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The War on Words

David Blake Knox

James Joyce has seemed to exert a kind of gravitational pull on my mind since I was at school. So I was delighted when I was commissioned by RTÉ to make a feature documentary film about his great novel Ulysses. This was intended to mark the hundredth anniversary of “Bloomsday”: June 16th, 1904, when all of the events in Joyce’s novel take place. I wanted the documentary to follow a somewhat similar strategy to that devised by Joyce. “The task I set myself,” he had explained, was to write “from eighteen different points of view and in as many styles.” I decided to make eighteen short films ‑ each of which would be different but each of which would reflect, in some oblique and unexpected way, the distinctive nature of an original episode in Joyce’s novel.

Every episode in Ulysses was related by Joyce to one in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. In Cyclops, the fourth episode, we meet one of its central characters for the first time. Leopold Bloom is a middle-aged Dubliner, stuck in a humdrum job and starved of the sexual life he desires. He may not seem like a conventional hero, but, for Joyce, Bloom is a worthy heir to Homer’s Odysseus: someone who is not only shrewd and intelligent but is also fundamentally and unobtrusively “decent” – a serious accolade in Ireland.

Beyond the pages of the novel, this ordinary man has won extraordinary fame. “Bloomsday” is currently celebrated in more than two hundred cities across the world, and Joyce’s book has now been published in scores of languages – from Malayalam to Macedonian. That may seem surprising: many native speakers of English have found that the linguistic gymnastics which Joyce performs in Ulysses makes the novel very difficult for them to read, and the book has doubtless been begun many more times than it has been finished. Despite that – and, perhaps, inevitably ‑ it is the sheer scale of this challenge that has drawn so many translators to his book.

For those who do not even share the alphabet of Joyce’s original work, the problems of translation can prove immense. In Mandarin, such difficulties are further magnified. Joyce’s novel was written to be spoken and heard as well as read, and there are far fewer phonetic combinations in Mandarin than in English. The written forms of many Chinese words are ideograms that express ideas rather than sounds. Spoken Chinese, however, is a tonal language quite unlike English – with four possible tones to each sound and a fifth atonal sound that can turn a sentence into a question. These are formidable obstacles, but in reality the chief problems that translators of Joyce’s book have faced in mainland China are not issues of language but of politics.

I wanted to know more about the circumstances in which Ulysses had been published in China, so I travelled to Beijing to meet Wen Jierou who, with her husband Xiao Quian, had translated the novel into Mandarin. She was living in a modest apartment close to the city centre and not far from Tiananmen Square, where a massacre of pro-democracy protesters had taken place in 1989. Wen was small in stature and seemed a little frail. But she was also a dynamic and eloquent individual, and I could sense a steely determination in her character. Perhaps, she had particular need of that quality to survive some of the trials she had faced in her life with Xiao.

He came from an impoverished family background and had been orphaned while still very young. Xiao had worked to finance his own education and had joined the Communist Youth League when he was just fourteen. One of his jobs as a child was working in a large bookshop, and, from that experience, Xiao had become a voracious reader. He was highly intelligent, a hard worker, and a gifted linguist. In time, he would become an accomplished writer, a successful journalist and an acclaimed translator.

Xiao worked his way through university, where he became a protégé of Edgar Snow, the American journalist and author of Red Star Over China, which presented a sympathetic and influential account of the time Snow had spent with Mao’s Red Army on its Long March across China. Following his graduation, Xiao began postgraduate studies at Cambridge University, and later he became a lecturer at University College, London.

He began to read Joyce’s work in 1942 while living in England, and in 1946 he visited Joyce’s grave in Zurich. However, his initial attitude to Ulysses was ambivalent. He regarded Joyce as “a great rebel in world literature” who had used his genius and knowledge to “scale the extreme peaks” of artistic creation. But he also believed that he “had wasted his great talents writing something so unreadable” as Ulysses.

In 1949, the People’s Republic of China was declared by Mao Zedong and China became a communist state. Xiao believed Mao’s promise that all would be welcome if they wanted to build a new and better China, and he decided to return to his native country. By then, Xiao’s attitude to Joyce’s novel had changed. When he first met his future wife, he gave her a copy of Ulysses and told her that his ambition was to translate the novel into Mandarin. “If this book is translated into Chinese,” he said, “it will be a great thing, and very helpful to our own literary work.” He also told her that “it will be a very heavy task”, and that prediction proved to be all too accurate.

