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Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 2, Winter 2007
pp. 391-394 | 10.1353/jjq.2007.0048

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In the introduction to his study Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translations, Patrick O'Neill distinguishes between three models of translation. In the "prototextual" one, a translator sets himself the task of recovering and repeating the original text's meaning. The relationship between this original text and its translations is that of master and servant. In contrast, the "metatextual" model is not based on an authorial presence, and here the reader's reaction to an author's text is treated as a key constituent factor of that text. All translations are discourse about discourse, with equal authority. The "macrotextual" translation, however, is O'Neill's model of choice. For this one, an author is "the sum of an entire shifting system of potentially variable readings, the sum ultimately . . . of all the translations and readings . . . that exist" (8). Consequently, this requires a "transtextual" process of reading, a reading across languages: O'Neill's macrotext is a single text composed of multiple transtexts, in various languages. These transtexts should not be read as commentaries to the original text but as its continuation and extension.

The concept of a macrotext is, of course, not limited to Joyce's work but is expected to yield especially interesting results in his case, "if only because of the existence of Finnegans Wake" (11). But there is a long way to go before we reach the Wake. O'Neill starts by describing the "macrosystem" of Joyce's texts in translation, from the viewpoints of chronology (chapter 1), individual languages (chapters 2 and 3), and individual texts (chapter 4). In chapters 5 to 10, he compares translations, focusing on titles (chapter 6), the first and last lines of Dubliners (chapter 7), Ulysses (chapter 8), and the first lines of Finnegans Wake I.1 (chapter 9) and I.8 (chapter 10). The main languages taken into consideration are French, German, and Italian, though Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Irish are also discussed. Translations in other European languages (Czech, Russian, Icelandic, and the like) and non-European languages are briefly discussed in the first part of the book but are absent from the comparative sections.

O'Neill correctly states that most studies about Joyce in translation focus on one language in particular, whereas he tries to compare translations in several languages at the same time. One may call this a transtextual reading of a polyglot macrotext, but that does not change the fact that what Polyglot Joyce does, essentially, is compare translations. Having said that, I would like to add that O'Neill does an admirable job of describing the different approaches to Joyce's texts—the first four chapters of the book offer a wealth of facts about the translational history of Joyce's works, forming a kind of reference guide in itself—and of showing the limitations and possibilities of translation. He also appears to have been quite meticulous in gathering information about more or less exotic languages, and I could hardly find a mistake in the passages that were devoted to Dutch translations. At the same time, relying on native speakers can be a risky job, as they are possibly biased (or simply wrong) themselves.

The real transtextual readings start with chapter 5, as O'Neill explores the cultural and linguistic differences between languages. At this point, having read the author's statements in his introduction, I expected a surprising new approach to the Joycean macrotext. According to O'Neill, "[c]hapter 5 leads into the discussion . . . by examining various kinds of interpretive redirections necessitated by translators' efforts to negotiate the multiple differences between individual languages and cultures" (15). It is a bit of an anticlimax, then, to end up with a close reading of Lily's being "literally run off her feet" in "The Dead" in eleven translations (D 175). To be sure, it is interesting in itself to read about these differences between the various solutions the translators came up with, and it must have been a hell of a job to gather all the necessary data, but one does not need an elaborate theoretical framework to appreciate this.

To tackle O'Neill's book from another side, I tried to bring his method...



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