Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, Translation

Interview with Marcelo Zabaloy, Spanish translator of James Joyce

A two-part interview by Derek Pyle with Marcelo Zabaloy, Spanish translator of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses. First published by the Massachusetts Review Blog (to read on their site: Part 1 and Part 2).

“If I did that shamething it was on pure poise”

Marcelo Zabaloy must be a remarkable man, with no shortage of literary ambition and ability. Having completed an unabridged translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses (published in 2015 by el Cuenco de Plata in Buenos Aires), Zabaloy is in the final stages of his next translation. The book? James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

While Ulysses is a certainly a difficult book to read, it nonetheless retains a modicum of accessibility in its native tongue—the language may seem rather dialectically Irish, but at least it is more or less a form of English. We might imagine a dedicated translator working on Ulysses as his magnum opus. To translate Finnegans Wake, however, is much more difficult to imagine. How does one translate a book in which the original text already appears as some idiosyncratic kind of language? What inspires someone to even attempt such an undertaking?

In an attempt to answer these questions, I interviewed Marcelo Zabaloy over the course of numerous e-mail exchanges. We discussed his interest in Joyce; his translations of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake; his professional life, working for his son’s travel agency; and his collaboration with Edgardo Russo, the highly regarded late editor of el Cuento de Plata.

How did you first get introduced to Joyce? What was it that drew you to his work?

I first read “Counterparts” [from Dubliners] in an anthology, 50 Best American Short Stories [edited by Martha Foley, 1994]. I had always heard that Joyce was a difficult writer to read. It didn’t seem to me hard at all but lovely so I bought Dubliners and then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. As a natural thing I took a deep breath and plunged into Ulysses. It was 2004 and my wife brought me a copy from the US, the Gabler edition—back then I knew nothing about the James Joyce wars, so any copy was okay. I spent a whole year reading it whenever I had a bit of time without any aid at all except a good old thick English-English dictionary; whatever I didn’t grasp the meaning of I left aside for the next reading. The heaps of wonderful things that I was able to understand brought me back for a second reading, this time with Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated, Richard Ellmann’s James Joyce, and a few more essays on Joyce. I was captivated by this man and his works from the very first moment. As simple as that.
A lot of people gravitate to Joyce but are put off by Finnegans Wake. When did you discover the Wake, and what drew you to it?

It’s understandable. There are many difficult things to overcome before you run into phrases, sentences, fragments of text that tell you that there is something wonderful to discover provided you go on. My first reading [of Finnegans Wake] was done straight after finishing my translation of Ulysses and I admit that after two hundred or so pages I gave up and didn’t think of coming back to it for a while. Then I slowly and carefully started reading books about [the Wake]; and I said to myself that I should do with it what I did with Ulysses, that is, translate it as I was reading it. It is the best way to read this one or any other text in a foreign language. And so, in the process of translating I found out that meaning, though obviously important, was not essential and that I could continue twisting my Spanish language as much as Joyce did. This was a huge puzzle with countless broken pieces. Not all of them fell in place smoothly, though somehow after almost four years I arrived at the last sentence on the last page, and restarted. This is not an easy pun. I am now in the third revision and will go on doing this until I send the book to the publisher. That’s roughly the story of it.
You first began translating Ulysses, and later Finnegans Wake, actually as a way of reading each book. How did this alter the way in which you read the texts?

At first both readings were done at normal pace, trying not to stop at what I didn’t understand, to first get a whole picture if possible. It was very rewarding to finish Ulysses and the following readings were always deeper and deeper until I finally had a thorough comprehension of the book. This method was very helpful when I decided to proceed with Finnegans Wake for a second reading; as I said before, my first attempt was not very enjoyable. Now, in this third round of re-reading and careful revision I weigh each word – words weigh no more to him than raindrips… – as much as possible trying to draw out, squeezing it, every last drop of meaning that could fit in context. This, Finnegans Wake, is a puzzle and therefore you are never sure and never will be, but at some stage if you are to move on, you must make a decision and place that piece somewhere. I realize that if I hadn’t done this hard training with Ulysses I’d never have finished reading, to say nothing of translating, Finnegans Wake.
Let’s consider Ulysses for a minute. Perhaps you can pick a specific passage, and describe how new meanings emerged from that passage upon each re-reading? 

