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Ulysses Translations Comparison

Here are my comparisons of translations of James Joyce's Ulysses. There's only French so far but I hope to add maybe Dutch, Spanish, and German in the future.

Sections on this page:

  1. The two French translations

The two French translations

The first was the Morel translation, first published in 1929. The sole translator was Auguste Morel and it was reviewed by Valery Larbaud, Stuart Gilbert, and James Joyce himself.

The second, the Aubert translation, was first published in 2004. It was translated by a team of eight, with Jacques Aubert as technical director. Cusin, Vors, and Doizelet did a chapter each; Aubert and Drevet each did two; Bataillard and Hoepffner three each; and Samoyault did four. One chapter from the Morel translation was reused, so Morel, Larbaud, and Gilbert are also credited, thus listing eleven translators.

Notes before looking at the text

Advantage of the Morel translation: Joyce reviewed it

Joyce studied French and French literature at university in Ireland and had been living in Paris since 1920. He wasn't an expert in translation, so him reading the translation doesn't guarantee the translation is optimal, but at least he could check that the translator had understood the original and all its references.

Why the Aubert translation might be worse: Suspicious timing

Aubert had each chapter translated separately by eight translators. This invites two problems. The first is that the result may be disjointed. The chapters of the original each have a different style, but with multiple translators, the reader won't know if a change of style is a reflection of a change of style in the original, or if it's due to the differences between the styles of the eight translators.

The second is that finding eight Ulysses fanatics is harder than finding one. Understanding Ulysses takes a lot of research. Were all eight translators sufficiently meticulous?

Which leads to the issue of suspicious timing. After 75 years, why was a new translation necessary in 2004? Could it be because the copyright for Joyce's original English text was due to expire in 2012?

The Ulysses copyright is controlled by James Joyce's estate (executor Stephen Joyce, of whom it seems no one has a good word to say). For the duration of the copyright, translations require getting permission from Joyce's estate, and paying royalties. When the copyright expires, everyone can make translations and can sell them for any price, or publish them for free on the Internet.

The team approach used for the Aubert translation may have been wholly or partly about getting a head start on the looming competition. Quality may thus have been less of a priority than timing. Note that I'm not questioning the motivation of the translators or their application to this project, I'm questioning the reasons for having the chapters translated separately instead of having them all done by one translator with reviewers. (For more about how the team worked, here's the logbook of one translator.)

Why the Aubert translation might be better

People have been studying Ulysses constantly since its publication. Benefiting from 75 more years of study, maybe the 2004 translators knew about subtleties that Morel and his reviewers didn't spot.

Also, the art of translation is surely more sophisticated in 2004 than it was in 1929.

Side-by-side comparison

I chose four passages at random, one from near the beginning of each of the first four chapters ("episodes"). I decided to use the first four chapters so that people can read this comparison without worrying about spoiling the book.

