Straightening out Ulysses

A translator’s notes.

Samuel Frederick Brocas, The Ha’Penny Bridge, Dublin, 1818.

The indefatigable Bernard Hœpffner, who translated many English masterpieces into French—among them Huckleberry Finn, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and John Keene’s Counternarratives—drowned off the northern coast of Wales this past May. Many obituaries in the French press highlighted Hœpffner’s involvement in an eight-person retranslation of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In homage to an extraordinary figure, The Paris Review Daily presents a translated selection from his Ulysses “logbook.” —Jeffrey Zuckerman, translator

Summer 2000 – Phone call from Jacques Aubert, asking if I might be interested in retranslating James Joyce’s Ulysses. Immediate disappointment upon learning this would be a team effort. Each episode having been written in a different style, he asks me which one I like best, and, without any hesitation, I name Ithaca, in the question-and-answer style of the Catholic catechism.

October 30, 2000 – First meeting at Éditions Gallimard with several staff members, Stephen Joyce and his wife, Jacques Aubert (the general editor), and nine of the other preliminary translators. I am the sole professional translator. Antoine Gallimard appears briefly. Stephen Joyce promises not to interfere in the translation. Homage is paid to the “complete French translation of M. Auguste Morel, with the help of M. Stuart Gilbert, fully revised by M. Valery Larbaud and the author” (1929), which we decide to stow out of sight, at the expense of using the edition’s critical apparatus.

We agree, as our guiding principle, on the credo in Stephen Hero: “He put his lines together not word by word but letter by letter.” We also decide not to Gallicize everything, as Larbaud had done with the preceding translation.

Contract terms are discussed. The new translation will be published on June 16, 2004, the one hundredth anniversary of Bloomsday, with no notes.

Winter–Spring–Summer 2001 – Meeting on January 26, 2001, at Gallimard where we learn that, “due to unforeseen circumstances” largely Stephen Joyce’s doing, four translators have withdrawn. Valère Novarina, for whom I’d created a word-for-word translation of the first pages of Circe, lets me know that he’s drowned in the linguistic undertow. Jacques Aubert persuades me, without much difficulty, to take it on.
And so the team takes shape: Telemachus (Jacques Aubert), Nestor (Michel Cusin), Proteus (Pascal Bataillard), Calypso (Marie-Danièle Vors), Lotus Eaters (P. B.), Hades (Patrick Drevet), Aeolus (Bernard Hœpffner), Lestrygonians (Tiphaine Samoyault), Scylla and Charybdis (Sylvie Doizelet), Wandering Rocks (J. A.), Sirens (T. S.), Cyclops (T. S.), Nausicaa (P. D.), Oxen of the Sun (Auguste Morel), Circe (B. H.), Eumaeus (P. B.), Ithaca (B. H.), Penelope (T. S.).

The contracts are signed and returned, and the project that had faltered over these first six months has now found its footing and set off in earnest. We will meet in Lyon from here on out.

October 9, 2001 – Which of the many different editions should we use? We settle on the 1922 edition with Gaskell and Hart’s alterations, with the occasional glance at Gabler’s edition. Pointed discussions over how much to Gallicize proper names (last names, geographical locations): a matter of understanding how Joyce had undone English, and how we might in turn undo French. Joyce has pulled us into a double bind: even though the unique style of each episode grants each team member a great deal of liberty, the immense number of echoes forces us to make decisions we have to agree upon. Patrick Drevet almost convinces us that the place names ought to be translated, but his absence from the next meeting allows us to renege, as it would be impossible to be fully consistent; Patrick very graciously accepts our decision.

We agree that we’ll respect the syntax of each sentence, that there’s to be almost absolute respect for Joyce’s punctuation—including his use of repeated colons and ellipses of varying length.

October 2001 – My translation of Ithaca is finished. Catherine Goffaux, my companion and collaborator, balks at looking it over; she doesn’t like Ulysses, puts together a list of people who share her disdain, including Virginia Woolf, and remarks that I reject most of her edits.

Each of us receives the translations of Telemachus and Nestor for comments and suggestions. I sometimes have trouble accepting the other translators’ choices, although the stylistic variety of these episodes encourages this eight-person schizophrenia.

December 3, 2001 – We’re having more and more trouble working with global decisions when they deviate far enough from Joyce’s original. Jacques explains how Ulysses’s literary stakes are not only varied but at times contradictory. As such, it’s hard for us to all read the book the same way and create a homogeneous translation.

March 4, 2002 – Long back-and-forths result in our replacing “Mrs” and “Mr” with “Mme” and “M.” We also decide to translate urban nomenclature: bridge, street, et cetera. (We will, much later, reverse course, without any exceptions).

September 9, 2002 – Stephen Joyce blocks financial support from an Irish institution (ILE).

Long discussion about multipart names in Joyce and their transposition into French. The particle de doesn’t add anything in French, so we decide to use “rondenuit” rather than “rondedenuit,” “frênecanne” rather than “cannedefrêne,” et cetera.

Michel, the Lacanian, proposes the “re-mors de l’inextimé” as a translation of “agenbite of inwit”; not until November, 2003, will Sylvie agree to that suggestion.

