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The Strange Case of Translating Finnegans Wake into Polish

Mikołaj Gliński

Finneganów tren - cover'The beast is slain', announced Krzysztof Bartnicki, the Polish translator of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake after his ten years long project finally came to a finish. It turns out however that the beast is still breathing

For Bartnicki the task of translating Joyce's most difficult work, the 628-page novel that employs a panoply of languages to tell a story of mankind, started out as a kind of happy-go-lucky enterprise of an ambitious young man who had just finished his studies. Bartnicki, back then a young translator, who had just graduated from the University of Wrocław and was uncomfortable with translating pulp ficition samples, decided he needed someting substantial in his CV to impress the hypothetical future clients. This decision turned out the beginning of a ten year long painstaking work in progress which came to an end in 2009 and materialised in early 2012 when his translation came in print, over 71 years after James Joyce's death.

Bartnicki's translation has joined the elite club of ten languages, which share the privilige of having in stock its own version of Finnegans Wake, a work considered to be the most difficult piece written in any language and in any time, and by some the most incomprehensible linguistic rant in the history of literature, some even go on to call it pure nonsense.

See also Secret Code of Joyce's Finnegans Wake Cracked...

Ironically enough, the Polish translator seems to share this opinion. In numerous interviews which followed the publication of the Polish version, Bartnicki expressed his frustration with Joyce's work, calling the time spent on translating it a loss of time and a cause of many domestic quarrels. However he was also clear about making the distinction between his experience as reader and as translator. For Bartnicki-the reader Finnegans Wake remains a work of art, according to the latest revelations.  

This said, it may come as only a slight incongruity, that Bartnicki-the translator declared also that he felt cheated by Joyce, whose work promised much more than it really had to offer. He confessed also that it was only because of his wife's unwavering attitude toward the issue of finishing the book that it had finally appeared in print. If it had been up to him, he would have left it unpublished.

Surprisingly the publication of the book in Poland caused a massive stir among the mainstream press, with a flurry of articles appearing about Joyce's last oeuvre and interviews with the book's translator. Amid the growing hype in the media and especially on the Internet, Bartnicki became the target of mixed reactions ranging from respect for his work to ridicule and even contempt for his family. In the aftermath of all this hate-speech the translator considered even cancelling some scheduled meetings with readers. He concluded he had no means to fight the vicious opinions in the online forum.

The interest of magazines and the internauts in the most difficult novel of all-time proves that the omnivorous machine of media knows no bounds and is capable of making a tabloid news out of virtually everything, even the most indigestable fare like high-brow hermetic literature of James Joyce.

Hopefully, the story serves also to prove that the beast unleashed by Joyce in 1939 is alive and may still find new readers who are interested in actually reading it - even in Polish.

  • Finneganów tren, the Polish version of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake appeared in print on February 29, 2012, published by Ha!Art Publishing House

Author: Mikołaj Gliński


Language & Literature
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