Finnegans Wake as a Secret Agent; ....a fantasy

Arie Altena

Lastly, but mostly, in her genesic field it is all game and no gammon  (FW 112,13)

I've a seeklet to sell   (FW 248,26)

We had a plan: we would expose Finnegans Wake as a secret agent of language. A retranslation of the Japanese translation of the original text would do the trick. Anyway, that is what we expected.

Finnegans Wake is based on puns. The words from Finnegans Wake are not normal English, they are portmanteaus: imaginary words in which different words from various languages are present. The portmanteaus create the puns. This principle is based in and dependent on the western style of writing: a series of alphanumeric inscriptions. Finnegans Wake asks its reader not to use just one code (English, French, Dutch, etc.) to decipher the inscriptions. The reader is invited, or even forced, to follow his own associations and to use more codes at the same time, often because the word in questy does not exist. The possible sounds (and letter-combinations) that are suggested by the inscriptions would all have their say. Shuit suggests suit, but also shoot and should. Ethiquetical suggests both ethics and etiquette, blinkhards, contains the Dutch blinken (= to shine) and the English to blink, and the deeper you delve, even into very normal words, the more you find.

There is a brilliant Japanese translation of Finnegans Wake. Brilliant because the grammatical and morphological structure of Japanese is totally different from the Indo-German languages on which Finnegans Wake is principally based, and also, obviously, because the way of writing is very different. The Japanese translation turns the alphanumeric text of Finnegans Wake into characters and preserves the principle of the pun and the portmanteau in its own, uniquely Japanese, way.

What happens when the Japanese text is re-translated back into English? We presumed that the text, already so liquid and variable, would, morph via the Japanese translation into something completely different. A stone could become a turtle, an envelope a trolley bus, and a military costume a field of buttercups.

At the time we expected that the retranslation would prove that Finnegans Wake possesses the properties of a secret agent. Excuse me? we hear you say, a secret agent? Finnegans Wake is a text in which, and for which, anything is possible, it can signify anything (actually: it signifies everything!), it hides itself, perhaps behind a mask, as an innocent, invisible, who knows? With a carte-blanche and a licence to kill, an elegant, inconspicious agent ready at any moment to inflict wounds on the ideology which maintains that texts, sentences, can only mean one thing.

What innocents we were. Finnegans Wake does not function like a ticking time bomb that nestles itself in the brain of a reader only to go off, explode, days or even months later, like some poems do. No, Finnegans Wake functions like a genetic algorithm, constantly evolving, changing, developing, building on itself, adapting to the circumstances, to its life-environment, and all the while searching for an endpoint: the solution to a problem. But once this endpoint is reached, another problem has shown itself and, so the algorithm goes on building, changing, evolving. This is what Finnegans Wake does to thebrain of the reader. It uses the brain as a host. Without a host it cannot live. Finnegans Wake comes to life by attaching itself to pieces of code in the brain, eating the code, changing it, erasing bits, creating new pieces. Finnegans Wake is a series of self-evolving codes; readable, but dangerous.

This was what we wanted to prove. As if this is not visible, as if Finnegans Wake makes a secret out of it. As if it is not immediately clear to anyone who reads just one sentence of Finnegans Wake.

Finnegans Wake, page 109, looking back, perhaps we did not chose the best page to illustrate our case. We sent the corresponding page from the Japanese translation to an unsuspecting translator, with the request Would you please translate this piece for our magazine on culture and new media. She went to work and she did her job very well. Imagine the amazement and disappointment on our faces when it turned out that her translation actually did resemble the original in many ways. To be sure, her retranslation was normal English, not `Wakian', but `the gist of the story' was almost completely intact. with no sign of an irreversible metamorphosis that would prove Finnegans Wake to be a secret agent.

In retrospect this was not all that strange. It was not the fact that our idea had been totally wrong, but the fact that our strategy had been based on false presuppositions with regards to translation in general; more specifically, with regards to this particular translation of Finnegans Wake.

We had wanted to unmask Finnegans Wake. But Finnegans Wake does not wear a mask. If Finnegans Wake bears any resemblance to a secret agent, then it is a secret agent who does not have to keep up the pretence that he is, in fact, a secret agent. And so secret agent FW outsmarted us, and always will, because, although it is clear that it is a secret agent, those who, once and for all, want to expose it secret-agent-ness will never catch it.

