'Merica, Anthony Comstock, authorial freedom, Cait Murphey, censorship, Christopher Hitchens, Essay, Fun Home, James Joyce, Judge John M. Woolsey, Kevin Birmingham, Language, Leopold in Bloom, Les Miserables, Literature, Molly Bloom, Richard Nixon, Stephen Dedalus, The Atlantic, The Executioner's Song, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, translation, Ulysses, Ulysses in Chinese, United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Wen Jieruo, Xiao Qian
Around a year ago I found myself obsessed with the novel Ulysses despite the fact that it’s now been over five years since I actually read the book. I don’t have an actual explanation for the pop-up obsession except perhaps it was because I’d been reading Fun Home, which references James Joyce often, and also Joyce in Bloom, an essay by Christopher Hitchens about the novel and it’s lasting cultural impact. There was some idea, as I had just started Grad School, that I would become a Joyce scholar, dedicating my thesis and eventual dissertation on Joyce’s book. I would also teach the novel, wearing my tweed blazers and my eccentric bow-ties. I would be the fun professor, or at the very least that weird guy who probably suffered from ED and masturbated to Woody Allen movies, though only the second part would be accurate. There’s something about Diane Keaton in Annie Hall…(*Sigh*).
Realistically my Joyce obsession was a fallacy, a fancy pants way of saying that I was deluding myself. Ulysses had been a pain to read, and often times I found myself, much like Alison Bechdel does in her graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, muttering the phrase:
It’s not that at the time I didn’t recognize ANY importance of the work. Ulysses helped me grow tremendously as a writer by showing me what could be accomplished with prose, and as a reader I developed a patience and skill, but more importantly I grew a necessary strength to read long works. If there is any book as long as Ulysses I have yet to really find it. The reader may protest throwing down books like War and Peace, Don Quixote, Les Misérables, and The Executioner’s Song thus shattering my glass coffee table not mention my impression of them (won’t see you at the Christmas party Doug), but I would argue that, with the exception of possibly War and Peace, Ulysses may be shorter, but what it lacks those tomes in page count it supersedes them in density. The final 45 pages of Ulysses are nothing but eight sentences of stream of consciousness by Molly Bloom and just to put in in perspective the final 45 pages of Les Misérables describes the self-exile of Jean Valjean before his death.
Looking back at my dreams of becoming a Joyce scholar I recognized my adoration of Joyce was not so much a genuine desire to spend the rest of my life teaching his novel, but was actually more an ego trip. I enjoyed being the only person in my classes who had actually read the novel from cover to cover, but more so it was disheartening to reach class early each night, talking to my fellow English majors, and hearing from too many of them that they had not actually read any of their assignments for classes. Joyce became an opportunity to show off a little, and hopefully encourage some people to participate in conversations, though it never actually did. I might be overly harsh on myself, and since then my appreciation for the book has achieved more depth, I’ve just gotten to a point where romanticizing my past is a dangerous habit.
In my research however I did find one or two interesting articles, but it was one essay published in The Atlantic that still resonates after a year. It’s the ambition behind the story of the article that still remains impressive.
Xiao Qian, a Chinese war correspondent and a literature student, stood over the grave of James Joyce in 1946 in Zurich and mourned, “Here lies the corpse of someone who wasted his great talents writing something very unreadable.” Forty-nine years later Xiao still thinks that Joyce carried his virtuosity too far. He has earned the right to his reservations: he and his wife, Wen Jieruo, have just finished a labor that might have humbled Hercules–translating Ulysses into Chinese.
Now a reader who has ever attempted to read the novel from beginning to end most likely uttered a wretch in the back of their throat that sounds like a bullfrog’s death gurgle. The reason for this charming noise is because, as stated before, Ulysses is almost unreadable when it’s written in English.
The reason for this is Joyce’s genius.
