Well, now that the Chinese are reading Finnegans Wake, what’s your excuse? The first translation of James Joyce’s notoriously abstruse work to be sold on the Chinese mainland became available on Christmas, and has already sold out all 8,000 copies.
China Daily notes that Chinese are "eager readers" of foreign literature, and last year, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was the number one bestseller on 360buy.com, one of China’s biggest online retailers. Canadian author Yann Martel’s book, The Life of Pi, is selling well, following the release of its movie adaptation. Chinese readers especially seem to like books about China, like Henry “Hank the Tank” Kissinger’s book On China, and Peter Hessler’s River Town, a nonfiction book about the town of Fuling, on the Yangtze River.
But Finnegans Wake? Full of word play, allusions and made-up words, Finnegans Wake is such a difficult book to read in its original English that Joyce’s own brother, Stanislaus, famously called it “the work of a psychopath.” People can’t even agree on the plot; instead they talk about it like deep sea divers describing underwater caves—something’s down there, did you see it? What was that?
These difficulties are only compounded when one tries to translate the work to Chinese. How do you translate a pun? It’s often said that Joyce’s language comes alive best when read aloud, but is that true when it is read aloud in Chinese? English speakers also have the advantage of sharing a literary canon with Joyce. Eager readers of foreign books or not, how well do the Chinese pick up on Joyce's obscure Shakespeare references?
The end result remains difficult and confusing–just as Joyce intended, I guess. It took Dai Congrong eight years to translate the work, and even she doesn’t claim to understand it, but that’s okay. "I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend," Dai told the AP.
This is not the first time that a notoriously difficult translation has exceeded expectations in the Chinese market. When Joyce’s Ulysses, neither a short book nor a breezy read, was released in China in 1994, it sold more than 85,000 copies.
Just like when literature students encounter Joyce for the first time, some are accusing the Joyce fans of just being ostentatious. Microblogger and bank employee Li Weiqi wondered, "Might it be that [the book is] being hawked as a commodity to attract the pretentious?" Eight thousand copies isn't a huge number, especially if they're all destined display on bookshelves.
In a perhaps-accidental echo of Stanislaus Joyce, one Shanghai professor speculated that James Joyce “must have been mentally ill to write such a novel.”
But maybe a certain frustration is part of what draws people to Joyce. After all, Xiao Qian once stood over Joyce’s grave and said, “Here lies the corpse of someone who wasted his great talents writing something very unreadable,” only to translate Ulysses into Chinese with his wife in the early 1990s. In any case, it's not going to crack any Chinese bestsellers lists anytime soon. Finnegans Wake still trails behind other, older more popular works of Chinese literature, like Quotations from the Works of Mao Tse-Tung, which is listed by Guinness as having sold a whopping 800 million copies in the late ‘60s. And it trails far behind other foreign masterpieces, bestsellers like The Da Vinci Code and Donald Trump’s “Think Big in Business and Life.”