So... is Finnegans Wake a secret agent at all? Of course! Its employer is language. (No, not James Joyce. Joyce was just a simple soul shanghaied into doing the dirty work). Its mission is: Destroy the idea that a text can and must be read according to one code - that one code being the only right code - from which follows that there is just one meaning. Harmless. Proving that language, in general, and more specifically, that every single sentence written in one language can always be read according to different codes, takes on different meanings in different contexts. It is never possible to say: this is the one and only right code, the one and only right context for this sentence. Meaning is unlimited because context is, in principle, multiple. It is a strange secret agent; admittedly, it does not gather information, but rather weaves itself into the existing fabric of language and does its job there, with disastrous effects.

Context knows no limits: in every text, in every sentence, endless perspectives unfold. An infinite number of possible worlds can be projected. The number of possible meanings knows no limits.

Finnegans Wake fulfills its mission brilliantly through portmanteaus and puns.

In the words of the third generation `Wakian' Derek Attridge: The portmanteau word is a monster, a word that is not a word, that is not authorized by any dictionary, that holds out the worrying prospect of books which... recycling the words we know, possess the freedom endlessly to invent new ones (Attridge p. 196).

The portmanteau word challenges two myths on which assumptions about the efficacy of language rest. Like the pun, it denies that single words must have, on any given occasion, single meanings; and like the various devices of assonance and rhyme it denies that the manifold patterns of similarity which occur at the level of the signifier are innocent in meaning (Attridge p. 197).

A secret agent has a carte-blanche, a licence to kill. Everything is acceptable in the pursuit of its mission. The same is true of the genetic algorithm in computer space whose mission it is to find a solution to a problem. There are no rules and no laws that are forbidden to be used, just as there are no rules and no laws that may not be broken. Every rule and every law can be used and may be broken and can be stretched to the limit and even beyond it.

Finnegans Wake asks its reader not to use only the code of English to make sense of the words, but to use other codes as well: French, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Latin, Irish, etc. While reading Finnegans Wake there is no reason not to make an association. No matter how illogical, strange or stupid that association may seem at first. Every association can yield meaning, and maybe even bring the reader to a deeper understanding of the text. Click twice on an icon in one of the menu programmes that interface with your brain, while reading FW, and the text assumes an understandable form. Click on another icon and the form changes, and the same words receive another meaning. Click on English and cant morphs into can t, click on Dutch and cant means kant (side, but also, strangely, lace). ... Luckily there's another cant to the questy meaning Luckily there is another side to the story, or even, from the Japanese version: Luckily here s another story hidden behind this adventure... in this way the reader works his way through the text. Another code or another context: another form and another meaning. It is just like using PhotoShop, isn't it?

Derrida, perhaps superfluous, asks himself, How many languages can be lodged into two words by Joyce, lodged or inscribed, kept or burned, celebrated or violated (Derrida p. 145). Museyroom is a room in a museum, but also a room to amuse oneself in, or to muse in, and why, on earth should that have nothing to do with mushrooms? Just think about bisexycle... throw it into your photoshop for language and wait and see what it does.

Nansense, you snorsted? (Click to names and this means: Nansen, were you snoring again?, click to sound and it means nonsense, you snorted?)


And, if some words can be interpreted according to different codes... why not all of them? Is there a rule that prevents that from happening? If there is such a rule, then it is the first rule that Finnegans Wake.will dispose.

This is all possible because the signifier is the lord and master in Finnegans Wake. The outer husk is not the slave of significance:The material envelope of the sign - its phonemes and graphemes - has been allowed to take the initiative and has brought about a coalescence of otherwise distinct fields of reference. This dominance of the signifier, of course, goes against all the rules. Phonemes and graphemes should be servants, not masters, and the mere coincidence of outward similarity should have no bearing on the meaning within (Attridge, p. 192).

The text of Finnegans Wake is a web in which each new interpretation of a sentence creates a new context for that sentence and for all the other sentences as well. Through this process, a sort of contextual circle is created: because the new context makes a new interpretation possible, which, in turn, creates a new context. In this way, the amount of possible meanings goes on to eternity. And this is true of every single the word in Finnegans Wake. The context is limiting, and this limitation makes the creation of meaning possible. This is the way language functions. Finnegans Wake is endless and its meanings are endless, too.

