Nonfiction from NER 43.1 (2022)
nly three years after the first appearance of Ulysses in Paris, Jorge Luis Borges calls himself, with uncharacteristic immodesty, “the first Hispanic adventurer” to have reached the shores of Ulysses. Yet his pioneering 1925 review of the novel is ambivalent. Although he praises Joyce’s artistic audacity and stylistic prowess, that of “a millionaire of words and styles,” he infuses the piece with barbed comments, especially about the inordinate demands Joyce makes on his readers. Yet he also pays homage to Joyce by appending to the review his partial translation of the final “Penelope” chapter of Ulysses. However, in “Fragment on Joyce,” a piece written to mark Joyce’s death in Zurich in 1941, he claims that he did not so much read as skim the book, savoring only individual passages and scenes.
Borges’s upsetting of received opinion about translation is legendary. In his view, translations are not necessarily inferior to so-called originals: In “The Homeric Versions,” he suggests that all writers can do is create drafts, since there is no such thing as a definitive text, a concept which corresponds “only to exhaustion or religion.” In “On William Beckford’s Vathek,” he famously claims—not entirely tongue-in-cheek—that “the original is unfaithful to the translation.” Borges began his lifelong side-career as a literary translator at the age of nine with a Spanish rendering of Oscar Wilde’s The Fairy Prince. His lengthy practice as a translator does not, however, quite live up to his provocative pronouncements about the craft. Although he takes some liberties in his—often collaborative—Spanish translations of prose works by the likes of G. K. Chesterton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Franz Kafka, Jack London, Henri Michaux, Edgar Allan Poe, and Robert Louis Stevenson, the original versions of those texts are by and large—to use Borges’s provocative phrasing—not “unfaithful” to his translations.
Although by no means as prolific a translator as Borges, Joyce had even more languages at his fingertips than the Argentinian writer. Among his achievements as a translator are renderings of “Stephen’s Green,” a modest little poem by an Irish contemporary of his, James Stephens, into five languages. It was to Stephens, best-known today as the author of a witty fantasy novel, The Crock of Gold, that the ailing Joyce contemplated entrusting the unenviable task of completing his intricately woven and indefatigably punning Finnegans Wake.
Joyce’s renderings of “Stephen’s Green” into French, German, Italian, Latin, and Norwegian, which can be found in Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of the Irish writer, are a linguistic tour de force. Joyce even wanted to add a sixth language by having Stephens himself translate his poem into Irish. Unfortunately, Stephens’s grasp of Irish was not up to the task.
Here, by way of a sample, is the original poem, followed by Joyce’s French version:
The wind stood up and gave a shout.
He whistled on his fingers and
Kicked the withered leaves about
And thumped the branches with his hand
And said he’d kill and kill and kill,
And so he will and so he will.
Les Verts de Jacques
Le vent d’un saut lance son cri,
Se siffle sur les doigts et puis
Trépigne les feuilles d’automne,
Craque les branches qu’il assomme.
Je tuerai, crie-t-il, holà!
Et vous verrez s’il le fera!
James Joyce’s fondness for James Stephens’s poem is not altogether surprising. Like Stephens, he had a thing about the name Stephen: Stephen Dedalus, his alter ego in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, bears that first name as does his own grandson, Stephen James (Joyce), whose birth he memorializes in “Ecce Puer,” his finest poem. Writing to James Stephens in December 1931, Joyce downplays his French version, calling it a mere “pleasantry” and its title “Jacques’s Greens” an “obvious pun” on Stephens’s title, the name of a popular park in the center of Dublin. Joyce’s subsequent comment about the rendering of Stephens’s “thumped” as “craque” shows, however, his confident grasp of colloquial French: “Strictly speaking, craquer is a neuter verb but in popular usage it is employed transitively like croquer as being more expressive.”
Borges’s rendering of the climax of Molly Bloom’s sensuous—and famously unpunctuated—soliloquy in Ulysses invites comparison with Joyce’s own partial translation, into Italian, of the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” or “ALP” chapter of Finnegans Wake. This comparison might seem perverse, given Borges’s persistent misgivings about Joyce, whom he ridicules in the influential Buenos Aires journal Sur (1931–70). In a 1939 piece entitled “Joyce and neologisms,” he declares the language games in Finnegans Wake inferior to those of Lewis Carroll and castigates Joyce’s punning neologisms as “monstrosities.” Yet Borges’s provocative theory of translation sheds light on Joyce’s practice as a translator, especially of Finnegans Wake.
Though often regarded as an intensely cerebral writer, Borges chooses to translate from the sensual final chapter of Ulysses. In recasting a section of “Penelope,” he impishly changes the setting, shifting Molly from the banks of the Liffey to those of La Plata. His most notable excision of an Irish place name, however, is that of Howth Head, a promontory at the northern end of Dublin Bay, where I happen to have grown up. Dating back to approximately the ninth century, the name Howth probably derives from Old Norse Hǫfuð (head) and is certainly related to Scandinavian hoved (headland). Known in Irish by the much older name “Binn Éadair” (Éadair’s Peak), Howth is associated with a number of figures in Irish mythology, including the legendary warrior Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhail), whose name Joyce invokes in the title of Finnegans Wake alongside that of Tim Finnegan, the drunken hero of a humorous Irish-American ballad.