It’s difficult to pick one out of thousands of passages that at first reading were dark or didn’t make much sense or any sense at all. But the opening lines of “Sirens” for instance are a clear example. While wading through the text I had to go back and forth to verify what I was just guessing. After finishing the chapter I restarted it and paid due attention to the music and then more and more meaning sprang up. During the process of translating Ulysses I had to investigate and understand every single allusion so as to try to find the suitable word that would fit into the context. And as my translation has notes I wanted to be as clear as possible with the reader. This means not to over-complicate already difficult things with pedant and messy information, though I’m afraid that the position of explainers in general is always on the brim of pedantry. Sorry for that.
One interesting feature of many Joyce translations is the inclusion of annotations and notessome translations also appear as dual language texts, with the original and the translated language appearing side by side. Does this make a work like Finnegans Wake or Ulysses more accessible to casual readers? or is there any risk the books become ultra-academic, and therefore less accessible, through such presentation?

I think that notes are useful in the case of Ulysses, at least in translated versions. They provide information for the reader that otherwise he would be left guessing and therefore frustrated and prone to give up. These notes need not to be ultra-academic but as simple and straightforward as possible, acting more like clues rather than full explanations, and if possible placed at the end of the book so they don’t interrupt the reading. But yes, the risk is always there of turning what should be a pleasant and enjoyable act in a burdensome obligation.

Finnegans Wake is a different thing. I did annotate book originally but then decided to go on without any notes at all. If the reader has been able to read eight full chapters he has already been captivated by the text and he should be able to go on by himself. By then he would have understood that there’s no such a thing as a story and that he is not reading a thriller. Having the text in English on the opposite page would help. The book itself – its title, the scholarship around it, etcetera – are intimidating enough for the casual reader so anything reasonable that one can do in terms of displaying the text in a translation is worth doing. That’s why I synchronized the text; each page in Spanish corresponds to the same page in English. It’s a way of helping the eventual reader to compare the Spanish translation with the original text.

In the modern era, reading as well as writing are often solitary acts. Ulysses of course has its public celebration every Bloomsday, while Finnegans Wake has inspired countless monthly or even weekly reading groups. Has your engagement with Joyce been a solo journey, or do you count yourself amongst other Joycean colleagues and peers?

It has been, as you call it, a solo journey. I am in close contact with Hervé Michel [French translator of Finnegans Wake] as I consider his work Veillée Pinouilles something extraordinary, to say nothing of his “Intraduction”. And the proximity of the French with the Spanish language helps me a lot in the procedure of revising  own translation. I always have Hervé’s text at hand. It is my reference, my main guide. What he dares do I will follow, not always but almost always. When I go to France I visit him, I discuss with him and Constance-Hélène, his wife, for hours. And we laugh a lot. Every now and then I send him an email to ask him whether something in the text is okay or could there be an error. And he always comes back with a new proposal. He’s always revising and rewriting his [translation of Finnegans Wake] and has been doing so for years and years and it’s so incredible that there’s not an editor in his country who would take this marvelous thing and get it printed immediately. But yes, he lives 12,000 kilometers away from Bahía Blanca, so I normally work alone in my Joycean ventures.

How interesting that you would look to a French translation for guidance with your own Spanish translation! What about Michel’s translation do you find so illuminating?

There is a French translation done by Philippe Lavergne and published by Gallimard in 1982. But it is the equivalent of a “corrected English” version of Finnegans Wake. So it looks like the product of automatic writing or a surrealist text. What Hervé has done is to emulate the astonishment of the English-speaking reader in front of the book. He didn’t straighten, dilute or thin difficulties; let nonsense be nonsense seems to be the key factor. Every language has its own resources, some more, some less, all differing as clock from keys, and you have to dig deep to find them. There they are, words. And thousands of them you must forge, et comme disent les français, c’est en forgeant que l’on devienne forgeron, them words. But if you have timeframes, deadlines and commitments with the publisher then you must rush and finish your translation ASAP. Hervé has been doing his Veillée Pinouilles for more than thirty years without caring about being published. Anyway, it is about time for the French Joycean public to be able to read this wonderful work in Franglische. It is as funny as Mark Twain’s translation and retranslation of his Jumping Frog, from English to French and back to English.

What high compliments. How did you first connect with Michel? 

As I used the French Ulysses [translated by Auguste Morel, Valery Larbaud and Stuart Gilbert] as a guide whenever the English text was rather opaque, I thought that I would find a French translation of Finnegans Wake done by the same group of people. I discovered lately that only a few pages of “Anna Livia Plurabelle” were translated by Jolas, Beckett, etcetera with James Joyce.