English Morel translation (1929) Aubert translation (2004)
Episode 1, paragraph 12
    —Thanks, old chap, he cried briskly. That will do nicely. Switch off the current, will you?     —Merci, vieux frère, cria-t-il d'une voix gaie. Ça va. Coupez le courant s.v.p.     —Merci, mon vieux, s'écria-t-il avec entrain. Ça fera parfaitement l'affaire. Sois gentil, coupe le courant.
    He skipped off the gunrest and looked gravely at his watcher, gathering about his legs the loose folds of his gown. The plump shadowed face and sullen oval jowl recalled a prelate, patron of arts in the middle ages. A pleasant smile broke quietly over his lips.     Il quitta d'un bond la plate-forme de tir, et tout en rassemblant sur ses jambes les pans flottants de sa robe de chambre, fixa son observateur avec gravité. Face de clair-obscur, replète : galbe ovale, mâchoire amère, tout le portrait d'un prélat, protecteur des arts, au moyen âge. Un sourire pacifique anima ses lèvres.     Il sauta lestement de la banquette de tir et, grave, regarda celui qui l'observait, enveloppant ses jambes des plis épars de sa robe de chambre. Le visage joufflu et ombré, les bajoues ovales et maussades rappelaient un de ces prélats protecteurs des arts au moyen âge. Un sourire agréable s'esquissa sur ses lèvres.
    —The mockery of it, he said gaily. Your absurd name, an ancient Greek.     —Ironie des choses, fit-il, jovial. Ce nom absurde que vous avez; un Grec de l'antiquité.     —Quelle dérision, fit-il gaiement. Ton nom absurde, un Grec ancien.
    He pointed his finger in friendly jest and went over to the parapet, laughing to himself.     Et l'ayant menacé d'un doigt amical et facétieux, il marcha vers le parapet en riant tout seul.     Il braquait son index, amical et facétieux, et se dirigea ver le parapet, riant tout seul.
Episode 2, paragraph 11
    —I forget the place, sir. 279 B.C.     —J'ai oublié l'endroit, monsieur. 279 avant Jésus-Christ.     —J'ai oublié l'endroit, monsieur. 279 avant Jésus-Christ.
    —Asculum, Stephen said, glancing at the name and date in the gorescarred book.     —Asculum, dit Stephen, regardant nom et date dans le livre zébré de sang.     —Asculum, dit Stephen, regardant furtivement nom et date dans le livre balafré de sang.
    —Yes, sir. And he said: Another victory like that and we are done for.     —Oui, monsieur. Et il a dit : Encore une victoire comme celle-là et nous sommes perdus.     —Oui, monsieur. Et il a dit : Encore une victoire comme celle-là et nous sommes fichus.
    That phrase the world had remembered. A dull ease of the mind. From a hill above a corpsestrewn plain a general speaking to his officiers, leaned upon his spear. Any general to any officers. They lend ear.     Cette phrase, le monde se l'est rappelée. Vague satisfaction mentale. D'une colline dominant la plaine semée de cadavres, un général parle, appuyé sur sa lance, à ses officiers. N'importe quel général à n'importe quels officiers. Ils prêtent l'oreille.     Cette phrase le monde s'en était souvenu. Triste consolation de l'esprit. D'une colline dominant la plaine jonchée de cadavres un général parlant à ses officiers, appuyé sur sa lance. Un général lambda s'adressant à des officiers lambda. Ils prêtent l'oreille.
Episode 3, paragraph 11
    In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia. With beaded mitre and with crozier, stalled upon his throne, widower of a widowed see, with upstiffed omophorion, with clotted hinderparts.     Dans un water-closet grec il a rendu son dernier souffle : euthanasie. Avec la mitre aux cabochons et la crosse, installé sur son trône, veuf de sa chaire veuve, son omophorion roide retroussé, et le postérieur breneux.     Dans des latrines grecques, son dernier souffle : euthanasie. Coiffé d'une mitre à cabochons et crosse à la main, en panne sur le trône, veuf d'une chaire épiscopale veuve, son omophorion roidressé, l'arrière-train tout foireux.
    Airs romped around him, nipping and eager airs. They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan.     Des souffles se poursuivent autour de lui, souffles pinçants, pressants. Elles viennent, les vagues, étalons marins aux blanches crinières, mâchant leurs mors sous les radieuses rênes des vents, coursiers de Mananaan.     Brises s'ébrouant joyeuses autour de lui, brises qui le pincent et le pressent. Elles arrivent les vagues. Hippocampes à la blanche crinière, mâchant le mors, bridés par un vent radieux, coursiers de Mananaan.
    I mustn't forget his letter for the press. And after? The Ship, half twelve. By the way go easy with that money like a good young imbecile. Yes, I must.     Il ne faut pas que j'oublie sa lettre aux journaux. Et après? Au Ship, midi et demi. A propos, allons-y doucement avec cet argent, comme un grand dadais bien sage. Oui, il le faut.     Faut pas que j'oublie sa lettre à la presse. Et après ? Le Ship, midi et demi. Au fait, vas-y tout doux avec cet argent en parfait petit crétin. Certes, faut bien.
    His pace slackened. Here. Am I going to Aunt Sara's or not? My consubstantial father's voice. Did you see anything of your artist brother Stephen lately? No? Sure he's not down in Strasburg terrace with his Aunt Sally? Couldn't he fly a bit higher than that, eh? And and and and tell us Stephen, how is Uncle Si? O weeping God, the things I married into.     Son pas se relantit. M'y voici. Irai-je ou non chez tante Sarah? Voix de mon père consubstantiel. Est-ce que tu as aperçu l'artiste ces temps-ci, ton frère Stephen? Non? Es-tu sûr qu'il n'est pas à Strasbourg Terrace avec sa tante Sally? Eh, eh, il a peut-être bien d'autres chats à fouetter! Et pi et pi et pi et pi dis-nous, Stephen, comment va l'oncle si? Larmoidieu! à quoi je suis donc uni!     Son pas relentit. Ici. J'y vais ou pas chez la tante Sarah ? La voix de mon père consubstantiel. Dis, t'as vu l'artiste, ton frère Stephen, ces jours-ci ? Non ? Sûr qu'il est pas fourré à Strasburg terrace avec sa tante Sally ? Pourrait pas viser un peu plus haut, hein ? Et pis et pis et pis et pis dis voir, Stephen, comment va l'oncle Si ? Oh, bon dieu, c'est à chialer, dans quoi je me suis collé en me mariant.
Episode 4, paragraph 10
    Mr Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes. He bent down to her, his hands on his knees.     M. Bloom observait, curieux et bonhomme, la souple silhouette noire. C'est si net : le lustre de son fourreau lisse, le bouton blanc sous la queue, le phosphore des prunelles vertes. Les mains aux genoux, il se pencha vers elle.     M. Bloom observait avec une curiosité bienveillante l'agile silhouette noire. Si propre à voir : l'éclat de son pelage lustré, le bouton blanc sous la naissance de la queue, les éclairs que lançaient les yeux verts. Il se pencha vers elle, les mains sur les genoux.
    —Milk for the pussens, he said.     —Du lait pour la minouche!     —Du lait pour la minette ! dit-il.
    —Mrkgnao! the cat cried.     —Mrkrgnaô!     —Mrkrgnao ! se plaignit la chatte.
    They call them stupid. They understand what we say better than we understand them. She understands all she wants to. Vindictive too. Wonder what I look like to her. Height of a tower? No, she can jump me.     On prétend qu'ils ne sont pas intelligents. Ils nous comprennent mieux que nous ne les comprenons. Elle comprend tout ce qui concerne ses besoins. Et la mémoire des offenses. Me demande comment je lui apparais. Haut comme une tour? Non, elle me saute sur le dos.     On dit qu'ils sont stupides. Ils comprennent ce que nous disons mieux que nous ne les comprenons. Elle comprend tout ce qu'elle veut. Et rancunière avec ça. Me demande de quoi j'ai l'air pour elle. Aussi haut qu'une tour ? Non, elle peut sauter plus haut que ma tête.
    —Afraid of the chickens she is, he said mockingly. Afraid of the chookchooks. I never saw such a stupid pussens as the pussens.     —A peur des poulets, dit-il moqueur. A peur des pou-poussins. Jamais vu une minouche aussi sotte que cette minouche-là!     —A peur des poulets, dit-il d'un ton moqueur. A peur des pillots-pillots. Je n'ai jamais vu une minette aussi stupide que cette minette.
    Cruel. Her nature. Curious mice never squeal. Seem to like it.     Cruelle. C'est dans sa nature. Drôle que les souris ne gémissent pas. Ont l'air d'aimer ça.     Cruelle. Sa nature. Curieux que les souris ne couinent jamais. Semblent aimer ça.
    —Mrkrgnao! the cat said loudly.     —Mrkrgnaô! fit la chatte plus fort.     —Mrkrgnao ! fit la chatte d'une voix forte.
    She blinked up out of her avid shameclosing eyes, mewing plaintively and long, showing him her milk-white teeth.     Ses yeux clignotaient mi-clos de désir et de vergogne, et en filant son miaulement plaintif elle montrait ses dents couleur de lait.     Elle leva la tête, clignant ses yeux avides à demi fermés de honte et, avec de longs miaulements plaintifs lui montra ses dents blanc-lait.