The conflict with James Joyce was that he bought into the idea of his own genius and felt the need to demonstrate it, and the reader should not want to recognize there is nothing so threatening to human comfort as a genius wishing to wave his dick around in the air. The article Ulysses in Chinese is written by Cait Murphey, a New York writer with at least two books to her name (one about baseball the other about lawyers) who demonstrates this facet of Joyce’s personality with a brief description of the novel and Joyce’s artistic decisions in the composition:
Joyce masticates Homer’s Odyssey and spits it out in his saga of a day (June 16, 1904) in the life of two Dubliners, Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) and Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus). Penelope is represented by Bloom’s not-so-faithful wife, Molly. Ulysses does not slavishly follow the Odyssey, though each episode in the ancient tale has a counterpart in the modern one. For example, in one Homeric episode Odysseus descends to Hades, the world of the dead; in Joyce’s version Leopold Bloom–a Jew and therefore, like Odysseus, an outsider–goes to a funeral. If Homer marks the beginning of Western literature, Joyce suggested, Ulysses was its culmination. “The task I set myself technically in writing a book from eighteen different points of view and in as many styles,” he wrote to his benefactress, Harriet Shaw Weaver, “all apparently unknown or undiscovered by my fellow tradesmen, that and the nature of the legend chosen would be enough to upset anyone’s mental balance.”
Murphey’s essay does not concern itself with praising or criticizing Joyce’s artistic decisions however, for in fact Joyce has little to actually do with the meat of the essay. Murphey’s concern is with Xiao Quian and Wen Jieruo and their story of translating one of most important books published in human history. The reader may immediately question whether this was really an effort worth the time and pain. Ulysses is a book few people in their lifetimes will ever actually read, and fewer will even finish, yet despite this it continues to be translated into at least, as Murphey says, twenty different languages. Whatever magic Joyce managed to capture there is an aura that surrounds the book and Xiao and Wen are only the latest to tackle the monster.
What’s so particularly impressive about a Chinese translation is revealed in a brief history:
Much of the delay can be attributed to the antipathy of the Chinese Communists toward bourgeois liberal Western culture. Joyce’s work became caught in the Chinese government’s straitened view of literature’s role–that it should extol the morally upright deeds of workers, peasants, and soldiers. Ulysses–bawdy, irreverent, and anti-heroic–hardly suits. Nor did the Maoist cultural commissars appreciate the literary merits of Ulysses, considering it too pessimistic, subjective, and personal. And perhaps worst of all, it was not concerned nearly enough with the great theme of class struggle. Even with the end, in 1976, of the Cultural Revolution, in which China tried to purge all foreign influences (except Marxism) from the land, Xiao and Wen were confined to translating only what was deemed to be safe material, such as the work of Henry Fielding, Charles Lamb, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
So when the two were just about ready to publish their translation, Xiao took the precaution of writing a series of articles for the Chinese press describing the American trial in 1933 that established that Ulysses was not a dirty book. China would look backward, he argued, if it were to ban or censor the book six decades later. Xiao also pointed out the book’s “progressive” stance: it was anti-anti-Semitic and anti-imperialistic.
The strategy worked. Published last year, with no interference, the first edition of the three-volume translation sold out its 85,000 copies; a second and a third edition were rushed into print. “We publishers had to be brave to take this kind of risk,” says Li Jingduan, the editor of Yilin Publishing House, in Nanjing. “I never imagined this book would be so welcomed by the Chinese reader.” Considering the price–about $15, or roughly a week’s wages for a high school teacher in China–the sales are phenomenal, and the couple have become modest celebrities. They keep clippings about their work in two thick albums in their book-cluttered four-room apartment near Tiananmen Square, and clearly enjoy the fuss. Wen positively purrs as she recalls a book-signing in Shanghai that attracted a thousand readers. “Five police officers had to come to keep order,” she says. “Very excellent.” The story made the front pages of Shanghai’s newspapers.
Xiao and Wen both have traumatic personal memories of times when China was not nearly so accommodating, and see their translation as a major advance for China’s cultural life. “I feel that this translation of Ulysses signifies that China at last has opened herself not only in technology and science but also in literature,” Xiao says.
