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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation

Finnegans Wakes

Patrick O'Neill

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Title: Finnegans Wakes
Author: Patrick O'Neill
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2022
Length: 347 pages
Availability: Finnegans Wakes - US
Finnegans Wakes - UK
Finnegans Wakes - Canada
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: University of Toronto Press
  • Tales of Translation

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Our Assessment:

(--) : a fascinating, thorough tour of Finnegans Wake in its many translations

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Readers may complain about James Joyce's Ulysses being difficult to read, but fundamentally it is a reasonably straightforward text; his Finnegans Wake (FW), on the other hand, is something of an entirely different order. Complex already in its original 'English' form, it would seem to defy any conventional form of 'translation' -- and, indeed, Patrick O'Neill notes in his Introduction to Finnegans Wakes that: "Finnegans Wake can indeed not be translated, it can only be rewritten". Yet as he points out: "as of this writing [2022], no fewer than sixteen complete (would-be) translations exist in thirteen different language altogether". Those aren't quite Harry Potter-numbers, but show a considerable continuing interest in re-rendering the text in other languages. In fact, the complete versions just keep coming: a brief postscript to the book reports on three more that appeared in late 2021, "Too late to be considered in detail in the present volume", bringing the total of complete FW translations to nineteen -- with O'Neill noting that quite a few more are in the works, so that potentially: "there could be as many as an amazing twenty-nine complete translations of the untranslatable Finnegans Wake by the end of the 2020s".
       Finnegans Wakes is a thorough inventory of the attempts, to date, to translate Joyce's (in)famous work, in part and in whole, which, in considering the various approaches re-writers have taken in trying to adapt the text, is illuminating both with regards to Joyce's original as well as the concept(s) of 'translation'.
       Finnegans Wakes is, essentially, an annotated catalogue of translations, arranged basically chronologically and by language. O'Neill proceeds decade by decade (with the 1940s and 50s presented together), finding that FW translation-efforts can be: "roughly divided into three periods: the early years (1930s-1960s), the middle years (1970s-1990s), and what we may not unreasonably call the boom years (2000s-2020s)".
       Despite many people having a go at the work, most efforts were long limited to only short parts of it -- notably the opening and, especially, the most famous chapter, Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), which has "long been the favourite chapter of FW for translators in many languages" -- with the first complete translation, Philippe Lavergne's French one, only appearing in 1982 (Gallimard). The earlier history of translation-efforts -- even if many were only partial -- is, however, no less interesting, beginning with the French and Italian translations of ALP which Joyce himself was involved in. (O'Neill has written at length on these in Trilingual Joyce: The Anna Livia Variations (2018; also from the University of Toronto Press).)
       O'Neill amusingly quotes a Joyce eager and impatient to have a go at translating it into Italian:

We must do the job now before it is too late, for the moment there is at least one person, myself, who can understand what I am writing. I don't however guarantee that in two or three years I'll still be able to.
       Despite this, an impressive number of writers have not shied away from nevertheless imposing their reading of the text -- as misguided as it in some cases seems to have been (as in Arno Schmidt's "remarkably reductive approach")-- on it in re-presenting it in another language.
       The earliest translations of excerpts from FW -- including the translations Joyce worked on of parts of ALP, as well as C.K.Ogden's rendering in 'Basic English' of parts of it -- appeared even before the work itself was completed and published in English (1939). As noted, however, a complete translation, in any language, was a long time coming. For several decades, it was only short pieces and examples that were rendered into other languages -- and these also continue to make up the majority of FW-related translations. These, too, however, offer considerable insight -- indeed, the fact that there are clear favorites as to what of FW gets translated allows for instructive comparisons to approaches and displays of the particular difficulties posed in different languages. O'Neill helpfully provides many samples, comparing the original to the translations, giving at least some idea of how translators have dealt with a variety of issues.
       Aside from the title itself, the two most frequently discussed examples are the opening paragraph of the work:
     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.
       And the opening section of ALP, with its distinctive pyramid-arrangement of the first three lines:
tell me all about
Anna Livia ! I want to hear all
about Anna Livia. Well, you know Anna Livia ? Yes, of course, we all know Anna Livia. Tell me all. Tell me now.
       O'Neill is able to offer, compare, and consider a wonderful variety of translations of these -- with even single words such as 'riverrun' and indeed even just ALP's opening 'O' rendered in a quite staggering number of very different ways.
       Similarly, O'Neill focuses on some of the basics all translators had to wrestle with, from the novel's river-motifs and names in general -- often, as with much else, punningly presented, to the name and initials 'HCE' (Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker). Among the many interesting observations is in how various translators re-locate, as it were, elements of the story in adapting them to their languages, while also trying to retain Joyce's connotations to the extent possible.
       O'Neill describes each of the translations in at least summary manner, and often comments on both the translations themselves as well as the literary-historical context. Helpfully, he also provides some background information about the various translators, the (often complicated) publication-history of the translations, as well as the reception of many of the texts.
       The translators are a fascinating wide range of writers -- though, as O'Neill notes, "the relative dearth of female translators" is noticeable. Many famous authors have taken a stab at translating at least parts of FW, including Samuel Beckett, Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, Anthony Burgess, Szentkuthy Miklós, Eduardo Lago, Michel Butor, and Arno Schmidt, and O'Neill introduces them and their efforts well. The cast of characters includes remarkable figures such as Nishiwaki Junzaburō -- who, as O'Neill suggests, certainly deserves an "honourable mention" --, while O'Neill also amusingly relates more idiosyncratic approaches and failed efforts as, for example, both found with Arno Schmidt, who:
made separate approaches to no fewer than six different German publishers offering to translate the entire work over the space of three years at a very modest monthly stipend of 500 West German marks. he was forced to abandon the plan on being unable to obtain the agreement of any one of them
       Many of the translators acknowledge that the term 'translation' is hardly adequate to what rendering FW in another language is. So, for example, the Polish translator of the complete FW:
     [Krzysztof] Bartnicki refers to Finneganów tren not as a translation, but rather as a "polonization" (spolszczenie) of Joyce's text, conceived of as an intralingual rather than interlingual rendering, namely, from one dialect of Wakese, Joyce's Anglo-Wakese, to another, his own Polish-based Wakese.
     Having been refused permission by Stephen Joyce to describe their rendering as a translation rather than an adaptation, the Dutch translators conflate vertaling ("translation") and herhaling ("repetition") in punningly calling it a hertaling, a "re-languaging," thus contributing a new term to the Dutch language.
       Different languages pose different translation problems, and O'Neill describes in good detail how many of these are addressed. So, for example, he notes how Chinese is not suited to the punning found throughout FW, and that one of the techniques translator Congrong Dai adopted was to present the text in a format much like how ancient Chinese texts often are, with explanatory commentary included in a smaller font, a kind of extensive annotation.
       The phonetic script of Korean, meanwhile, allows for sound (and puns) to be more readily conveyed, but nevertheless:
Chong-keon Kim in his 2002 rendering of FW incorporated Chinese characters at various points in an attempt to capture as many aspects as possible of Joycean polysemy.
       (As he notes, the problem with this approach is that: "it made Kim's rendering inaccessible to many Korean readers", as many are not or no longer familiar with Chinese characters.)
       In between lies Japanese, which uses both kanji (characters, as in Chinese) and kana (phonetic alphabets like the Korean hangul), with kanji often glossed in texts in kana -- furigana. As O'Neill notes:
     This orthographic complexity, particularly involving the use of furigana, affords the translator a very considerable amount of flexibility in constructing shades of polysemy. One commentator of Yanase's rendering writes that the Japanese translator "made constant use of furigana to add new layers of meaning to words written in kanji. Furigana allowed him to emulate -- while not literally reproducing -- the puns, double-entendres and allusions that fill every sentence of Joyce's original text
       (As O'Neill also points out, a significant number of the FW translations were printed with the original text facing the translation, allowing readers to compare the two in situ.)
       The reception of the translations is also interesting, ranging from the very enthusiastic -- the first part of the first complete Chinese FW, or Yamase's first complete Japanese translation (1993/5), which had sold 50,000 copies by 2000 -- to disappointing, such as the second complete Japanese translation. An interesting case is Dieter Stündel's complete German translation, as Finnegans Wehg (1993), which was: "greeted with great fanfare as a media event, but critical reception was far less rapturous". As O'Neill points out, Stündel's willingness to include: "entirely unnecessary textual noise" -- by basically trying to have it every which way, in forcing: "as many verbal and cultural puns as possible into his rendering whether they contribute any meaningful new element of textual sense or not" -- was obviously problematic. As he nicely puts it, Stündel's version is one: "in which the translator's visibility is completely unmissable".
       Others tried to add to the work not directly in the text but through a variety of forms of annotation. The Dutch translation was followed by a "quasi-encyclopedic commentary", Finnegancyclopedie (2005), while Krzysztof Bartnicki also published a volume of textual variants and their Polish translations as well as several more FW-variations, including a "372-page musical transposition" and a ... Rolodex version (see, e.g.).
       Perhaps the most unusual complete translations is Adam Roberts' quasi-Latin version, Pervigilium Finneganis (2019) (available in Kindle-format; see also Roberts' own commentary). Meanwhile, shorter translations O'Neill discusses range from Esperanto to Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
       An Appendix discusses one of the biggest translation-questions: how to translate the title, with O'Neill considering no less than twelve options. (The Appendix also includes observations on how the section-title 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' can and has been translated.)
       With a seventeen-page chronology of all the translations of FW, in part and whole, a comprehensive Bibliography, as well as an Appendix specifically only of all known ALP translations, Finnegans Wakes is an invaluable reference work. Though mainly a survey-catalogue, Finnegans Wakes makes for quite fascinating reading as well, and should especially be of considerable interest to anyone interested in FW and/or in translation.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 June 2022

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Finnegans Wakes: 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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© 2022 the complete review

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