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Forthcoming Book on Translating Finnegans Wake

April 3, 2013

Impossible JoyceWith the recent publicity over the Finnegans Wake translations recently into Polish and Chinese (first third of book only) being added to the existing translations in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese (twice!), Korean, Portuguese, and Spanish, it is certainly timely for a book studying the approach translators have used towards Finnegans Wake.

Arguably, Finnegans Wake is already in a blended language, so perhaps an Esperanto translation is unnecessary, but clearly a translation into Klingon or Dothraki would be a nice addition.

Patrick O’Neill has studied translations of James Joyce’s works in his excellent Polyglot Joyce (review here) and promises to study the translations of Finnegans Wake in Impossible Joyce:  Finnegans Wakes.  The descriptions of the two books are interesting:

James Joyce’s writings have been translated hundreds of times into dozens of different languages. Given the multitude of interpretive possibilities within these translations, Patrick O’Neill argues that the entire corpus of translations of Joyce’s work (indeed, of any author’s) can be regarded as a single and coherent object of study.  Polyglot Joyce demonstrates that all the translations of a work, both in a given language and in all languages, can be considered and approached as a single polyglot macrotext.

To respond to, and usefully deconstruct, a macrotext of this kind requires what O’Neill calls a “transtextual reading,” a reading across the original literary text and as many as possible of its translations. Such a comparative reading explores texts that are at once different and the same, and thus simultaneously involves both intertextual and intratextual concerns. While such a model applies in principle to the work of any author, Joyce’s work from Dubliners to Finnegans Wake provides a particularly appropriate and challenging set of texts for discussion. Polyglot Joyce illustrates how a translation extends rather than distorts its original, opening many possibilities not only into the work of Joyce, but into the work of any author whose work has been translated.

James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has repeatedly been declared to be entirely untranslatable. Nonetheless, it has been translated, transposed, or transcreated into a surprising variety of languages – including complete renditions in French, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Japanese, and Korean, and partial renditions in Italian, Spanish, and a variety of other languages. Impossible Joyce explores the fascinating range of different approaches adopted by translators in coming to grips with Joyce’s astonishing literary text.

In this study, Patrick O’Neill builds on an approach first developed in his book Polyglot Joyce, but deepens his focus by considering Finnegans Wake exclusively. Venturing from Umberto Eco’s assertion that the novel is a machine designed to generate as many meanings as possible for readers, he provides a sustained examination of the textual effects generated by comparative readings of translated excerpts. In doing so, O’Neill makes manifest the ways in which attempts to translate this extraordinary text have resulted in a cumulative extension of Finnegans Wake into an even more extraordinary macrotext encompassing and subsuming its collective renderings.

Now, this all sounds very fun, but let me pose a question to you:  is it more difficult to translate the wordplay in Finnegans Wake than other wordplay, for example, in Shakespeare?  It is not at all obvious that it is (or should be).

I want to make another point about O’Neill’s “transtextual reading.”  An analogy can be made between “transtextual reading” and the way that Jew or Catholics and Eastern Orthodox read Scripture.  While there is a concrete Written Torah in Judaism (or Holy Scripture in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy), it holds equal weight with the continually evolving Oral Torah (or, in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Tradition).  In this way, Judaism can be said to have a “transtextual reading” of Written Torah and Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy have a “transtextual reading” of Holy Scripture.

And what of Protestants?  While they may hold to the principles of Sola Scriptura, they heavily depend on translations of Bible into vernacular languages (whereas Judaism prefers the original Hebrew, Greek Orthodox prefer the Septuagint and original Greek New Testament, other Orthodox also read the Bible in ancient translations [e.g., Slavonic], and pre-Vatican II Catholicism had a marked preference for the Vulgate).  I’ve heard some Evangelicals express the believe that all (or almost all) Scriptural translations are inspired, so they too have a sort of “transtextual reading” to the extent that the believe that whatever inspiration exists in the original text is at least partially reflected in translation.

Moreover, this brings me next to James Kugel’s famous caustic criticism of literary readings of the Bible (such as Robert Alter’s celebrated project).  (Alternatively, see Alan Cooper’s remarks.) Kugel admits that reading the Bible as literature may enriching in the same way that reading “midrash” has value (note that Kugel acknowledges Oral Torah, but is ultimately dismissive of its ultimate value) but should not be mistaken for a description of what the Bible is actually doing.  Kugel argues that literary of readings of the Bible project generic categories (poetry, comedy, etc.) and aesthetic properties (ambiguity, irony) from our own age that are alien to the culture that produced the Bible.  By analogy, for Kugel, presumably, Joyce’s original Finnegans Wake should stand alone, and we should not acknowledge that perhaps a majority of the worlds readers of Finnegans Wake will read it in (what are ultimately adaptive and interpretive) translations.

