Recently, I attended a talk by a Chinese professor of literature who is translating the novel “Finnegan’s Wake” into Chinese, a task which is not to be taken lightly considering the circumstances. The author of “Finnegan’s Wake” is James Joyce, the Irish author famed for his stream-of-consciousness & idioglottic style. Joyce uses words derived from a combination of languages or words that could be interpreted in numerous way. All of these words and sounds are new territory for Chinese literature and linguistic scholars, meaning that new Chinese characters are being created to describe the thoughts of an Irish man who was pushing boundaries almost 100 years ago.
Joyce, having lived in Catholic Ireland and later Continental Europe had many of his thoughts influenced by his religious upbringing and surroundings. Joycean scholars write about his work, often on themes which are identified in relation to their own, predominantly Western, cultural and societal influences.
Now we have this paradigm shifting book being introduced into a population hungry for intellectual stimulation. In some ways, the language barrier has been the not-so-great wall which has kept people out of China for a long time. My work brought me to China and into Chinese cultural engagements on many occasions. Although I tried to learn Mandarin and my hosts spoke some English, the communication of abstract thoughts remained difficult at best.
Now, with thanks to the work of Professor Dai Congrong of Fudan University, the barrier is being brought down and Joyce is making headway with Chinese high-school students in particular, according to the Professor. It made me ask, if “Finnegan’s Wake” is being read and interpreted by a group, who do not possess a backgrounding in the same cultural and societal reference points as the author and other commentators, surely it’s possible for the work to be interpreted in a brand new and interesting way?
Professor Congrong noted that Chinese people, herself included, already view Joyce’s work to be in line with Taoism. Many of his themes and subject matter would appeal to fit its philosophies. It will be interesting to see how Joyce travels in China and even more interesting to see the Chinese interest in Irish culture take a new step forward.