James Joyce's dense style tests Chinese translators


December 24, 1992|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau

BEIJING -- Every day, 83-year-old Xiao Qian and hi 65-year-old wife, Wen Jieruo, rise at 5 a.m. to tackle the intellectual equivalent of climbing Mount Everest: translating James Joyce's massive stream-of-consciousness novel "Ulysses" from English into Chinese.

In their cramped, book-lined apartment, the couple have been at this mind-boggling task for more than two years. At the rate of one page of translation every one to three days, they hope to finish in 1994, coincident with their 40th wedding anniversary.

They have rendered about half of the 800-page book into Chinese characters, painstakingly transcribed on the backs of thousands of envelopes, bills and letters they have taped together to form large, uneven work sheets.

"Ulysses," published in 1922 but banned in the United States as obscene until 1933, is considered by many the most influential novel of the 20th century. It is known for its rich recounting of one day in the lives of two Dubliners in 1904, with its lengthy TTC interior monologues and erudite references to theology, mythology and history in 30 languages.

Impenetrable for many readers whose native language is English, the book has never been published in China, in part because its style runs counter to the social realism long endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party's commissars of culture.

For Mr. Xiao, translating "Ulysses" caps a remarkable career as a writer, journalist and political prisoner -- a career through which he says he has been a "Traveler Without a Map," the title of his 1990, English-language autobiography.

A poor Beijing goat herd in his youth, he ended up at Cambridge University in England in the 1940s. He was the only Chinese reporter in the European theater during World War II and covered the signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco, the Potsdam Conference and the Nuremberg trials. He has written 32 books in Chinese and nine in English.

When he returned after the Communist Revolution in 1949, Mr. Xiao's overseas education and contacts alternatively made him useful to the party and a target in "anti-rightist" campaigns. Like thousands of other intellectuals, he was sent to state work farms in the late 1950s and again in the late 1960s during China's Cultural Revolution.

Mr. Xiao has translated into Chinese everything from Henry Fielding's bawdy "Tom Jones" to Arthur Schlesinger's history of the Kennedy administration. But he balked when a Chinese publisher asked him to translate "Ulysses."

The book doesn't suit his own tastes. He suspects that even if his translation doesn't fall victim to a shift in China's current, relatively open cultural climate, the novel's rather sexy last chapter will be heavily censored.

"There won't be a big market for this," Mr. Xiao says. "Some might buy it out of curiosity, like newlyweds buy a Shakespeare collection to decorate their house."

But his wife, who usually translates from Japanese into Chinese, longed to produce, in her words, "a monumental work that would have a big impact on Chinese writers." He agreed only after she promised to do the initial draft, leaving him to polish her work.

And so they now sit at their respective desks with 18th century music playing in the background while they wrestle with how to express in Chinese Joyce's endless linguistic variations.

They believe that "plucks" means cheeks, "virag" is Hungarian ,, for flower, "banging" means speaking roughly and "clamn dever" stands for damn clever.

But other references -- "waxies," "on the shaughraun," "dargle," "dunam" -- could not be traced through their shelf of tattered dictionaries and a 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. A long list of queries dispatched to the British Embassy went unanswered.

Lately, though, their confidence is high. Their oldest son, studying in the United States, sent them an annotated guide to "Ulysses," a single reference work that accomplishes almost everything they had been struggling to do from scratch.

But Mr. Xiao and Ms. Wen know their limits. They have refused to translate Joyce's last work, the even more incomprehensible "Finnegans Wake."

Says Mr. Xiao: "No, no, that's too hard. Get some younger people to do that."

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