'Ulysses' in Chinese

The story of an elderly pair of translators and their unusual bestseller


jjsmall picture
XIAO Qian, a Chinese war correspondent and a literature student, stood over the grave of James Joyce in 1946 in Zurich and mourned, "Here lies the corpse of someone who wasted his great talents writing something very unreadable." Forty-nine years later Xiao still thinks that Joyce carried his virtuosity too far. He has earned the right to his reservations: he and his wife, Wen Jieruo, have just finished a labor that might have humbled Hercules--translating Ulysses into Chinese. "In old age one should do something monumental," says Xiao, who is eighty-five. "This translation is quite monumental." As the name implies ("Ulysses" is a Romanization of "Odysseus"), Ulysses is organized around the Greek myth known as the Odyssey. Homer's saga tells the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who sails with his army to sack the city of Troy. Odysseus has some difficulty getting back home. Only after ten years, and a goodly number of Boy's Own adventures, is he restored to his faithful wife, Penelope, and his stalwart son, Telemachus.
Joyce masticates Homer's Odyssey and spits it out in his saga of a day (June 16, 1904) in the life of two Dubliners, Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) and Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus). Penelope is represented by Bloom's not-so-faithful wife, Molly. Ulysses does not slavishly follow the Odyssey, though each episode in the ancient tale has a counterpart in the modern one. For example, in one Homeric episode Odysseus descends to Hades, the world of the dead; in Joyce's version Leopold Bloom--a Jew and therefore, like Odysseus, an outsider--goes to a funeral. If Homer marks the beginning of Western literature, Joyce suggested, Ulysses was its culmination. "The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in as many styles," he wrote to his benefactress, Harriet Shaw Weaver, "all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone's mental balance."

Xiao and Wen don't need to read Joyce's paean to his own genius to appreciate the mental upsets that Ulysses can produce. "There are places," Xiao says, "where I think he made it unnecessarily difficult." His fellow translators can only agree. Ulysses has been translated into more than twenty languages, including Icelandic, Arabic, Malayalam, and, fittingly, Irish. Perhaps the surprising thing is not that it has now been translated into Chinese but that the translation is only now available.

Much of the delay can be attributed to the antipathy of the Chinese Communists toward bourgeois liberal Western culture. Joyce's work became caught in the Chinese government's straitened view of literature's role--that it should extol the morally upright deeds of workers, peasants, and soldiers. Ulysses--bawdy, irreverent, and anti-heroic--hardly suits. Nor did the Maoist cultural commissars appreciate the literary merits of Ulysses, considering it too pessimistic, subjective, and personal. And perhaps worst of all, it was not concerned nearly enough with the great theme of class struggle. Even with the end, in 1976, of the Cultural Revolution, in which China tried to purge all foreign influences (except Marxism) from the land, Xiao and Wen were confined to translating only what was deemed to be safe material, such as the work of Henry Fielding, Charles Lamb, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

So when the two were just about ready to publish their translation, Xiao took the precaution of writing a series of articles for the Chinese press describing the American trial in 1933 that established that Ulysses was not a dirty book. China would look backward, he argued, if it were to ban or censor the book six decades later. Xiao also pointed out the book's "progressive" stance: it was anti-anti-Semitic and anti-imperialistic.

The strategy worked. Published last year, with no interference, the first edition of the three-volume translation sold out its 85,000 copies; a second and a third edition were rushed into print. "We publishers had to be brave to take this kind of risk," says Li Jingduan, the editor of Yilin Publishing House, in Nanjing. "I never imagined this book would be so welcomed by the Chinese reader." Considering the price--about $15, or roughly a week's wages for a high school teacher in China--the sales are phenomenal, and the couple have become modest celebrities. They keep clippings about their work in two thick albums in their book-cluttered four-room apartment near Tiananmen Square, and clearly enjoy the fuss. Wen positively purrs as she recalls a book-signing in Shanghai that attracted a thousand readers. "Five police officers had to come to keep order," she says. "Very excellent." The story made the front pages of Shanghai's newspapers.

Xiao and Wen both have traumatic personal memories of times when China was not nearly so accommodating, and see their translation as a major advance for China's cultural life. "I feel that this translation of Ulysses signifies that China at last has opened herself not only in technology and science but also in literature," Xiao says.


Translating Joyce is no party game in any language, of course. Even a simple sentence like "And going forth, he met Butterly" presents dangers. In fact in the book Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus meet no one named Butterly. Mulligan, Stephen's roommate, is just tossing off a clever remark as he and Stephen leave their residence south of Dublin. He is referring, crudely, as is his wont, to the biblical description of Peter after his betrayal of Jesus: "and going forth, he wept bitterly." In English the allusion is obvious enough. In German, though, after much cogitation, the thought has been put this way: they went forth "und weinte Buttermilch"--or "and wept buttermilk." In Chinese it is translated for sound: they "went out and met Ba Teli," meaning "to hope earnestly-special-inside," but in context signaling a group of foreign sounds. Well, okay: the reader is clued in that the phrase is more than it seems. But a lot is lost in translation.


Presented by

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In