Unlike Xiao, Wen did not come from an impoverished or peasant background. Her father had been a senior diplomat who had served as consul general for the Republic of China in Japan. When she returned to China, she studied English language and literature at university, and, since she was fluent in both English and Japanese, she had already established a career as a translator while she was still a student. When she married Xiao, it seemed that the balance in their relationship was professional as well as personal: Wen may have understood the rules of English grammar and syntax better than her husband, but Xiao was also a novelist and short story writer, and it seems he had a more intuitive grasp of European literary styles.

There was a brief period in the 1950s when intellectuals in China, such as Xiao and Wen, were permitted to offer divergent views on matters of public policy. This was during the so-called “Hundred Flowers” campaign. However, when the Communist Party was itself subjected to criticism, that campaign was soon repressed. It was quickly followed by an “Anti-Rightist” movement that was directed against those who were alleged to wish for the return of capitalism. Most of those accused of such thought-crimes were intellectuals, and Xiao was one of those targeted. He had, after all, worked in the West and had translated modern European literature: a serious cause of concern for some senior party members. In 1958, he was denounced as a “deviationist” and sentenced to hard labour on a penal farm.

By the time he was released, Ulysses had become one of a growing number of forbidden books in China. Perhaps, that was not surprising: since the 1930s, the novel had often been damned or dismissed by Marxist literary theorists as a work of “bourgeois formalism”. In Mao’s China, Joyce’s book was considered to be a product of “nihilism, philistinism and obscenity”. Above all, it was deemed to be lacking the correct perspective on the underlying struggle between classes and to have failed to proclaim the eventual victory of a proletarian revolution. When Xiao was released from the labour farm, the only books that he and Wen were permitted to translate were those that were officially approved by the cultural commissars of the Chinese Communist Party.  

Then, on May 16th, 1966, just a few years after Xiao’s release, Mao Zedong sounded “the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolutionary Bugle to Advance” (to give its full title). This amounted to a declaration of war on those “representatives of the bourgeoisie” whom, he claimed, had infiltrated the army, the government and “various spheres of culture”. He launched a nationwide campaign to identify any “bourgeois elements” who held positions of power and urged his followers to use “the telescope and microscope” of his Little Red Book as the means of purging China of all such “saboteurs and apostates”.

Mao held a rigidly determinist view of human history and was convinced that the final victory of socialism was guaranteed by “an objective law” that operated “independently of man’s will”. According to Mao’s understanding, it was impossible for human beings to resist the relentless “wheel of history” and a global revolution was both inevitable and imminent. There are, of course, more mundane explanations for Mao’s actions, and these relate to his own position within the ruling Communist Party. There is little doubt that the Cultural Revolution was used by him to secure his personal control of both the party and the People’s Republic. While Mao encouraged millions of young people to form units of “Red Guards” and to attack anyone in authority, he also took care to ensure that such attacks did not extend to himself or his chosen supporters.

With Mao’s imprimatur, the Red Guards embarked on an orgy of violence and destruction directed against what Mao had identified as the “Four Olds”: Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas. This meant, in effect, an assault on the past, and an attempt to change history by denying its existence. In the years that followed the launch of the Cultural Revolution, mobs of young people ransacked numerous historic, religious and cultural sites. They humiliated, tortured and murdered their own friends, teachers and parents. They pulled down ancient statues, burned priceless manuscripts and paintings, smashed up irreplaceable artefacts, and tried to eradicate all “foreign influences” from Chinese culture (excluding, one presumes, Marxism itself).

The Red Guards even engaged in so-called “linguistic engineering”, attempting to purify their language by eliminating certain words which they regarded as evidence of “feudalism”. Simple slogans culled from Mao’s Little Red Book were repeated ad nauseam and used to analyse and explain complex situations. At the same time, some words and expressions were judged to reveal dangerous counter-revolutionary tendencies and their use could lead to severe punishment.

This puritanical zeal to curb, control and regiment the use of words would, no doubt, have affronted Joyce, whose own use of language reveals a delight in its essential promiscuity. The Red Guards may have believed that the purpose of their assaults was to implement radical change across their country but in reality the immediate effect was to tighten the grip of Mao’s supporters within the Communist Party and to ensure a continuation of the repressive status quo.

