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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Polyglot Joyce

Patrick O'Neill

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To purchase Polyglot Joyce

Title: Polyglot Joyce
Author: Patrick O'Neill
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2005
Length: 227 pages
Availability: Polyglot Joyce - US
Polyglot Joyce - UK
Polyglot Joyce - Canada
  • Fictions of Translation

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting overview, useful introduction

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       James Joyce was among the most influential writers of the 20th century, and not only in the English-speaking world. Much of his work, challenging (particularly in its linguistic inventiveness) even in the original, would seem to resist translation, but many attempts have been made: the early work has long been widely available in translation in dozens of languages, as is by now Ulysses, with only Finnegans Wake limited to a few heroic foreign recreations.
       There is already extensive (if generally relatively obscure) literature on individual translations, as well as overviews of Joyce-in-language-X, but Patrick O'Neill's book is an attempt to consider Joyce's texts in all languages. It is a useful exercise for a number of reasons, perhaps most so because, as O'Neill points out, translation can in a sense add to the original: Joyce's texts (or rather, our understanding of them and how we read them) grow richer when new and different perspectives are available (something that translation inevitably imposes). Even if a translation itself is a simplification of the text, offering less than the original, an accumulation of translations -- whether new ones in the same language, or ones in different languages -- can add to our knowledge and appreciation of the text.
       Comparing translations is also of interest in providing insight into how different cultures and writers approach a text over time (and Joyce's texts provide particular challenges to translators); in the case of Joyce, O'Neill also convincingly shows that translations have built on one another, previous experience (as well as other advances in Joyce-studies) leading to new readings and versions of his texts (with multiple translations of many Joyce texts being found in many languages). O'Neill's overview suggests the possibilities and rewards of the approach, and if anything one regrets that he limits his examples.
       The historical overview O'Neill offers is already of considerable interest, as he surveys the spread of Joyce-translations. He looks in-depth at French, German, and Italian, and then offers summary histories of a dozen or so other languages. Availability is certainly the primary interest (with some Ulysses only appearing relatively recently), but the approaches to translation and specifically Joyce's involvement are also relevant. Joyce was actively involved in some of the French and Italian translations, and gave his stamp of approval (unwisely ?) to an early German effort. (Well-known authors in their own right have also been responsible for some Joyce-translations, including Cesare Pavese, Maruya Saiichi, and Guillermo Cabrera-Infante.)
       O'Neill's survey is summary, but still manages to point out many of the language- (and culturally-) specific aspects of the various translations, including the peculiar problem of re-writing Ulysses in Irish or the difficulties of presenting the text in Arabic. In many languages there are multiple translations of individual Joyce-texts -- with Dubliners translated into Italian an astonishing four separate times between 1993 and 1995 alone (there now exist at least eleven different translations) -- and O'Neill also addresses the local evolution of these texts. This is all material that is addressed much more closely -- but generally only case-by-case (or language-by-language) -- in the scholarly literature; O'Neill's approach is necessarily cursory, but as a starting (and collection) point still of considerable value.
       Several chapters of Polyglot Joyce are devoted to comparing bits of texts -- translations of the first and last sentences of several of Joyce's works, as well as the titles. The variety of approaches, the differences and similarities -- and the implications of the choices -- are considered, an interesting exercise (and useful reminder of both the limitations and possibilities of translation). From the relatively (but only relatively) straightforward Dubliners to the challenges of Finnegans Wake, it is a useful and thought-provoking survey. Certainly, it suggests that a 'transtextual reading' of the work (across the translations) is of value, that indeed: "the original text is always potentially extended (rather than distorted or diminished) by its individual and collective translations".
       Joyce's literary inventiveness both complicates translation and makes it potentially more rewarding: Joyce's work demands to be considered at the very basic language-level, and translation helps keep the focus on that. Unlike with much traditional fiction, readers especially of translations of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are necessarily attuned to the fact that they are dealing with a new rendering, a re-working of the text -- and, as O'Neill shows, in the case of texts of such complexity, translations can actually also serve as a gloss on the original, translator-choices revealing aspects of the original that may not have occurred to readers.
       O'Neill's book is far from comprehensive (especially in the comparative sections, the absence of non-European examples is sorely missed), but a useful introductory overview. It is also a brisk tour, with little tedium: the information is provided clearly and quickly, with a good deal of interesting detail (much culled from other texts, but well-arranged). It is certainly of considerable value to anyone interested in either literary translation-issues or simply Joyce-enthusiasts -- and the latter might be pleasantly surprised how much a look at foreign Joyce-versions can enhance their own appreciation of the original texts.
       Polyglot Joyce is meant to be a starting point rather than comprehensive survey, and it succeeds as that. Some additional information would have been welcome: the notes and bibliography are good, but an appendix conveniently listing all the translations of Joyce's major works would have been especially welcome, and more information about the non-European translations would also have been useful. Overall, however, it accomplishes what it sets out to do and is a rewarding, thought-provoking addition to the literature on translation and on Joyce.

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Polyglot Joyce: James Joyce: Patrick O'Neill: Other books by Patrick O'Neill under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Patrick O'Neill teaches at Queen's University. He was born in 1945.

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© 2005-2022 the complete review

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