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Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation (review)

From: ESC: English Studies in Canada
Volume 32, Issue 4, December 2006
pp. 249-252 | 10.1353/esc.0.0001

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In Woody Allen's Bananas (1971), the film's hero, Fielding Melish (Allen), inadvertently becomes the revolutionary leader of a small third-world country. Returning in Castro-like disguise to his own country, the United States, he is met at by a government dignitary and an “official interpreter.” When the dignitary asks Melish, “Did you have a good flight?” the interpreter repeats the question with his own Spanish accent; when Melish firmly says, “Yes, I did,” the interpreter in turn cheerfully says to the dignitary, “Yes, I did.” After a few exchanges like this, the interpreter is chased away by white-coated orderlies waving an oversized butterfly net.1

Even as the viewer's smile fades, the question lingers: Was this a good translator or a bad one? Has he not given Melish's Jewish New York idiom a newly Spanish flavour, thus making his words exactly what the dignitary wants and expects them to be—those of a Spanish-speaking revolutionary? Or has he committed the crime most biliously excoriated by Vladimir Nabokov (71), regarded by others (among them, Walter Benjamin [79–80]), and been too “transparent,” too “invisible” himself? To judge translation means to sketch out what either seems too much there or else not there at all. No wonder the translator is judged a lunatic.

An astonishing number of butterfly nets would be needed to catch all of the translators of James Joyce. Patrick O'Neill has revealed the variety of admirable lunacies at work in rendering “moocow” into Spanish and Japanese, “scrotumtightening” into Czech and Italian, and “collideorscape” into Russian and French and has shown how these always daring, sometimes eccentric translators have sought to fly past those nets. Polyglot Joyce is first and foremost a history. Its first four chapters represent a unique and altogether welcome mapping of efforts to bring Joyce into new languages, new cultures, new times. As O'Neill himself suggests—with due respect to Fritz Senn, who has urged such work for so long and to whom O'Neill is very clearly indebted—it's a wonder that such a book has taken so long to appear.

O'Neill enthuses about what he calls “the worldwide polyglot Joyce system” (19). For him, “Joyce is neither a unique and unchanging individual nor a serial proliferation of variable individual readings but instead the sum of an entire shifting system of potentially endless variable readings, the sum ultimately, that is to say, of all the translations and readings of Joyce that exist (or indeed will ever exist) in any language” (8; italics in the original). Obviously “system” is a keyword in this book, and its repetition hints at a structuralist bent to the project, despite that sentence's final flourish of omnivorous postmodern inclusivity (which is fundamentally determinist anyway, isn't it?). Certainly the book enjoys lists, categories, and characterizations. O'Neill proposes this formidable catalogue of protean challenges faced by the translator of Joyce, including:

the pervasive indeterminacy of his works; the densely textured structural and verbal networks that inform them; the encyclopedic employment in them of every imaginable variety of paronomasia, witticism, rhetorical device, and word play; a pervasive allusiveness to a highly specific and densely textured cultural matrix (historical, geographical, local, personal, linguistic, musical); an extraordinary (and increasing) tolerance for noise and apparent irrelevance; a remarkable sensitivity for linguistic and interlinguistic nuance; an increasing number of highly complex textual experiments such as “Sirens” and “Oxen of the Sun,” and the entire astonishing enterprise of Finnegans Wake; and, underpinning all the rest, an openly and mischievously declared intention to keep the professors on their toes for centuries.


Let us add to this list the often-troubled histories of the texts themselves, with all their attendant disparities and discontinuities (which O'Neill largely elides), the volatility of the Joyce Estate (which O'Neill is too polite to mention), and the ineluctable consciousness of Joyce's works as themselves forms of translation.2 About this last point O'Neill is puzzlingly circumspect. The idea that Ulysses is not just structurally but in at least some meaningful way linguistically indebted to The Odyssey is not entertained—Homer's name does not appear, nor...

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