Molly remembers the day when she and Leopold Bloom were “lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head,”a phrase which Borges de-Irishizes, as it were, by recasting it simply as “tirados en el pasto” (stretched on the grass). On that day in Howth, Leopold, or Poldy as she calls him, expresses his delight in her radiance: “the sun shines for you.” Borges sounds an audibly Argentinian note when he renders that phrase as “para vos brilla el sol,” using voseo, the second person informal commonly used in Buenos Aires, rather than the standard tú of international Spanish.
Borges condenses Molly’s breathless flow, eliminating seemingly redundant or vague phrases and thereby favoring his own penchant for brevity and compression over Joyce’s love of elaboration and expansion. Yet, even while abbreviating Molly’s prattle, Borges manages to add new qualities. The phrase “and all the fine cattle going about” becomes simply “y el ganado pastando” (and the cattle grazing), thereby shaving off two words while introducing an assonantal play with a’s and o’s. Moreover, thanks to Borges’s dexterous handicraft, Molly’s reminiscence of “those handsome Moors all in white” becomes “esos moros buen moscos todo de blanco,” which, with its pleasing array of o’s, also represents a gain in translation. In a 1982 interview in Dublin, Borges recalls his experience translating that passage from “Penelope” and notes a particular challenge facing translators of the Irish writer into Spanish (and other Romance languages): “Joyce’s obsession with language makes him very difficult if not impossible to translate. Especially into Spanish—as I first discovered when I first translated a passage from Molly’s soliloquy in 1925.”
The best illustration of Borges’s provocative theory of translation can be found not in his own prudently transformative translations but in Joyce’s joyously free rendering of Finnegans Wake. There can be little doubt that Joyce was primarily responsible for the collaborative Italian version of a portion of the “ALP” chapter of Finnegans Wake in 1937. Writing to Mary Colum, he refers proudly to “the Italian translation I made of Finnegans Wake.” That assertion is confirmed by his principal collaborator, Nino Frank, a Jewish Swiss-Italian journalist and writer who had fled to the French capital from Italy after falling afoul of the Fascist regime: in a revealing 1926 essay on Joyce in Paris (reprinted in W. Potts, ed., Portraits of the Artist in Exile), Frank insists, “without any false modesty,” that, whereas his own role was merely that of “guinea pig and fellow worker,” Joyce was “responsible for at least three-quarters of the Italian text.” A third, though minor, contributor to the endeavor was Ettore Settanni, an Italian writer and critic, who, however, made only slight, and, as we shall see, controversial revisions.
In March 1940, Joyce, anxious about the possible effect of the recently declared world war on the reception of Finnegans Wake, wrote to Settanni, expressing delight in the appearance of the Italianized “Anna Livia Plurabelle” (a personification of the river Liffey): “I have had much pleasure in learning that my little lady from Dublin has completed her pilgrimage and has so tactfully made her modest curtsy before her august uncle Tiber. Did it amuse that very reverend greybeard at least a little to hear her unaccustomed silly and extravagant chatter?” Joyce’s Italian version is, according to the French Dante translator and poet Jacqueline Risset, “an exploration of the furthest reaches of the limits of the Italian language conducted by a great writer; a writer who was not Italian, but, according to his collaborators, ‘italianista unico.’”
In translating ALP, Joyce, who evidently never heard of the Argentinian writer, unwittingly rises to the challenge that Borges laid out in his 1925 review of Ulysses: “Joyce expands and reforms the English language; his translator is obligated to take similar license.” All the more so, one might add, when the writer and the translator are one and the same person. For, unlike most of us translators, who render the work of others, Joyce is free to do as he likes. Indeed, if any other translator rendered “ALP” as freely as does Joyce, he would be accused, as Umberto Eco pointed out, of taking “intolerable license.”
Delocalizing “Anna Livia Plurabelle” more radically than Borges does in the case of “Penelope,” Joyce replaces Irish place-names with Italian references, thereby introducing new puns and cultural allusions. Take, for instance, Howth Head, which features even more prominently in Finnegans Wake than in Ulysses, since it represents the head of the main character, HCE, whose acronym also stands for Howth Castle and Environs. One of the washerwomen chattering across the banks of the Liffey says of HCE that “he used to hold his head as high as a howeth.” (Howeth is an older form of Howth.) The simile alludes both to Howth and to the expression “as high as a house,” thereby suggesting HCE’s giant proportions—Howth Head rises to a height of 561 feet. Joyce makes HCE even taller in Italian when he rewrites the phrase as “capeggiando da gradasso di gransasso.” This could signify that HCE is the leader of the ostentatious-sounding Gran Sasso; “gransasso,” boaster or braggart, is also the name of the highest peak in the Apennines (9,500 feet).