Many of the Red Guards were, to say the least, unfamiliar with the more subtle dialectics of Marxist theory. But the prospect of being allowed to subject those in authority to long and exhausting sessions of verbal and physical abuse – punctuated by those of “self-criticism” ‑ had an obvious appeal to the young. One pupil, who helped beat his teacher to death in their classroom, later described the experience as “immensely satisfying”. This hostility to established authority also struck a deep chord among sections of the radical left in Europe. So did Mao’s apocalyptic vision of the future: “The four seas are rising, clouds and waters raging,” he had written in one poem. “The five continents are rocking, wind and thunder roaring.”

Such cataclysmic themes seem of perennial appeal to the young, and it is not surprising that one prominent German activist could not resist echoing a famous scene from the Hollywood movie Spartacus. He announced to the world, “I am Chinese!” and advocated another “Long March” – this one through the cultural institutions of Western Europe. Despite such support, Mao’s dreams of launching a global revolution were never fulfilled. Indeed, it could be argued that the blatant and cruel excesses that he instigated led to the weakening of the radical left outside China and assisted the rise of more conservative political forces in subsequent decades – though it could also be argued that the so-called Long March of the left through European universities and colleges did have a long-term and continuing effect.

Given his personal history, I suppose it was only to be expected that Xaio would become a victim of the Cultural Revolution. His apartment was ransacked by the Red Guards and the library of Western literature – including Ulysses – which he had collected over the years was completely destroyed. Xiao tried to kill himself, but his life was saved and he was sent to another labour camp. Wen Jierou’s mother had been connected to the regime that preceded the People’s Republic. She was arrested and Wen tried to rescue her: “I quarrelled with the Red Guards,” she told me, “and, at that time, if you quarrelled with them, it was thought to be a crime.” Wen was also arrested and beaten in public: “The Red Guards only whipped me, and did not draw much blood,” she said, “but others were beaten to death.”

Wen’s mother killed herself while she was held in the custody of the Red Guards, and they demanded that she should spit on her body. “I did what they wanted,” she told me, “because I knew that was what my mother would have urged me to do. She was dead, and no one could hurt her anymore.” Like her husband, Wen was sentenced to hard labour on a penal farm, and their three children were conscripted into the Red Guards.

Eventually, Mao determined that the Cultural Revolution had served its purpose, and instructed his Red Guards to abandon China’s cities, and “learn from the people” by re-locating to the Chinese countryside. Millions of them did so, and many paid a high price for that decision in terms of their health, education and future lives. It would be wrong to believe that Mao was solely responsible for all the mayhem and chaos that the Cultural Revolution produced, but it was only after he died in 1976 that this social and political convulsion finally ground to a halt. By then, it was reckoned that around 200 million people in China were suffering from chronic malnutrition, and that close to two million of those accused of thought-crimes had been executed, or, like Wen’s mother, had killed themselves.

By the time of Mao’s death, Xiao and Wen had both been released. After three and a half years of hard labour, they resumed their lives together and their careers as translators. However, Xiao was still not allowed to write original fiction, and their translations were confined to those foreign authors who were considered by the party to be safe for Chinese men and women to read. There was some consolation for Wen and Xiao when they witnessed the downfall of the “Gang of Four”, a political faction in the Communist Party that included Mao’s last wife, Jiang Qing. This “gang” had played a pivotal role in shaping and prolonging the Cultural Revolution.

Just one month after Mao’s death, an emergency session of the party politburo was called to take place in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. As members of the Gang of Four entered the building, they were immediately arrested and led off in handcuffs. A special unit was sent to Jiang Qing’s home and she was also arrested. Many other key supporters of the “gang” – newspaper editors, academics, and local party chiefs – were detained that night, and the Cultural Revolution was deemed to be over. “Everyone was happy,” Wen said, “and we danced with joy in the streets for the next three days.”

Following the arrest of the Gang of Four, Xiao was free to start writing again, but he was now an old man and had not published anything original for more than two decades. He no longer believed that he could write again and was in state of near despair. “I didn’t know what to do,” Wen told me, “For twenty-two years, he wasn’t allowed to write. Now, he was allowed, but he thought he was too old to find new things to write about.” It was then that Wen reminded him of his dream to translate Ulysses. For some time, he was reluctant: he knew the problems that translating Joyce’s novel into Mandarin would entail, and that it would be “a very heavy task” – as he had told Wen many years before. But she persevered, and, eventually, she managed to convince her husband that it was possible.

