Chinese Translation of “Finnegan’s Wake” Sells Out

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“Finnegan’s Wake,” the last novel written by Irish author James Joyce, is one of the most critically acclaimed novels in the English language. It’s also one of the most perplexing and difficult to parse. Consequently, most of the general English-speaking public has not even attempted to read it.

But, as reports, while Finnegan’s Wake may be one of the more obscure English classics, it’s huge in…China?!?

That’s right.  Thanks to a new translation released in December, Finnegan’s Wake is now a bestseller in China. In fact, the publisher sold out of its first run of 8,000 copies, and they’ve had to print a second edition to keep up with demand. In Shanghai, only a biography of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping outranks it in the “good books” category.

If you’re not sure why that might seem a little far-fetched, I think this quote from Wikipedia says it all:

“The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams.”

The story raises the question, “How do you translate something into another language when the meaning isn’t clear in the original language?”

Obviously, it wasn’t easy. In fact, the project took translator Dai Congrong eight years to complete. However, when you consider that it took Joyce 17 years to write the original, eight years doesn’t seem that bad by comparison.

Congrong explained how she approached the translation in this quote from

“I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend. At first I felt very surprised, and I feel very surprised now still. I thought my readers would be scholars and writers, and it wouldn’t be so popular.”

Of course, the Chinese reaction to the unique charms of Finnegan’s Wake hasn’t been universally positive. For example, according to the BBC, the government-run news agency Xinhua wrote that “Joyce must have been mentally ill to create such a novel.”