I’ve tried, for two years, to find, for the riddle that Lenehan poses in Aeolus—“What opera is like a railway line?” “The Rose of Castille. See the wheeze? Rows of cast steel.”—a solution different from the magnificent one Morel found: “Quel est l’opéra qui ressemble à une filature?”

“L’Étoile du Nord. Vous y êtes? Les Toiles du Nord.” Tiphaine ultimately agrees with my solution, which also alludes to Homer: “Quel opéra fait penser à la tonte des moutons?” “L’Enlèvement d’Hélène. Vous voyez le truc ? L’enlèvement des laines.”


Aeolus, then Circe are done (if not truly done, at least ready to be shared). I notice that the further I go the more inventive my choices become. I read through Ithaca again to apply this increased inventiveness.

January 16, 2003 – Gallimard consents to a communal “postface” written by the team. Tiphaine wants to try her hand at translating Oxen of the Sun, the episode that, from the start, we had agreed we would keep in Morel’s translation; she will abandon it several months later; we then decide, together, a posteriori and in bad faith, that, since this episode is a history of the English language, integrating Morel’s translation makes it a history of Ulysses’s translations—but it is still true that the echoes don’t reverberate here. We go back and forth while sending the typescript back to Gallimard, going through edits, and production.

Then the work on the innumerable echoes throughout the book starts in earnest. Each of us tries to convince the others to accept particular exceptions to the rules we’d agreed on; invariably due to puns, or neologisms. Numerous emails follow:

“So you think ‘chiasse’ is too strong. What do you say to ‘merdasse’?”

“I’d like to replace ‘mamelles’ with ‘tétons.’ The ‘gros tétons doux qui pendaient’ ought to make Patrick happy with that alliteration. What does Jacques think?”

“Tsouintsouin is fine (Circe 483).”

“I’m keeping the blenno’s blaireau.”

The problem posed by “throwaway,” which appears nineteen times in Ulysses, is that sometimes it’s the name of a racehorse, sometimes it has to do with a leaflet, sometimes it’s a verb, and it seems to be irresoluble. Pascal proposes translating the name with “Jetsam,” which would let us play off “jette ça,” while the object would be a “prospectus.” The echo split in two. Proposition accepted by all.

February 2003 – When it’s necessary to translate a proper name or a last name because there’s a particular significance that recurs in the text, we decide to find a name that “sounds” English (so as not to create a Dublin where everybody has French names). Blazes Boylan becomes Flam Boylan (a brilliant trick by Tiphaine—we ended up resolving many seemingly irresoluble problems after unwinding a bit), Miss Dubedat becomes Mlle Wimafoy, Alexander Keyes is rechristened Alexander Descley, and so on. What a strange activity to “translate” English names into English names; we’re veering dangerously far away from “translation,” from Charybdis, and we’ll be ensnared by Scylla. Joyce, were he still alive, might have said: “The restlessness you feel is merely that of seaquakes, spates, whirlpools.”

Tiphaine Samoyault lets us know that her translation of Penelope, along with a critical analysis thereof, will be part of her professorial thesis. She succeeds brilliantly at the defense.

March 4, 2003 – Work on Calypso and Hades. We borrow a few ideas from the Italian translation or the recently published German translation on occasion, and more often from Morel’s translation. The Italian and German translations are so trite, so uninventive that they ultimately only serve as counterexamples.

April 8, 2003 – Which Bible should we use? “House of bondage” could be translated by “Maison de l’esclavage” (Sacy), “Maison de la servitude” (Segond), or “Maison d’asservis” (Bayard); “wilderness” by “solitude” (Sacy) or “désert” (Segond). No decision is made, but we have to respect the echoes.

October 24, 2003 – Jacques is absent; he has given Tiphaine the “Red Notebook” where he has written down all the pitfalls and their possible solutions. We run through each one and reach “z” at the day’s end. We consider taking advantage of Jacques’s absence to discreetly get rid of a “brise-bise” that had stuck in our craw, but a spy rats us out.

November 21, 2003 – The final true work meeting. All the episodes have to be sent to me by December 10. I will standardize everything so that the complete translation can be printed and mailed to everybody, who will read through the book one more time. The definitive (?) text on paper will be sent to Gallimard in the middle of December, and the digital version later, once we’ve integrated their copyedits. I suggest hiring someone who doesn’t know French to proofread the translation in keeping with the spirit of the original, which had been given to compositors unfamiliar with English; when the time comes, we’ll try to get it accepted by Gallimard.


We all cross our fingers that on June 16, Gallimard will be generous enough to fly the whole team out to Dublin for the feasts and festivities. A bit nervous. Have to keep a weather eye out. We’ll all have a pint. Arm in arm. And raise a toast with our yachtsman’s caps.


PS: It goes without saying that this “logbook” isn’t that of the whole team but solely of one of the translators in the team.

Jeffrey Zuckerman is digital editor of Music & Literature Magazine. His writing and translations have appeared in Best European Fiction, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Paris Review DailyTin House, and Vice.

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