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Life of Love, Letters and Joyce
The marriage of writer Xiao Qian and translator Wen Jieruo was a union of exceptional closeness, love and collaboration, with the literary couple taking on the torturous task of translating James Joyce's "Ulysses" for the enlightenment (and bewilderment) of millions of Chinese readers.

Wen Jieruo's name is on countless novels - yet the spry 75-year-old has never written one.

Wen is a noted translator who has brought the works of Kawabata Yasunari, Mishima Yukio and other well-known Japanese writers to millions of Chinese readers. Her latest offering, however, may be her greatest: a revised translation of James Joyce's "Ulysses."

The Joyce translation began as a collaboration with her late husband Xiao Qian, a renowned Chinese war correspondent, essayist, and translator in his own right. Wen finished the translation alone, a labor that might have humbled Hercules. The couple published their first translation of "Ulysses" in 1995.

Translating Joyce is no picnic in any language. Wen, however, was undaunted by the difficulties - indeed, she was positively eager to take a crack at Joyce. At the age of 62, and recently retired from a career as a translator of Japanese novels and an editor of English translations, she felt that this was a project that would put her skills to the test.

"I jumped at the opportunity," says the multilingual Wen. "My husband had researched Joyce's works at the University of Cambridge, and we often discussed 'Ulysses.' So I had the confidence and faith that we could do it."

Eventually she persuaded her husband that this was a project they should tackle as a team. It was an act of teamwork from the beginning, with Wen doing the first draft, Xiao editing, and both arguing over the final version.

Beginning in October, 1990, they set the following schedule: Rise at 5 each morning, work until 8 a.m., and pause for breakfast. Then work until lunch, and again into the late afternoon.

Wen worked nights and weekends as well, putting in, she figures, 15 hours a day just about every day. For two years her sister took over the household, doing the shopping, cooking, and cleaning, so that the couple could work. Her sister died in 1992, while the translation is dedicated to her.

The revised translation of "Ulysses" also marked the 48th wedding anniversary of the literary couple.

Wen continues to use her husband's business card, and speaks of him as if he were alive. "I use Xiao's card. If you get hold of one of us, you'll find the other. We are 'two that have become one,'" says Wen. Xiao died three years ago.

The Xiao-Wen marriage is something of a legend in Chinese literary circles. When Wen first met Xiao and fell in love with him, he had already been married three times. Wen, attracted to his gifts as a writer and translator, threw caution to the wind, ignored her disapproving relatives and friends, and married Xiao, who was almost 20 years her senior.

They survived the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), a period that was not kind to literary figures. Wen has traumatic memories of those times. When Xiao was purged, she stood by him and saw him through.

While Xiao's a far bigger literary name, Wen holds her own. A Tsinghua University English major, she has translated 14 novels, 18 novellas and more than 100 short stories.

The novel "Ulysses" was inspired by Homer's "Odyssey." The famous Greek saga tells the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who sails with his army to sack the city of Troy. According to Wen, "Joyce chews up Homer's 'Odyssey' and spits it out in his saga of a day in the life of two Dubliners, Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) and Stephen Dedalus (Telemachus)."

Joyce wrote "Ulysses" from 18 different points of view and in as many styles, which would be enough to upset anyone's mental balance. Considered a modern classic, "Ulysses" has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Icelandic, Arabic, Malayalam, and, fittingly, Gaelic. This, however, is the first time that "Ulysses" has been translated into Chinese.

The difficulty in translating the novel comes from the fact that so much of it is built around puns, allusions, and Irish humor. When there is no linguistic or literary analogue, which is most of the time, footnotes do the job.

Wen and Xiao made the most readable Chinese translation they could and then explained the Joycean peculiarities in footnotes - 5,991 of them, the most in any Chinese book ever published.

The couple resorted heavily to published sources to untangle Joycean literary knots. They cite "Ulysses Annotated Notes for James Joyce" by Don Gifford and Robert J. Seidman as a particular help. But they also consulted the Chinese Catholic Church, foreign-language specialists, geologists, doctors, and others for specialized knowledge. The Irish Embassy helped with specifically Irish references, providing reference books, maps of Dublin, and a videotape of the movie version of "Ulysses," which was invaluable because Wen and Xiao have never been to Ireland.

Critics have compared Wen and Xiao's "Ulysses" unfavorably with the unfinished translation of Jin Di, a Chinese literary scholar now living in the United States.

"Certainly it was daring of us to undertake a translation of a book that has been so admired all these years. But what I've done is closer to the author's intent," she argues confidently, "and that's what counts."

In her book-cluttered four-room apartment near Tian'anmen Square in Beijing, Wen is ploughing on with her next project: translating the works of Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Her favorite portraits of her late husband hang on the walls. "Looking at his photographs make me feel as if I'm not alone. He is still here with me, encouraging me to move on, to work more," she says.

The project closest to heart, however, is the preparation of the "Xiao Qian Collection," to be published in 2010 to mark the centennial of Xiao's birth.

(eastday.com July 12, 2002)

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