As with Howth, so too with Joyce’s obsessive subject, Dublin. Joyce Italianizes an alliterative tag, “Dear, dirty Dublin,” purportedly coined by the popular nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish novelist Lady Morgan (1776–1859); the tag links HCE to the city from which he, like Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, is estranged. The initials DDD occur often in Finnegans Wake as, for example, in “Dear Dirty Dumpling,” a play on Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker—another of HCE’s numerous aliases—and on Humpty Dumpty. Moreover, the phrase in the Italian version corresponding to “Dear Dirty Dumpling” is “Sugna Purca Qua Ramengo,” which has nothing to do with Dublin; its initials spell SPQR, an acronym for Senatus Populusque Romanus (the Senate and the People of Rome).
Joyce’s aim is not so much to eliminate Dublin as to create a confluence of Italian and Irish lore, fluvial and otherwise. Often, he replaces mentions of Irish history and mythology, which are not always easily separable, with references to Italian cultural and historical figures such as Figaro in Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, and Machiavelli. On other occasions, however, he takes a different approach by weaving in allusions to Irish place-names such as those of four Irish cities (Derry, Cork, Galway, and Dublin), which in turn stand for the four provinces of Ireland. The Joyce/Frank translation playfully incorporates the names of those four cities: “Un ghigno derriso del corcontento, ma chiazze galve dal cervel debolino” (my emphasis). As Nino Frank was annoyed to discover, however, in editing this sentence, Settanni “changed the words and spoiled the puns.”
Joyce also weaves current political references into his Italian “ALP.” Take, for instance, the unspecified foul deed of HCE’s that attracted widespread attention: “It was put in the newses what he did.” The Italian version identifies the organ that spread these “newses”: “Il Marco Oraglio l’ha ben strombazzato.” (“The Marcus Aurelius has greatly trumpeted it.”) That transmogrified title alludes to a real publication: by the late 1930s Il Marco Aurelio was one of the few satirical journals left in Mussolini’s Italy. Oraglio contains the word raglio (braying like a donkey), thereby transforming the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius into an ass. The actual target here is not the stoic emperor but the tempestuous Il Duce, who saw himself as a latter-day Caesar, as Patrick O’Neill points out in his recent, entertainingly erudite study, Trilingual Joyce: The Anna Livia Variations, on which I have gratefully drawn here. Unlike Joyce, who as both author and translator can re-voice his “ALP” with unfettered freedom and zest, Borges, at least as a translator, feels obliged to respect, by and large, the artistic autonomy of the original author.
In the last two decades of his life, Borges’s attitude toward Joyce became less defensive and, at times, warmly appreciative. In his Harvard Norton Lectures (1967), he praises certain unforgettable phrases in Joyce’s self-described “book of the night,” e.g., the description of the Liffey flowing into Dublin bay: “the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!” And in the previously mentioned 1982 interview in Dublin (with Seamus Heaney and Richard Kearney), he acknowledges his Joyce-like, polylingual obsession with words and languages: “Looking back on my own writings sixty years after my first encounter with Joyce, I must admit that I have always shared Joyce’s fascination with words and have always worked at my language within an essentially poetic framework, savouring the multiple meanings of words, their etymological echoes and endless resonances.”
It is tempting to imagine this latter-day Borges, liberated from a Harold Bloomian “anxiety of influence,” exulting in Joyce’s irreverent rendering of “ALP.” However, Borges’s ambivalence towards Joyce never quite disappears: in 1985, the year before he dies, he resuscitates—in the preface to his final poetry collection The Conspirators—one of his old complaints about Joyce: “Theories can be admirable motivators [. . .] but at the same time they can generate monsters or mere museum pieces.” In thus criticizing Joyce’s alleged propensity to wax theoretical, Borges also distances himself from his own youthful self. As a twenty-two-year-old returnee from Spain to Argentina, he introduced a movement known as ultraísmo to Buenos Aires. The ultraístas, who rejected the stiff language, ornamental heaviness, and traditional meters of the prevailing South American modernismo, advocated an emphasis on metaphor and rhythm. Among the modern movements which inspired the ultraístas, and Borges in particular, was Expressionism. While living in Mallorca (1919–1921), Borges had immersed himself so deeply in the work of German Expressionist poets, whom he also translated, that Jorge Luis could jokingly call himself “Georg-Ludwig.”
In “Invocation to Joyce”—a lyrical tribute in his 1969 collection In Praise of Shadows—Borges weighs those early, fleeting attempts to forge a new art, which now only impress “credulous universities,” against Joyce’s enduring innovations:
what does my lost generation matter,
that indistinct mirror,
if your books justify it?
I am the others. I am all those
whom your obstinate rigor has redeemed.
I am those whom you do not know and those whom you save. ■