It’s difficult to truly appreciate, for those of us living in the Western Hemisphere in the twenty-first century, how powerful is the freedom to enter our local bookstores, what few remain in these dark days, and purchase any book that we want regardless of our political opinion. I don’t intend to make this essay a nauseatingly preachy rant about “’Merica” and “freedom” and all that jazz which was a movie starring Roy Schrieder that delivered, though only the first hour. Americans have a rather conflicted relationship with their civil liberties for always there is the balance of what “I can do” and what “I should do.” While many appreciate their rights, some exercise them simply for the sake of exercising them. Marilyn Mansion can wipe his ass with the American flag and the NRA can walk around with automatic rifles strapped to their backs, whether or not they should is up for debate, though, the reader may want to walk carefully with that NRA guy because he’s a crazy-ass white guy with guns while Mansion is currently just an engorged pumpkin with bad skin. Just sayin. This attitude of possessing rights to behavior and actions tends to foster a solipsism, to the point, few recognize the real violations of censorship that actively remove those liberties.
The case of China only fuels this idea because in the last two decades, at least since Nixon opened up diplomatic relations with the nation (one of the man’s few positive achievements though even that’s up for debate), China has assumed the boogeyman status. It’s China that will steal American jobs. It’s China that will bankrupt America. It’s China who will infect American children with communist ideals. And, of course, it’s China, with their sour record of human rights violations, that will censor books.
The problem with this, as is so often the case with Americans, the real history is ignored. Before book burnings had become something only priests with silly mustaches did to the Koran, there was a real existence of censorship in the United States. The Postal Service, an institution now just a daily dimming shadow of its once great figure, once controlled and exercised the “morality” of the public, for ultimately it was the post office that moved and shipped about reading material, therefore they possessed the right to censor any and all works deemed “obscene.”
Kevin Birmingham in his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, describes this power before telling his reader of a character by the name of Anthony Comstock:
The history of U.S. Censorship regime began in earnest in 1873, when Anthony Comstock bordered a train to Washington D.C., with a draft of a new federal law in his pocket and a satchel filled with the dirtiest pornography. Comstock was the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and because he understood the power of words, he understood the power of the Post office.
Comstock wanted the government to ban not just immoral books and pictures but also circulars and advertisements—everything that kept pornographers in business. A book like Lord K’s Rapes and Seductions wasn’t the only problem. They had to outlaw the catalog listing the book for sale and newspapers printing the ads that told people where to find it. The law also had to ban contraception and abortion related articles—birth control, after all, was part of the same avaricious business of lust. Pharmacists and smut peddlers profited from the same fantasy of sin without consequences. (111-2).
Comstocks ideas were eventually accepted by then President Ulysses S. Grant (marvelous coincidence aside) and the Postal Service, alongside police, were given tremendous power, perhaps a little too much:
This federal patchwork of obscenity laws had perverse effects. A man was free to visit a brothel, but if he wrote a story about visiting a brothel he could go to prison—immoral words became more punishable than immoral acts. An office clerk who mailed an obscene book faced a heavier sentence than the book’s author, publisher and seller because the Comstock Act wasn’t about raiding bookshops. It was about raiding the nation’s most powerful distribution network. (113).
Censorship was not invented by Communists, but Americans have an enormous capacity for self-bullshitting that this brief history is necessary before I continue.
Xiao and Wen struggle was a twofold effort, not only because of the political realities they face in their country, but also for the real obstacle that is Joyce’s writing which Murphey explains using several examples:
Translating Joyce is no party game in any language, of course. Even a simple sentence like “And going forth, he met Butterly” presents dangers. In fact in the book Buck Mulligan and Stephen Dedalus meet no one named Butterly. Mulligan, Stephen’s roommate, is just tossing off a clever remark as he and Stephen leave their residence south of Dublin. He is referring, crudely, as is his wont, to the biblical description of Peter after his betrayal of Jesus: “and going forth, he wept bitterly.” In English the allusion is obvious enough. In German, though, after much cogitation, the thought has been put this way: they went forth “und weinte Buttermilch“–or “and wept buttermilk.” In Chinese it is translated for sound: they “went out and met Ba Teli,” meaning “to hope earnestly-special-inside,” but in context signaling a group of foreign sounds. Well, okay: the reader is clued in that the phrase is more than it seems. But a lot is lost in translation.