From the beginning, this was an act of creative partnership: “I thought this was something we could do together, and work as a team,” Wen said. She provided the first draft of each episode; Xiao would produce the second; and they worked together on the subsequent versions. They began work every morning at daybreak, and continued their translation for up to fifteen hours a day, seven days a week. This was a domestic regime that demanded a level of total commitment and involved giving up watching any television or reading any newspapers. Instead, they researched Irish politics and the history of the Catholic church. They read medical dictionaries, street directories and old lexicons. They consulted language scholars and others – including those at the Irish embassy – for specialised knowledge. They also relied on critical sources to clarify Joyce’s more obscure references – notably, Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Joyce and Gifford and Seidman’s superbly annotated edition of Ulysses.

Wen’s sister moved in with them and took care of all the household chores so that there would be no distractions from their work. When Xiao and Wen began their translation, he was almost eighty years of age, and was embarking on a project that would have daunted many younger men. But Wen understood her husband’s character and believed in him. “If something is easy to translate,” she said, “anyone can do it. It’s not worthwhile to do something like that – especially for a man like Xiao – he had to do something difficult.” Her faith in her husband helped to convince Xiao of his own potential: “In old age,” he reflected, “one should do something monumental, (and) this translation is monumental.”

It took them more than five years to complete their work – almost as long as it had taken Joyce to write his original novel. But when the three volumes of their translation were published – with more than six thousand detailed footnotes – they found immediate success. The books were not cheap by Chinese standards: they sold for around the weekly wage of a schoolteacher. Despite that, the first edition sold out its print run of 85,000 copies within a few weeks. Second and third editions soon followed; armed police had to be used to control the crowds outside bookshops in Shanghai; and the book’s success made headlines in national newspapers. Before Xiao died in 1999, he and Wen had won a number of prestigious awards for their work, and had regained a level of public respect for their scholarship that they had once thought impossible.

While we were making our eighteen films about Ulysses, I was often tempted to consider Joyce’s book as a sort of litmus test for the democratic health of any society. The novel seemed to advance the cause of tolerance in any state that was prepared to accept its presence. That may also explain why it had attracted hostility from dogmatists of all persuasions and had been denounced by both religious zealots and doctrinaire communists. “There can be no doubt,” wrote one Catholic critic, “that Joyce is on the side of the Devil.” According to one Soviet apparatchik, Ulysses was “a heap of dung crawling with maggots, photographed through a microscope.” The book is still unobtainable in some states that do not approve of Joyce’s celebration of female sexuality or cannot accept that his central character should be Jewish.

However, in retrospect, I feel that my understanding of the book as a test of political or social freedom was limited and even somewhat naive. Ulysses is no longer a forbidden book in mainland China, but there are still hundreds of both fiction and non-fiction works that are banned there. The public burning of books remains a relatively common occurrence. The growth in popularity of science fiction led to China issuing official “guidelines” for sci-fi writers in August of 2020. These stipulate that China should always be portrayed “in a positive light as a technologically advanced society”. Apparently, writing about the future might suggest a degree of dissatisfaction with the present. And even a mention of the “Three T’s” – Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen – can still lead to immediate proscription. The heavy hand of official censorship no longer falls directly on Ulysses, or even on European literature in general. Instead, the bulk of books that are currently forbidden to Chinese readers were written by Chinese authors – which is, in several respects, a much more serious restriction.

The freedom of expression that Joyce’s novel might be said to exemplify is still denied in the People’s Republic. The leaders of the current regime may now dress in well-cut Western-style suits, and they no longer wave copies of Mao’s Little Red Book to prove their ideological orthodoxy, but the repression of any dissenting voices remains a central feature of Chinese society.

James Joyce’s novel draws systematic and evocative parallels with Homer’s epic poem – one of the founding texts of European literature ‑ but his characters, events and situations do not have a direct and unbreakable correlation with those of Homer. I wanted a similar sense of correspondence in the film that I made in China – which was the fourth episode in the sequence of my documentary. In the Calypso episode of the Odyssey, Homer’s hero builds a raft that he uses to escape from the island of Ogygia where he has been held prisoner. I would like to think that Xiao and Wen also built a raft when they translated Ulysses, and that it allowed both of them to escape from their own forms of captivity.


David Blake Knox is an author, a former director of production with RTÉ and executive editor with BBC Television. His independent production company, Blueprint Pictures, was founded in 2002, and has produced a range of TV programmes and films.