In the course of that research I came across Hervé’s website and sent him an email asking to meet next month, when I was coming back to Paris. This was early 2012. We spent hours speaking and laughing. His “Intraduction” is very, very funny; it’s the utmost nonsense that was ever heard dump and it is not an imitation of the master at all. It’s just a different text.

Speaking of travel, would you say a little more about your travel agency work?

Oh, sure. A bit of self-advertising wouldn’t do much harm. My son is the owner of the company; we are a family based travel agency with just a few staff and we do sports travel. Our clients are rugby clubs and schools in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay who tour Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the UK, Spain, Portugal and France – and the other way round, schools and rugby clubs from those countries and Canada (Vancouver) coming to South America during the spring break in the Northern shemsfire. My job is to find fixtures and try to find some decent opposition according to the skills of the visiting teams, and to find families to host the boys and girls for a couple of nights in each location, to make sure that the buses are on time, and to see that the coaches do not bring in the big boys (generally way over that league’s age limit) when they realize that a team of lean boys from Argentina or Chile are leading the score with a few minutes to go (welcome, New Zealand), etcetera etcetera. It’s a nice, wonderful job. And it allows me plenty of time to visit libraries and bookshops, where I always find something extraordinary.

Have you always worked in business? When did you interest in translation begin?

Some fifteen years ago, when the Internet was not what it is today, I used to translate documents that were not available in Spanish. Mainly rugby coaching manuals, short stories (French and English), technical manuals and so on. I never did translations for a living; only for myself, and to share with friends and family a few nice things.

When you began translating Ulysses, did you envision eventually publishing the work? or was that also a more personal endeavor?

It was a personal endeavor as you say. Only when I finished the first draft version I started to think that maybe it could be worth contacting publishers. And so I did.

Any other works you hope to translate now that you’ve completed Ulysses and Finnegans Wake?

Not really. I don’t want to work in the thorough meaning of the word, I mean, contracts or deadlines. During the process of translating Ulysses I became a very good friend with my editor Edgardo Russo and he just died a few weeks ago. It’s very sad. He was the finest editor in Latin America, so they say, but for me was just a good friend.

Sorry to hear of your loss, he sounds like quite the man. Would you say more about Edgardo, and your friendship with him?

I met Edgardo Russo early in 2010 when he agreed to publish my translation of Ulysses. I sent many emails, to almost all the Spanish-speaking editors around the world and he was the only one who replied. He first thought it was a joke and didn’t pay too much attention to the attached file containing the “Circe” episode. Then, tickled by curiosity, he read it and at the same time compared it with the previous translations. He decided that it was not a joke and gave me a call. After our first meeting we started reading, via Skype, one episode after the other. He suggested many changes, some slight, some important but he always respected the main body of my work. We spent almost four and a half years polishing up the text, reading it aloud once and again, until we arrived to the conclusion that the text was ripe, mature, that it was flowing nicely. It must be said that El Cuenco de Plata, that’s Edgardo’s publishing house, is very prestigious; el Cuenco has gained a reputation by the quality of the books they do. So Edgardo was very busy with his daily task but he always had time for Ulysses; he was deeply involved in every single word of the text. You don’t find these days a person like him. The regular editor is more like a hectic fellow who never has time enough for reading anything worth reading. Edgardo was a great man; we will miss him.

Wow. Your story really illustrates the dedication and tireless passion of a remarkable man. Were you able to work with Edgardo for your translation of Finnegans Wake as well?

I did the translation alone and every now and then I would send him a fragment. Edgardo was ready to start reading my translation and then do the final revision with me; he didn’t have the time for it.

Well, I imagine you still carry the lessons learned from working with him, and that his spirit is no doubt contained in your new translation as well. Which relates to what is a good final questionany advice for aspiring translators?

Sure, he became an inspiring memory. I’m very proud of having worked with him these years. Regarding translations and translators I only dare say that the deeper your engagement is with the writer and his work, the brighter will be your translation. One should take the writer’s place so in a certain way you are, you become, the writer himself, rewriting what he wrote. Everything you enjoy doing will end up being a decent piece of work.
Derek Pyle studied at Hampshire College and worked as a letterpress printer for Jubilation Press. He is the co-founder and primary director of the Waywords and Meansigns project, an unabridged musical version of Finnegans Wakewith over thirty hours of music from seventeen different musicians, readers, and performers.



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