One day to discuss the 'blah blah'

June 18, 2004

Scholars from around the world meet in Dublin this week to celebrate the 100th anniversary of James Joyce's notoriously tricky masterpiece, Ulysses . Steve Farrar joined them.

Eishiro Ito is enjoying an extraordinary day in Dublin. The associate professor of English at Iwate Prefectural University in Japan mingles with enthusiasts in Victorian costumes - there are at least half a dozen Leopold Blooms in this street alone - camera-toting US tourists and bellowing street performers. It's June 16, Bloomsday, 100 years after the first one, the day when three fictional characters walked the streets of Dublin in James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses .

Ito is enjoying being part of Joyce's world, away from the lecture theatres of the international James Joyce conference the city has been hosting all week.

"Sometimes I enjoy Joyce in the academy but sometimes as an enthusiast," he beams, before heading off to Davy Byrne's pub in Leopold Bloom's notional footsteps.

Jean Schoonbroodt, a slightly built Belgian priest who has attended every conference since 1967, believes Joyce would have appreciated the Bloomsday events that are drawing crowds across the city. "Most Joyceans are here out of curiosity but they realise that this carnival dovetails beautifully with what is scholarly and scientific," he observes.

He enjoys the atmosphere but draws on the exchange of ideas between the hundreds of scholars from around the world who have converged on the National College of Ireland to share their obsession. "I have come here to learn and find out what makes me love Joyce so much."

Ulysses is one of the 20th century's greatest works of literature and hence has attracted a devoted following that is perhaps without equal in literary circles. At the week-long conference, scholars are subjecting Ulysses and Joyce's other works to a respectfully rigorous and imaginative examination.

Feminist and post-colonialist theories are discussed alongside thermodynamics, taoism and excrement (a surprisingly popular theme among this quirkily humorous group).

Among the scholars are noticeably large groups from countries where English is not the native tongue. These men and women shame those of us who have picked up a copy of Ulysses only to abandon it soon after.

They have coped with reading the text in a foreign language or have navigated the idiosyncrasies of a translation. And every year their numbers swell.

Translations are the subject of several sessions at the conference and beautifully illuminate the trials and rewards of Ulysses . There are, for example, two Chinese versions despite there being no single word for yes (which makes Molly Bloom's famous ending to the book - "and yes I said yes I will Yes" - something of a wonder).

Translating a novel is difficult. Translating Ulysses , with its complex, multifaceted wordplay, is especially testing. For example, how exactly do you translate the remark "imperthnthn thnthnthn"? Fritz Senn, the founder of the Zurich James Joyce Foundation in Switzerland, says: "In some ways you might say literary translation is not possible but we are dependent upon it."

In fact, Senn's Geneva-based centre possesses 40 different translations of Ulysses , and more are in the pipeline, including Albanian and Brazilian Portuguese editions.

Ulysses is crammed with allusions, quotations, associations, slang, double meanings and echoes of a host of motifs that often have no ready equivalent in other languages. Joyce is obsessed with wordplay and there are almost musical elements of rhymes and rhythm. Then there is the cultural context and constant references to literature, philosophy and contemporary Anglo-Irish society as well as stylistic parodies.

Jolanta Wawrzycka, Polish-born professor of English at Radford University in the US, comments: "You really have to understand what Joyce is saying, though that doesn't necessarily mean you can find an equivalent of that in your own language." She adds that her love of Joyce has intensified over the years despite English being her third language after Polish and Russian.

For some, translating the book can become a life's work. The first Danish translation took Mogens Boisen, army officer, jazz pianist and bon viveur less than 11 months to complete in 1949. But it was a rather literal affair and Boisen found himself using all his spare time to constantly refine his work, producing ever more flowing versions up to 1980.

As Ida Klitgard, a postdoctoral researcher at Copenhagen University, Denmark, says: "The Danish translation of Ulysses is a novel in its own right and has become part of Denmark's literary history."

Ito says it took him more than six months to read a Japanese translation - the first translation in his language was on sale four years before the first legal US edition. It took him two years to read the English text. "I couldn't finish it at first because it was so difficult," he admits. "But I enjoyed it. Every passage has something important to say about our lives."

In fact, Senn believes the non-native English speaker has some advantages:

"We know it is not our language so we have to look at the text much more closely."

Klitgard adds: "If you can get through this difficult, freakish, monstrous text you become part of this cult." Nevertheless, she appreciates why many Dubliners think such an obsession might be pretentious.

Caroline Patey, professor of English literature at Milan University, Italy, is concerned that the academic community has not made Ulysses any easier for most people to stomach. "The academics have transformed it into an icon of intellectual blah blah," she says.

"I don't like the commercialisation of Bloomsday, the merchandising of Joyce that transforms it into something mundane. But I don't think it's any worse than the academic gentrification of Joyce."

A scholarly Joyce industry is indeed thriving, as this week's conference demonstrates. But its organisers point to the large contingents of non-academics and non-native English speakers as evidence of its breadth.

Morris Beja, professor of English at Ohio State University who helped coordinate the conference, says there has previously been an issue surrounding the strength of the US element in the Joycean community but that European scholarship has caught up.

This is true not least in Ireland, which was largely indifferent to the first international conference in 1967 and attracted 85 people, mostly Americans. This year's centenary events reveal how much the situation has changed.

Beyond the street parties and conference halls, Dubliners, however, still find Ulysses heavy-going. "Pretentious ****e," city cab driver Finbar tells me, having twice attempted the book and failed. His colleague John is not so quick to condemn. Though he had not read it, nor did he know any Dubliner who had, Bloomsday had piqued his curiosity. "I'll give it a go," he said. "Just once."

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