Posts by Derek Pyle

Translating Finnegans Wake: An Interview with Hervé Michel

I would advise that a reader approach Finnegans Wake like a work of art—a composition of sounds and colors, music and painting...

Can Finnegans Wake be translated into another language? As the joke well-known amongst Joyceans goes, “Which language are you translating it from?”

If it is possible to translate Finnegans Wake, the next question might be: who on earth is willing and able to undertake such a task? Who even has the time to translate this work Joyce spent 17 years writing?

The Wake has been translated into French twice. Philippe Lavergne translated the book in the early 1980s, but unsatisfied with this edition, Hervé Michel has spent the last two decades working on a translation of his own.

Michel was born to French parents, in 1950s Morocco. He spent his youth “wandering across Europe, America, Africa and the Near East.” From 1979 until 1984 he lived in Casablanca, studying Arabic. Michel joined the French civil service in 1986 and eventually attended the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). With an annual acceptance rate of only 6%, ENA is an extremely elite graduate school for French government administrators and officials. After a decade of varied work ranging from finance to international relations, in 1996 Michel accepted a high-ranking position within the French Ministry of Defense.

In his spare time, Michel reads the Wake. He first encountered the book in 1980 and began translating the text in 1997. He has tried at various times to find a publisher for his translation, but the audience for Finnegans Wake translations is limited. In 2004 Michel decided to publish his translation as Veillée Pinouilles online, a format that allows him to make ongoing updates and revisions à la Leaves of Grass.

As Michel prepared to retire from his career in the civil service, he graciously took the time to speak with me about this longstanding fascination with the Wake. The interview was conducted over email, a format allowing for conversation as well as textual elucidation and analysis.

Derek Pyle (DP): How did you first get interested in Joyce?

Hervé Michel (HM): My interest first went to Finnegans Wake, not to James Joyce. By 1985, I had returned to Paris from a five-year sojourn in Morocco—a country where I happened to be born and raised from 1950 to 1962 and where I had returned with my newly-met wife Constance Hélène in 1980—where I had spent a jolly good time studying Arabic and reading the Qur’an. Back in Paris I felt compelled to go to the Galignani English bookshop on Rue de Rivoli to buy Finnegans Wake, on the back cover of which I discovered the man-in-the-street allure of James Joyce which was a sort of a shock. For me, Finnegans Wake was the Sacred Scripture of the Modern Era. I was not to be deceived by a text displaying all the phatic function I expected and smearing a thick semiotic matter, so I immediately felt the need to have it rendered in French.

DP: So you began with Finnegans Wake. Did you go the bookshop specifically seeking out the Wake? Or did it just one day catch your eye, while you were in the bookshop? Can you also explain a bit more what you mean that this was a text ”displaying all the phatic function… and smearing a thick semiotic matter”?

HM: Reference to James Joyce was paramount in the French literary critique between 1960 and 1980, people like Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Philippe Sollers, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, all drove me to consider Finnegans Wake as the nexus of the modern literary fabric, which I, with my gross ignorance of the finesse of the English language and of the encyclopedic richness of Joyce’s culture, took at first as the thick material somebody like Jackson Pollock smeared on his canvasses, but eventually I craved to emulate this latter Indian creation dance myself with the French language.

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In Conversation with Fuat Sevimay, Turkish translator of Finnegans Wake

"[Joyce], the master builder, says something in so-called English, but the same word indicates something else if you read half of it in Gaelic."

Despite his relatively recent arrival in the Turkish literary world, Fuat Sevimay is a highly promising writer and translator. After graduating from Marmara University with a degree in business and working as a sales manager for two decades, he began writing in his spare time six years ago “just to get rid of boredom.”

Sevimay was encouraged to keep writing, however, because his work quickly began to garner awards. In 2014, his short story collection Ara Nağme won the Orhan Kemal Short Story Book Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Turkey, and in 2015, his novel Grand Bazaar won the Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar Novel Prize. His novel AnarŞık was also adapted for the stage this year, premiering last month in Istanbul. A devoted father of two, Sevimay has also written numerous children’s books, including Haydar Paşa’nın Evi.

Sevimay has translated  two of Italo Svevo’s novels, Senilità and La Novelle del Buon Vecchio E Della Bella Fanciulla, from Italian. Sevimay has also translated Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Pandora by Henry James, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the collection of Joyce’s essays entitled Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing. In 2015, Sevimay was the Translator-in-Residence at Trinity College Dublin, hosted by the Ireland Literature Exchange and the Centre for Literary Translation.

Over a course of emails we interviewed Sevimay about his current project, translating what may very well be the most complicated book ever written, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

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Derek Pyle and Sara Jewell: Fuat, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. Let’s start with hearing a bit more about yourself. What is your background as a writer and translator?

Fuat Sevimay: To be frank, I never dreamed of becoming a writer or translator. Until six years ago, I had been working as a sales manager and was simply a good reader. Then I wrote a story just to get rid of my boredom. If I had a nice voice instead, I could try to sing but it would be a kind of torture for my friends. The story was not bad. I made some redactions and then sent it to a competition. Two months later, someone called me and told that my story was awarded. Let’s call it fate. Then I had novels, a short story collection, books for children and some translations published, including Portrait of the Artist and Joyce’s Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing. READ MORE…