Dr. Marija Girevska on Translating Ulysses

FM: Translating Ulysses seems like a daunting, almost-insurmountable task. What attracted you to translating it?

MG: Ulysses is unique. It is nothing like any other novel written in English. The amount of scholarly work surrounding this book, its reputation as one of the best literary works of the 20th century and as one of the almost untranslatable books ever created has built up this image of Ulysses as an insurmountable challenge. And I love a good challenge. I remember I was in my first year at university, and my professors talked about Ulysses as something unreadable, and difficult to understand, let alone translate. That’s when I first read it, and I wanted to see what was so difficult about it. They were all wrong. To me, Ulysses is the best book ever written. It’s marvellously written. And there is great humour in it. And it’s profoundly human.

FM: Can you speak to the basics of your translation a bit, such as which language(s) you work with? 

MG: I was born in a country that used to be called Yugoslavia. So, apart from my mother tongue, which is Macedonian, I’m fluent in neighbouring languages like Serbian, Croatian (or Serbo-Croatian as we used to call it), Bulgarian, and Russian. Most of my translational work is in English. In terms of Ulysses, I’ve started to build up a collection of translations, so I have copies of the Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian, Portuguese, and French Ulysses. When I started translating Ulysses in 2012, I had only Gabler’s edition. And the deadline was very tight, so I could only rely on my previous scholarly knowledge of Joyce and his work and never got the chance to compare any other translation. Afterwards, after its publication in 2013, I started collecting various translations of Ulysses.

FM: What’s been your biggest challenge in translating Ulysses? Valery, we know, worked with Joyce in getting the nuances of the French translation as close to what he had meant. Do you find yourself seeking some sort of guidance?

MG: The real challenge was to convey Joyce’s multiple meanings and neologisms, transferring their form and content. Valery was fortunate to be Joyce’s contemporary, so as a translator, he had direct access to Joyce, the writer – the Original. But for me, or any translator today, I believe there is some solemnity, even stateliness in decoding the book of this great writer, metamorphosing it into another language. It is an exciting journey when you try to mould your language by mirroring his stratagem. When Joyce breaks the rules of English grammar or syntax, or spelling, I try to do the same in my translation. Sometimes it’s rather hard to keep both the form and the meaning of words, especially the ambiguity of the phrases or sentences in the translation. The languages are very different. The letters are entirely different. Macedonian is a South Slavic language with a Cyrillic script, so all the toponymy and personal names had to be transliterated. However, the Macedonian translations of the Bible and Shakespeare’s plays helped me immensely in my odyssey with Ulysses.

FM: Can you discuss the highlights of working so closely with Ulysses? What has made your work rewarding?

MG: I’ve learned so much from reading Joyce and translating Ulysses: not only how to read and re-read a literary work, but how to think, how to write, and how to rediscover your mother tongue.

FM: Have you translated other modernist writings?

MG: Yes, I’ve also translated Giacomo Joyce by Joyce and Nabokov’s Lolita (in collaboration with Jasmina Ilievska) and Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (with Marija Jones). I’ve also translated poetry by E.E. Cummings, Sheamus Heaney, William S. Burroughs, Miroslav Holub, Bertolt Brecht, Ingeborg Bachmann, Carol Ann Duffy, and English Surrealist poets. Later this year, I will be working on Forster’s A Passage to India.

FM: Generally speaking, are there any obstacles or advantages you’ve found in translating modernism in terms of its style or anything else?

MG: Honestly, any attempt to translate any modernist work apart from Joyce’s novels seems not to be a near-impossible task and not so much strenuous effort. Modernist poetry, though, can still be like holding water through your hand, especially the nuances that make poetry what it is. It can be tricky not to get it lost in translation.

FM: Have you thought about translating Portrait, Exiles, Dubliners, or Finnegans Wake?

MG: Yes, I have been working on Exiles for some time now and scratching the surface of Finnegans Wake over the past few years. I plan to dive into the Wake more seriously this spring during my translation residency at the National Centre for Writing in Norwich. So, I imagine the Dragon Hall near the River Wensum will be perfect to work on Anna Livia Plurabelles chapter.  


Marija Girevska is a literary translator and author. After completing her PhD in English (2015), she obtained her second MA in Theology (2018) from the Faculty of Orthodox Theology in Skopje, where she teaches. Her publications include books on English Surrealism (2015), Gothic fiction (2017) and Joyce (2019), in addition to numerous articles on Joyce. She was awarded Golden Pen Award for her translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 2013. As a Joyce scholar, she has read at James Joyce symposia and lectured at the Trieste Joyce School. She is the Head of the Macedonian Centre for Irish Studies.


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