyed the fact that the first part of the club’s name is a deliberate contraction of the Italian words meaning “I love you”.

In any case, their latest game was in the Kansai Soccer League Cup last Saturday, the eve of Ivy Day 2019. And whether he realises it or not, the Hiberno-Japanese goalkeeper did honour to his political ancestors: keeping a clean sheet while his team won, convincingly, 6-0.

***

Meanwhile, back in Joyceville (aka Dublin) the writer’s glory will be boosted even further later this month by the re-emergence of his greatest masterpiece in a language through which it has been so far underrepresented: Irish.

That an Irish translation of Ulysses ever emerged in the first place is due to the heroics of a Mayo doctor named Jim Henry. Born in the Gaeltacht area of Doohoma in 1918, he became a GP in Belfast before joining the Royal Air Force, from which he retired in his late 50s.

By then permanently resident in the North, he found a fellow Gaelgeoir in his brother-in-law, Basil Wilson. And so it was that one day, Henry being a Joyce enthusiast, he wondered aloud to Wilson how one might translate “ineluctable modality of the visible”, a phrase that prefaces Stephen Dedalus’s walk on Sandymount Strand and refers to an idea from Aristotle about the limitations of eyesight as a means of perceiving reality.

One thing led to another and Henry had acquired the perfect retirement hobby, translating the entirety of Uilséas, as it became, with the help of another Doohoma native, Seamus Ó Mongáin. Part of the result appeared in the journal An tUltach in 1984, and the translators gradually self-published the whole thing, in pamphlets. But because of copyright and other problems, it never made it into book form. 

It was languishing in university archives when Dr Eoin P Ó Murchú, himself a translator (whose work has included making sense of another epic and famously difficult body of words, the proceedings of the Dáil) became interested.

Among the results, for now, is a theatrical production of the work – “Sea, Sea, Sea! [Yes, Yes, Yes!] Ulysses in Irish”, which will be presented at Dublin’s Newman House, as part of the Imram Féile Litríochta Gaeilge festival, on October 20th. Ó Murchú’s selections will be performed by actors, while Noel O’Grady sings songs associated with Joyce’s era. Representing the ineluctable modality of the visible, the multimedia event will also include onscreen projections of scenes from early 20th-century Dublin, by Margaret Lonergan.  

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