Readersforum's Blog

February 7, 2013

Finnegans Wake becomes a hit book in China

Puntastic success ... Stacking shelves at a Beijing bookshop.

Puntastic success … Stacking shelves at a Beijing bookshop.

Following billboard ads, James Joyce’s nigh-incomprehensible book leaps over language barrier to reach surprising readership

By Jonathan Kaiman

After spending eight years translating the first third of James Joyce’s famously opaque novel Finnegans Wake into Chinese, Dai Congrong assumed it was a labour of love rather than money. The book’s language is thick with multilingual puns and brazenly defies grammatical conventions. It begins: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

So the 41-year-old professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University was incredulous when the translation became a surprise bestseller in China after hitting shelves last month. Backed by an elaborate billboard ad campaign, the first volume of “Fennigen de Shouling Ye” sold out its first run of 8,000 copies and reached number two on a prestigious bestseller list in Shanghai, second only to a biography of Deng Xiaoping. Sales of 30,000 are considered “cause for celebration” according to Chinese publisher Gray Tan, so 8,000 in a month has made Joyce a distinctly hot property. Ian McEwan, for instance, is considered pretty buzzy in translation, but the print run of Atonement was only 5,000 copies.

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