"If I did that shamething it was on pure poise"

Derek Pyle, with Marcelo Zabaloy

Part One

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. 

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 Wake, with over thirty hours of music from seventeen different musicians, readers, and performers.

(Link to Part Two)