Conclusion: not sure, maybe Morel is better

At first glance, in almost every paragraph, the Aubert translation is a more accurate translation. Aubert's translation team seems to be more highly skilled in terms of general translation of English into French.

But, there's an error in the Aubert text, in the translation of Mananaan's "seahorses" in episode 3. Mananaan (Manannán mac Lir), in Irish mythology, is a god who crossed the sea to Tír na nÓg on a horse. The Morel translation correctly translates "seahorses" as "étalons marins" (stallions of the sea) while the Aubert translation makes the mistake of translating "seahorses" as "hippocampes", those small, cute, upright fish.

So both translations have shortcomings. The question is, which are more serious?

The quality advantages of the Aubert translation are clear, but they're also trivial. It's not that important that they more accurately translated how the cat turned his head or how high the cat can probably jump.

The Morel translation, having been reviewed by Joyce, might be more accurate in terms of translating what's important in the book, including Joyce's many references to current affairs and mythologies.

Now, that said, I found just a single mistake. And maybe it's just bad or good luck that I found one mistake in one translation and none in the other. Maybe if I'd picked different paragraphs, the outcome would have been different.

But, the Aubert translators used a translation method (multiple translators, surely not all specialised in Joyce, and no review by the author) with a higher risk of subtle-but-important mistakes, and in the random sample I chose, I found one such mistake.

So, my conclusion is that a comparison of these four passages isn't enough to say for certain which translation is more worth reading, but since this is all I have to go on, I'd have a preference for the Morel translation.


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© Copyright 2011 Ciarán O'Riordan. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved. Distribution of modified versions of all or part of this article are permitted, provided that such works carry three things: (1) this copyright notice, (2) prominent notices stating the that it has been changed, and (3) information for how to obtain the original (such as a URL).