She goes on noting the complications of the Chinese language:
Many languages at least share the Roman alphabet, and therefore, to varying degrees, a common corpus of sounds. The name Leopold Bloom looks and sounds much the same from Dublin to Detroit, from Harare to Hanoi.
Enter China and the rules change. To begin with, there are only 404 possible phonetic combinations in Mandarin, far fewer than in English. Wordplay is inevitably distorted. And Chinese is ideographic, not alphabetic; “home,” for example, is represented by a stylized picture that has traditionally been interpreted to be a pig beneath a roof. Ulysses is not pictorial but aural, and comes alive most vividly when read aloud.
To make things more difficult, Chinese is a tonal language. In Mandarin, the official national tongue, there are four possible tones to each sound: high level, rising, falling rising, and falling. The tones make a difference. For a crude example of the sounds, consider using the word “Ma” in these different contexts: “Oh, Ma!” in surprised anger at seeing your mother where she shouldn’t be, “Oh, Ma!” in exasperation, “Ma” in sober conversation, and “Oh, it’s Maaa” in warning at an unexpected phone call from the matriarch. In Chinese, tones change the meaning of a word, not just the emphasis. The four tones for “ma” mean, respectively, “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” and “to curse.” (A fifth tone for “ma,” which is actually atonal, turns a sentence into a question.)
There are a number of obstacles that plagued Xiao and Wen but it does little good to quote by quote, every single one for that would deprive the reader the opportunity to read the essay and understand the significance of their labors. Murphey does not accomplish great things in terms of prose in Ulysses in Chinese, but looking back at this article that doesn’t matter. It could be said that her essay was just journalism and so her job is merely to convey the events, the who-what-when-where-how-why of any seasoned journalist or historian, but for myself there’s a deeper meaning behind taking the time to looking at Xiao and Wen.
In many ways I envy them. They possessed a strength that I didn’t have when looking to the future of my graduate school career. I enjoy the story of Ulysses, I understand the artistic choices as well as anyone can, and I adore the legends and folklore that surround this novel…but not enough to dedicate my life to it, or at least ten or more years of my life to it. Looking then to Xiao and Wen I see two people who accomplished an impressive feat, and contributed an enormous gift to their culture and society.
In my paperback copy of the book there is the final statement made by Judge John M. Woolsey who decided the fate of Ulysses in America:
“Ulysses” is not an easy book to read or to understand. But there has been much written about it, and in order properly to approach the consideration of it it is advisable to read a number of other books which have now become its satellites. The study of “Ulysses” is, therefore, a heavy task.
In writing “Ulysses,” Joyce sought to make a serious experiment in a new, if not wholly novel, literary genre. He takes persons of the lower middle class living in Dublin in 1904 and seeks, not only to describe what they did on a certain day early in June of that year as they went about the city bent on their usual occupations, but also to tell what many of them thought about the while.
Joyce has attempted — it seems to me, with astonishing success — to show how the screen of consciousness with its ever-shifting kaleidoscopic impressions carries, as it were on a plastic palimpsest, not only what is in the focus of each man’s observation of the actual things about him, but also in a penumbral zone residua of past impressions, some recent and some drawn up by association from the domain of the subconscious. He shows how each of these impressions affects the life and behavior of the character which he is describing.
If the point of art is to recognize the feelings and thoughts of other human beings, whether they be of different sexes, genders, races, and nationalities, then Ulysses in Chinese is more than just one article published in The Atlantic. It’s a testament to what art should be, and what it should encourage us to be. Art should not be easy, nor should it aspire for best seller lists and four star reviews. Books should, first and foremost, aim to capture the impressions of human beings that read them, so much so that, even if they are almost unreadable, and their reader’s drop an occasional “what the fuck?” like I did, they still resonate in the reader’s mind long after they have been read.
Xiao Quan and Wen Jieruo have given their culture and their nation a gift, and the reader of Ulysses in Chinese will recognize it.
I’ve included a link to the original article by Murphey below:
I’ve also included a link to the Court Decision made by Woolsey if the reader is interested in his full remarks:
Anyone interested in the essay Joyce in Bloom can follow the link below: