Place: Ireland

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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Dig Deeper into Our Fall 2016 Issue

Selected highlights in the new issue from Asymptote section editors!

Last week, we launched “Verisimilitude,” our star-studded Fall 2016 edition. Since then, we’ve been overwhelmed by the critical reception: A Public Space called the issue “a gold mine of work from 31 countries” while The Chicago Review of Books proclaimed it “f**ing gorgeous.” Among the never-before-published work by both well known and emerging translators, writers, and visual artists we presented in this quarterly issue, Anita Raja’s essay on translation made The Literary Hub‘s Best of the Week roundup. Thank you so much and do please keep spreading the word so we can connect our authors with even more readers! This week, to guide your exploration of the new issue, some of our editors contribute highlights from their respective sections. Follow them from Ireland to Iraq to Mexico to Korea and back again.

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Tactile Translations, Stefana McClure. Review: Eva Heisler, Visual Editor.

Using sources as various as a Japanese translation of The Little Prince, Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, or a U.S. government redacted report on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” artist Stefana McClure slivers printed matter and re-employs it as material with which to construct her enigmatic objects: stones wrapped in paper; a ball wound of the paper shreds of a novel; a nearly black “drawing” knit from redacted texts. Carmen Hermo’s conversation with McClure delves into the thinking and process behind the artist’s “tactile translations.”

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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…

Signes: A Review of Ciarán Carson’s “From Elsewhere”

Farisa Khalid reviews the masterful work of a translating poet

For a poet, there are easier things than translations. The translating poet inevitably has to face the gnawing burden of writing for two people. “It’s a desperate system of double-entry bookkeeping,” Howard Nemerov lamented. The spectral presence of the author is always hovering somewhere, ready to strike whenever the nuance of a word or phrase falters. Even then, the process of translation is seductive. It provides a poet with the rare opportunity to examine the art of another writer, often with intriguing results. The cryptologist’s glee at unveiling messages and new lines of thought converge into the creation of a new kind of work that is as dependent on the translator’s moment in time as much as it is to the author’s.

Many readers may be familiar with Ciarán Carson’s work as translator. His versions of seminal Irish texts Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and Cúirt An Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court) have a robust freshness and vitality that readily appeals to contemporary audiences. Reading Carson’s Táin, one can sense the sounds, smells, and voices of that particular world of pre-Christian Ireland (now so heavily appropriated into the pop-culture fabric of Game of Thrones).

His newest work, From Elsewhere (Gallery Books, 2014), is a collection of 81 short poems by the French poet Jean Follain (1903-1971), each accompanied by a short poem of Carson’s, an original work inspired by the Follain poem, or, as Carson describes it: “a translation of the translation.” From Elsewhere is certainly not Carson’s first foray into French translation. In 1998 he translated an array of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Mallarmé in The Alexandrine Plan and in 2012 he published his translations of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, In the Light Of (both published by Wake Forest University Press). READ MORE…

In Review: Theo Dorgan’s “Nine Bright Shiners”

"Nine Bright Shiners is certainly one of the best new collections of poetry to have come out in the 2014-2015 (literary) year."

I first came across Theo Dorgan’s work in a charming anthology of art writing from the National Gallery of Ireland, Lines of Vision (Thames & Hudson, 2014). A group of acclaimed Irish novelists and poets wrote about which paintings had most affected them as artists. Dorgan chose an evocative little history painting by Ernest Messionier, Group of Cavalry in the Snow: Moreau and Dessoles before Hohenlinden (1875), depicting two of Napoleon’s generals contemplating their chances on the eve of the wintry battle of Hohenlinden in December of 1800. It’s an intimate scene, and its effect, as described in rapturous detail by Dorgan, especially its effect on the imagination of a young boy, is enchanting:

There’s a self riding down out of the picture, no two selves. One of them

stolid and wary, wondering what these damn officers are about to get

us into…my mind is full of the coming battle, my sympathies with men

breathing this cold air tonight who will not be breathing it tomorrow…

 

All this and so much more, so very much more, out of one small

painting—and I close my eyes for one brief instant, leaving the gallery,

not sure when I open them where I shall find myself, on a Dublin street,

so long familiar, or on a wooded slope with a sky fill of lead-heavy snow

above my head, hearing the creak of leather beneath me, feeling the

solid heat of the animal bearing me down off that crest towards some

tomorrow at once unknown, unknowable and absurdly unfamiliar.

Dancing with the child I was, cheating the monoworld. READ MORE…

Waywords & Meansigns—Composing with the Explosion of Language

How do you "understand" James Joyce to translate him? Rebecca Hanssens-Reed in conversation with Mariana Lanari, musical translator of the "Wake"

Mariana Lanari hosts performative readings of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in Amsterdam, and recently recorded two chapters for an audio-musical version of Finnegans Wake, unabridged, called Waywords and Meansigns. Featuring established—as well as up-and-coming—artists from around the world, Waywords and Meansigns strives for a version of Joyce’s work that is stimulating and accessible to even the most casual of readers and listeners. The project officially launched a week ago, on Monday, May 4th: the 76th anniversary of Finnegans Wake.

Finnegans Wake contains over sixty languages. In spite of this, it has, in turn been translated into several other languages from its original English (though a number of translators of the text have given up, gone mad, or mysteriously disappeared, as was the case for a Japanese translator). This raises some interesting questions when considering its “translation” into an audio-musical language. What is lost, gained, or changed when we transfer a multilingual text to a musical, non-linguistic platform? Finnegans Wake reconstructs notions of language, and that process is echoed in converting such a text audio-musically. What we are left with is something resembling a full spectrum of meaning-making (in the loosest sense of the term).

Mariana, alongside composer Sjoerd Leijten, scored the first and last chapters of the text to music. Mariana and I talked about the novel and her involvement in Waywords and Meansigns, including the sensation of foreign-ness, how Finnegans Wake changed her life, and the odd comfort of settling into a vulnerable place of not-knowing or understanding. READ MORE…