In the case of Joyce, Kugel’s approach clearly fails.  Even for those of us who read Finnegans Wake in English, the wordplay and complexity of the text require that each of us bring a different “transtextual reading” to Finnegans Wake that takes into account our own personal linguistic and literary knowledge.  Finnegans Wake is precisely designed so that my reading of it cannot be the same as your reading of it.  If Kugel views Alter’s reading of the Bible as anachronistic, then of necessity, every reading of Finnegans Wake is necessary anachronistic. 

Now for me, the remarkable thing about a position such as Kugel is that he does suppose (through his work as a scholar) that it is possible for a contemporary scholar to read the Bible in the way that the authors wrote it.  To me, that seems to be a conceptual leap that goes far beyond Alter’s (and others) literary readings of the Bible. 

If, as I posited above, it is as difficult to translate Shakespeare’s wordplay as Joyce’s, then perhaps we can believe it is even more difficult for a contemporary reader to understand the Bible in the same mindset as it was written than it is for us to understand Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in the same mindset as it was written. 

I say, bring on the translations.  Bring on the interpretations.  Bring on the “transtextual readings.”  And, as soon as it comes out, bring on Impossible Joyce

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Darth Sida permalink
    April 5, 2013 4:33 am

    Thank you for the text here!

    Very interesting to me, as I too wrote a book on translating FW, where I start from a premise translation is not necessarily a mutually beneficial encounter, a symbiosis, for indeed, it is war, and wartime stratagems and ploys need to be employed against Joyce and his pages (think Sunzi’s “Art of War”).


    ps1: I do not think we “read Finnegans Wake in English”, we do so in the (an?) Englishward dialect of the Wake language (and am not just nitpicky).
    ps2: a point of order, is there FW in Spanish, or is there not?

  2. April 5, 2013 5:02 pm

    Darth Sida, thanks so much for your comments. I would love to read more if you care to share information about your book.

    Re language of Finnegans Wake: I take your point (which you put very articulately), but when I say “Finnegans Wake in English” I am also saying something about translation — that roughly “French Finnegans Wake” compared to ordinary French prose bears a similar relationsh as “English Finnegans Wake” does to ordinary English prose. Even if word-play is untranslatable, one expects that the “translated Finnegans Wake” will employ wordplay.

    Re Spanish Finnegans Wake: I have not seen a full translation, but there are at least some fragments translated in the Spanish Wikipedia page. I didn’t wade through all the pages at, but most of the works there seemed to be in English, French, or German. Spanish is not a strong language for me (I’m still working my way through the original Don Quijote), so I cannot say I’ve made a serious attempt to check.

  3. Darth Sida permalink
    April 6, 2013 3:46 pm


    re language
    I dare not define what “reading” Finnegans Wake might be. (Although I have no problems with (intuitive or other) definition of “reading” of, as you say, “ordinary prose”). And if we assume FW cannot be read, it would really matter little which language the text is in. More, if we assume FW can’t be understood, so can’t be read, so does not have readership – then it is not a text, and it does not exist. Which is funny, given there is not one definitive text of FW (but many variants of it).

    re Spanish FW
    to my knowledge, there is no Spanish FW. (There may be Catalan FW though, see here e.g. ). And if we counted in translations of FW fragments, there would be many more languages to be listed (e.g. I have Hungarian, Czech, Russian [partial] translations of FW. That is why I’d fain learn of the Spanish translation, if there is one, to try to add it to my collection.) Btw, the Chinese work is not of the whole text, and yet is 775 pages long. Let’s go figure 🙂

    re my book
    it is not in English, so beyond reach of the English speaker. Drop me a mail, and I will give you details, if you would have them.

  4. April 7, 2013 5:22 pm

    Darth — thanks for your note; I’ll be in touch with you about your book. Your remarks about the variants of Finnegans Wake make me wonder — have you had a chance to look at Finnegans Wake Restored?

  5. Darth Sida permalink
    April 8, 2013 2:00 am


    — the formula for circumference of a circle in mind, 2*Pi*R, when it is 628, the radius of FW is 100 then, a number to neat to be chance. Further, 6, 28 are perfect numbers. And 36, the number of lines of most FW pages, is also a number of much significance, and not just as the most perfect number 6 to the power of 2.
    I take the number of FW pages (and lines) to be purposeful, so I am skeptical about editions of the text that fail to be 628 pages long, as “Finnegans Wake Restored” does. I’d rather pick a copy of the recent Bindervoet/Henkes (Oxford) edition, if I had to make my first buy.
    That said, as there are 2 (Rose/O’Hanlon and Bindervoet/Henkes) editions one could obtain only this year (in addition to the editions from before 2012-2013) — my claim there is nothing like a definitive “Finnegans Wake” holds valid.

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