Ng Han Guan / AP
A Chinese man points near a large billboard advertising the translated work of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" on a street in Beijing, China, on Jan. 30.
The Chinese version is no easier to read than the original, the loyal-minded translator assures, but James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" has still sold out its initial run in China — with the help of some big urban billboards.
Wang Weisong, chief editor of the Shanghai company that published the first Chinese translation of the Joyce classic, coyly said at a recent forum in Shanghai that he wasn't expecting any success for the book, but that the modest initial run of 8,000 copies has sold out since it went on sale Dec. 25. He said more copies are being printed to meet demand.
Dai Congrong, who spent eight years translating it, told the same forum that she didn't fully grasp the novel but that it was supposed to be difficult, and that she kept the Chinese version that way.
"I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend," Dai said, according to a transcript the Shanghai People's Publishing House posted online.
Despite a waning interest in foreign literature over the past couple of decades, the Shanghai News and Publishing Bureau said the novel's sales in Shanghai last week were second only to a new biography of Deng Xiaoping in the category of "good books," a term reserved for more serious reads.
The book, widely considered Joyce's most experimental and inscrutable work, was promoted by an unusual billboard campaign in major Chinese cities — with 16 of them in Shanghai alone. The official Xinhua News agency said it was the first time a book had been promoted that way in China.
Some critics say the surprise hit has pandered to a superficial demand among some Chinese for high-brow imports.
"Pushed by a current of unprecedented vanity," is how Shanghai native and New York-based writer Li Jie described the "Finnegans Wake" phenomenon in a post on his microblog.
Well-known Beijing critic Wuyuesanren, whose real name is Yao Bo, said that although some well-educated urban Chinese will appreciate Joyce's novel, it also has become fashionable. "No matter how unfathomable a book is, it can sell well because at least it can provide some fodder for teatime chats," he said.
Murong Xuecun, a renowned Chinese author and critic, is planning to get a copy of the translated novel.
"It has the reputation of being inscrutable, and people are so curious they want to read it themselves," Murong said. "I am sure that's universal around the world. It does not say the Chinese readers have a higher taste."
The demand for translations of foreign-language novels exploded during an opening-up period in the 1980s and 1990s when China was eager for new thought. Joyce's "Ulysses" was warmly received when it was first translated in the mid-1990s.
But the zeal for foreign literature has slowed, as Chinese get more connected to the world and — as prosperity increases — they turn their attention to more pragmatic or entertaining reads.