Many people are eager to know when Dai Congrong, the Chinese translator of Finnegans Wake, is going to produce the rest of the book. To date she has only published one third of her version and dropped no hints about when we might see the rest. A while back, quizzed by a reporter, she said: ‘May God give me the courage to finish it’ – which is surely a good call, even if you’re not a believer. Last month a journalist friend put the question again, and Dai simply replied: ‘Don’t ask me. I don’t know any more than you do.’ That, too, seems reasonable, given the size of the task. There’s plenty of Finnegans Wake that I’d be stumped to put into Mandarin. Browsing at random: The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonn-thunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.’ I’m not sure this is convertible into any language, even an Indo-European one, but Dai’s translation has been a hit in China, as the Western media reported widely at the time of publication.

Perhaps our literary taste has suddenly become sophisticated, but I worry that we’re just poseurs and getting better at it by the day. A book by Joyce looks good on your shelf but vanity alone can’t account for the success of this edition: the initial print run of the translation-so-far – 8000 copies – sold out within a month of publication. The real driving force was good old Chinese hype. Large yellow banners with an exceedingly cute owl – taken from the book jacket – were hung along Shanghai’s elevated freeways at the time, and huge billboard ads appeared on many buildings, not only in Shanghai but in Beijing, Guangzhou and most major cities in China. The media, including the cultural TV channels, went to town on the book – and Dai – and there was an international symposium on Finnegans Wake at last year’s Shanghai Book Fair, feeding yet another round of media frenzy. With such a lavish campaign you should be able to sell any nonsense in China in a month, including a translation of less than half of an untranslatable novel, and so it turned out. The second print run was more modest, at 5000 copies. There has not been another: 13,000 is the high water mark. These are very good figures, but as I heard from rival publishers belonging to the same group, Shiji, the biggest in Shanghai, if The Hobbit had got the same advertising and promotional shove when it came out in Chinese – around the same time as Finnegans Wake – it would have sold fifty times more than the Joyce.

The trade journals and the mainstream media reported that Finnegans Wake had risen quickly to the top of one of Shanghai’s ‘prestigious’ bestseller lists, second only to Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping (initial print run 500,000). Sure, but in China there are many of these lists – compiled by online and high street bookstores, publishing groups, research institutes and independent market monitors – and some of the less ‘prestigious’ ones can simply be bought. The most influential lists are posted by Amazon China and Dangdang, two rival giants in the online market. Usually if a publisher or an editor wants to see a book get onto the Dangdang bestseller list, they engage a rent-a-crowd – the staff of the publishing house and friends of the staff – to create as many aliases as possible and buy the target book from Dangdang (which limits buyers to five copies of a given title), driving it onto the list of new bestsellers. The copies they’ve acquired are then sold back to Dangdang at a loss, but this is an irrelevance once a title is on the desired list. In China we follow the bestseller lists like ducks after a trail of corn. (A word about rent-a-crowd practices in China: small publishers use informal groups of buyers, but there are professionals who operate for a fee, and larger houses are said to use their services. The most famous is the ‘fifty cent party’, who do nothing for free.)

When the first instalment of Finnegans Wake appeared in Chinese, the Guardian reported that ‘Ian McEwan … is considered pretty buzzy in translation, but the print run of Atonement was only 5000 copies.’ True, but a first run of 5000 to 8000 is common practice in China’s publishing industry: nobody wants the risk of accumulating inventory. In fact Atonement (a stand-alone Chinese version and a bilingual edition) went well beyond the first print run and has now sold more than 50,000 copies. First Love, Last Rites, probably the most popular McEwan book in China, has sold more than 100,000 copies. Any McEwan novel is a likelier bestseller than Finnegans Wake. Likelier still are the Harry Potter books – seven volumes have generated ten million sales – and The Da Vinci Code. Publishers don’t have to prime the fiction lists for books like these. Other star performers are the stories of Alice Munro and the authorised translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Non-fiction lists are usually populated by textbooks and get-rich-quick titles. There is also a mountain of health guides. Study, wealth and longevity: these are the three cardinal themes for Chinese readers. They hold up across the key demographic groups in the retail book market. If it weren’t for censorship – this is maybe its only advantage – we’d be flooded with Fifty Shades of Grey and worse.

Dai Congrong, an associate professor at Fudan University, spent eight years translating the first part of Finnegans Wake: the result, in Chinese, runs to 775 pages, a good many more than the entire first edition in English. Crucially the annotations are greater than the translated text and the project, to date, has caused the translator a lot of heartache. We know from our neighbours across the water that this book is like the curse of the pharaohs: the first translator of the Japanese edition suddenly went missing, the second went mad, and it took a third to finish the job. Dai was frank with the Guardian about her own woes, though they fell short of vanishing into thin air or losing her mind. The quarrels with her husband were trying (he wanted her to go to bed; she wanted to stay up and translate). The work took its toll on her looks: ‘My body suffered from the work … I looked older than I should be. My eyes became dark, and my skin wasn’t that good either.’ Something else that may have kept her up late: she translated from the 2000 Penguin Classics edition, essentially the 1939 text – why not the 1950 Faber edition? – and was already a good way in by 2012, when the ‘restored’ Penguin edition by Danis Rose and John O’Hanlon came out, with more than 9000 corrections. How much of a difference this will make to readers in China isn’t obvious: the linguistic complexity of the work is probably lost for ever in Chinese. As far as I know, Dai hasn’t said anything about switching to the new edition.

To convince Joyce readers in China, you need an endorsement from a Joycean. Dai approached Wen Jieruo, one of the translators of Ulysses. Wen is the widow of the writer and translator Xiao Qian (a.k.a. ‘Hsiao Chien’), who had known Forster and Orwell in England during the Second World War. Xiao and Wen embarked on their Ulysses in 1991 and were locked in a race with another Joycean, Jin Di, who studied with Empson in Beijing in the 1940s. Jin began work on his translation of Ulysses in 1982, almost ten years before Xiao and Wen, and finished in 1996, two years after they completed theirs. They’d known that Jin was on the case and gone flat out to get there ahead of him. (Xiao was in his eighties and it can’t have been easy.) They had better connections than Jin and more renown in literary circles, allowing them to publish chapters in literary journals before the book appeared. There was a media frenzy when it hit the bookstores, with coverage around the world – not unlike the recent buzz for FW, only without the banners and billboards. When Jin’s Ulysses appeared it was buried by the Xiaos’, and has never really emerged. Jin was bitter: the hares had beaten the tortoise and it had taken them only three years. But he was hardly a match for them. Besides celebrity, they had one other colossal advantage: Wen did the initial drafts of their translation not from the original but from the Japanese edition.

Wen endorsed Dai’s translation, but warned that she’d attempted Finnegans Wake herself and given up after the first page: untranslatable, she felt, though she wants us to believe in Dai all the same. Dai once told a reporter from Lifeweek: ‘I cracked every word and every sentence of the book, I found the logic linking the sentences.’ I don’t know how to take this. Is it possible that Finnegans Wake is really just a long message in code? Then there’s the remark she made to a reporter for the Oriental Morning Post: ‘I have already read all the works worth reading before the 20th century. That’s why I’m shifting the focus to contemporary literature.’ It’s a heroic achievement, though given her age (b. 1971), she must be a harsh judge of the world canon. In any case it’s just as well that she’s got a bit of reading under her belt: the first third of Finnegans Wake took her eight years, and now she is vice dean of the Chinese Literature Department of Fudan, a post which carries many administrative and social obligations, leaving even less time for her magnum opus.

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