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Wake in fright

Date
A Chinese man points near a large billboard advertising the translated work of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" on a street in Beijing, China, Wednesday,

A Chinese man points near a large billboard advertising the translated work of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" on a street in Beijing, China, Wednesday, Photo: Ng Han Guan

Finnegans Wake in Chinese? Whatever next will they be thinking of? Finnegans Wake in comprehensible English? Finnegans Wake for Dummies! Actually that last one does exist.

Professor Sebastian Knowles, of Ohio State University, wrote a piece published in the James Joyce Quarterly in 2008 that was entitled Finnegans Wake for Dummies. It begins, after a confession of never having read the work, with a song – in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan – part of which goes:

Am I alone? And unobserved? I am.
Then let me own, I'm an academic sham.
My reading of the Wake's a fake.
Up to about page nine, I'm fine.
But the idea of reading every word's absurd.
Let me confess.
A languid love of Livia does not blight me,
Acronyms of HCE do not delight me,
I do not care for ''thunderwords'' and ''Wellingturds,''
Everything one sees is in Chinese,
Even my attempts at the marginilia end in abject failure,
In short, my reading of the Wake's an affectation
Born of a morbid love of reputation!

All this awakening has been wrought forth because of the recent news that Dai Congroung, a professor at Fudan University, Shanghai, has translated the first third of the novel into Chinese. It took her eight years. This seems to me an astonishing clip given with what she was dealing. For instance, this is the start of Finnegans Wake:

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.
Sir Tristram, violer d'amores, fr'over the short sea, had passen-core rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy isthmus of Europe Minor to wielderfight his penisolate war: nor had topsawyer's
rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time: nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauftauf thuartpeatrick not yet,
though venissoon after, had a kidscad buttended a bland old isaac: not yet, though all's fair in vanessy, were sosie sesthers wroth with twone nathandjoe. Rot a peck of pa's malt had Jhem or Shen brewed by
arclight and rory end to the regginbrow was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.

The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur
— nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse
solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park where
oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-linsfirst loved livvy.

What clashes here of wills gen wonts, oystrygods gaggin fishy-gods! Brékkek Kékkek Kékkek Kékkek! Kóax Kóax Kóax! Ualu Ualu Ualu! Quaouauh! Where the Baddelaries partisans are still out to mathmaster Malachus Micgranes and the Verdons cata-pelting the camibalistics out of the Whoyteboyce of Hoodie Head. Assiegates and boomeringstroms. Sod's brood, be me fear!

I could go on ... No, I couldn't. I've tried over the years. Alcohol doesn't help. It's like two drunks talking to each other. Lots of blather and not much sense.

The initial run of 8000 copies of Fennigan de Shouling Ye sold out. Now, in a country of more than a billion people, this is very small beer indeed, just a tipple really. Soon enough, there'll be 8000 confused Chinese wandering the streets, wondering, what the feck ...

Joyce is a recent addition to Chinese reading habits. It was only in 1975 that A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was translated and it was another 20 years for a translation to appear of Ulysses.

Dai is quoted as saying the translating of the first third was a ''kind of a torture''. There's many that would take that view and they've been trying to digest it in their native language.

Professor Knowles took a novel approach to the novel. He, and his students, read and studied it out of order (as others have suggested). It is an inspired way to do it. After all, if it is foolishness to start at the start and expect to end at the end with a sense of completion, why not start somewhere in the middle of nowhere and
thrash your way into the light. It couldn't be any the worse. And indeed, the professor writes that by this way a new beginning and ending are fashioned.

The last sentence – and this couldn't possibly be deemed a spoiler because, frankly, few are ever going to make it there – is this: A way a lone a last a loved a long the. In the Knowles' method it is So sailed the stout ship Nansy Hans. From Liff away. For Nattenlander. As who has come returns. Farvel, farerne! Goobark, goodbye! Now follow we out by Starloe!

''It is not a much better ending ... but at least it gets us somewhere,'' he writes.

It took Joyce 17 years to get from start to end. He began Finnegans Wake not long after finishing Ulysses in 1922, and the complete work was published on May 4, 1939. He died two years later.

At least in the beginning the negative reaction to the Wake could be put down to the world having other things on its mind, such as World War II. But it's debatable if there are many other works to command
such opposing views all the time – masterpiece or muck? You decide.

Professor Knowles cites the Wake paradox: that it cannot be read except by someone who has already read it. True enough. Try and explain the plot to someone and you'll find yourself wrecked on the shoals of madness. Which gives rise to the thought: if no one reads it, does it exist?

See, that's what this book does. It turns the humptyhillhead of humself to mush.

You can hear Joyce read a part of Finnegans Wake at http://tinyurl.com/5mlj4d Professor Sebastian Knowles essay is at http://tinyurl.com/ahac36h

2 comments so far

  • I have a headache

    Commenter
    Dick
    Location
    Vic
    Date and time
    February 08, 2013, 9:39AM
    • What about the Australian national anthem sung in Mandarin?

      Commenter
      zac48
      Location
      Melb.
      Date and time
      February 09, 2013, 1:52PM

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