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  • Wakeful TranslationsAn Initiation into the Russian Translations of Finnegans Wake
  • Boriana Alexandrova (bio)

The notion that Finnegans Wake is “untranslatable” has become something of a cliché in Joyce scholarship. One report by a team of Joyce scholars and translators from 1972 offers some reflections on the variety of issues, objectives, and concerns surrounding the possibilities of Wake translations at a time when authorial guidance can no longer be relied upon as a point of reference:

The general feeling among panel members was one of pessimism as regards the possibility of a satisfactory “literary” translation, especially as even the original is not fully understood (to use an under-statement). Mrs. Bosinelli, basing her conclusions on her negative assessment of the Italian translation of ALP, thought that an annotated edition of the original would be far more useful to the foreign reader. Miss Franke’s plea for several translations, done by different translators, printed in vertical columns together with the original was supported by Professor Bonheim, who was of the opinion that a translation as a “polystreamed gloss” might serve as an aid to a better understanding of the original. Mr. Slomczynski, himself an author and a Joyce translator, was more optimistic than the other panel members. Since Wakese is distorted English, he argued, it should be possible to translate the English component and mold the target language so as to include the necessary distortions. The majority of the panel, however, felt that this procedure would result in the creation of what might almost be called an original work, which can no longer be called derivative (as a translation should be), except in the sense that it was inspired by Finnegans Wake.1 [End Page 128]

This report alludes to several key questions in thinking about the ethics of translation and of multilingual writing and transfer in general: What constitutes a “satisfactory” translation of any text, and especially, one as controversial as Finnegans Wake? What are the theoretical and ethical implications of characterizing Wakese as “distorted English,” and how would that influence a translator’s critical and creative choices? What does the Wake’s resistance to being translated according to conventional standards mean for the theory, practice, and ethics of translation? And if a translation “should be” as strictly derivative as possible, rather than an original creative work “inspired by” the original, then is a translation of the Wake indeed a futile exercise that is bound to yield unsatisfactory results—or does this text problematize the distinction between “faithful” and “derivative” translations with good reason?

Given the manner in which the Wake’s multilingual maneuverings complicate its readers’ habits of literary-linguistic engagement, attempts to transpose it into an “other” language are bound to encounter some problems along the way. Tim Conley has reflected that “to speak of ‘translating’ this book invites incredulity” because the Wake is “a text that is not ‘read’ in the usual sense that one uses the word, or at least it requires that the reader be willing to ‘translate’ as much as ‘read.’ “2 What Conley is touching upon here is that, by virtue of its extraordinary polyglottism, Wakese acts as an other to itself as much as it is an other to its reader. Questions of language, culture, semantic definition, and form, which readers can normally answer fairly straightforwardly in relation to texts perceived as prevalently monolingual, become important theoretical and potentially ethical issues in our singular, ever changeable encounters with Wakean multilingualism. But is the task of translating Finnegans Wake truly insurmountable—a theoretical paradox that deems this text, as Umberto Eco has claimed, “pointless to translate” because, by virtue (or vice) of its multilingualism, “it is already translated”3?

Whether or not we are partial to this fatalist perspective, scholars have only grazed the surface of the ever-expanding constellation of practical and theoretical issues—or opportunities—that the task of translating Finnegans Wake sets in motion. Eco’s perspective chimes with a chorus of thought-provoking, yet paralyzing, generalizations about the probable problems that aspiring Wake translators must consider before they begin. This attitude of sweeping skepticism feels rather like an aftershock of [End Page 129...


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pp. 128-167
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