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.
Another example: Stephen recalls that he has borrowed a pound from the poet and writer George Russell, who styles himself "A.E." Thinking of his debt, Stephen puns "A.E.I.O.U." In the German, Italian, Czech, and Latvian translations, the expression is simply left as it is, which must be rather baffling to readers. Most others include a native-language gloss. In the 1929 French translation the passage reads "A.E. Je vous dois. I.O.U." In Spanish it is "A.E. Te debo. I.O.U." In Hungarian the vowels are changed, killing the joke: "A.E.K.P." The same is true in Croatian, where an explanation is also added: "A.E.J.V.D (Ja vam dugujem)." "You can only do your best," says Fritz Senn, of the Zürich James Joyce Foundation. Senn is an authority on Joyce translation. "But of course, if a joke is explained, it is no longer funny." Right. Is there any way to translate Stephen's witticism about Shakespeare's wife: "If others have their will, Ann hath a way"?
Many languages at least share the Roman alphabet, and therefore, to varying degrees, a common corpus of sounds. The name Leopold Bloom looks and sounds much the same from Dublin to Detroit, from Harare to Hanoi.
Enter China and the rules change. To begin with, there are only 404 possible phonetic combinations in Mandarin, far fewer than in English. Wordplay is inevitably distorted. And Chinese is ideographic, not alphabetic; "home," for example, is represented by a stylized picture that has traditionally been interpreted to be a pig beneath a roof. Ulysses is not pictorial but aural, and comes alive most vividly when read aloud.