Everyone agrees on that. Well... everyone?!??!!

Someone who does not agree and who, oh so obstinately clings to the opposite view is Arno Schmidt (1914-1979), with his logarithmic tables on the Lüneburger Moorland, creator of his own Finnegans Wake: Zettels Traum. He asserts: ...denn die Sprache (of Finnegans Wake) is imgrunde doch nichts, als ein oft kunstvoll, öfters mit nichtsnutziger Erfindsamkeit verballhorntes Englisch (Schmidt p. 294). This slightly distorted English of Finnegans Wake could be made readable and understandable by using one of the two possible Lesemodelle that can be applied to the text: a mystical one and a realistic one. According to Arno Schmidt.

Arno Schmidt, the realist, and his theory of the Etym. According to Schmidt, Finnegans Wake is made up of Etyms. Jedes Etym fasst, und zwar auf akustischer Basis, eine ganze Anzahl Worte zusammen. Then surprisingly Schmidt writes, Es gibt also weniger Etyms als Worte, das Unbewusste is ja dampfer, als das Bewustsein. Schmidt is reading Finnegans Wake precisely in the same way as the first generation of Wakians (just like Campbell & Robinson in The Skeleton Key): they regard the text as the report of a dream. Schmidt reduces Finnegans Wake to a limited number of Etyms that are made visible and audible by an endless series of portmanteaus. The same is true of his own Zettels Traum, which is not a difficult book at all! Arno the Obstinate. Schmidt thinks that Finnegans Wake is an unambiguous book. It is just that the text is a little disguised, like a dream.

But listen to what Derrida says: This generalized equivocality of writing does not translate one language into another on the basis of common nuclei of meaning...; it talks several language at once... (Derrida p. 149). That is what Finnegans Wake does. And that is exactly what the retranslation does not do.

A translator who does not know that she is re-translating Finnegans Wake will choose the one language in which she thinks the text was written and will translate it into that language. Just one code. Moreover, she will try to find the most logical context, the context that makes the text a meaningful whole. She will choose the most obvious context (although that is difficult, but remember, she probably thinks that she is translating a strange essay for a magazine on culture and new media). And so what one loses are the secret agent aspects of Finnegans Wake.

One is not translating a multitude of contexts. A text can always have a multitude of contexts. It is also present in the retranslation. And, in principle, in this article as well. (But, if you read this article as a serious demonstration of an argument, then there is no multitude of contexts. There is one context. The other contexts are deactivated by a program that says this is a serious article, there is a point to it and it shall be read seriously. I am not joking!)

What remains untranslated in a retranslation of Finnegans Wake is the principle on which the text is based. The devices which allow it to function like a secret agent: the portmanteau, the pun. Of course it is possible to create a translation loaded with plethoras of puns and portmanteaus. That's what the Japanese translation does. But we did not want such a translation. It would not have helped us to clarify our point. At least, that is what we thought.

We picked out page 109 to be re-translated. This is from chapter 5, which is basically about the letter. Page 109 can, on first sight, be read, as a speech about the envelope, by a slightly dazed professor. Luckily there's another cant to the questy, he says, while examining the envelope that contains a letter.

The most obvious context for the retranslation of page 109 is that it is a speech about the nature of the envelope. Something is explained about the envelope, about the letter, the meaning of a letter and the meaning of an envelope, there are a few far-fetched comparisons, it almost makes sense. This is the gist of the story. And, not unsurprisingly, this is all that remains in the retranslation.

This is, of course, possible because this gist of the story is present on this page. It is one of the many contexts. The first generation of Wakians was usually engaged in deciphering this `gist of the story' from the text, in order to make Finnegans Wake readable.

But deciphering this gist of the story from the text in this way is like reducing Finnegans Wake to a story, whereas the story is exactly not what it is all about. The gist of the story is just one of the aspects of Finnegans Wake, and not even a very important one (according to third generation Wakians). Besides it is often not possible to figure out the gist of the story from the text, because there are two or three possible gists of the story present on one page. One reads about a drunken man who is urinating against a lamppost, another reads about the erection of a temple to some goddess, while a third reads a lyrical poem about the Liffey. Which is the true gist of the story?

The secret agent Finnegans Wake escaped under the hands of an unknowing translator. Our strategy was not all that bright. We lost something and learned something else.

The letters on the page are the envelope that contains a letter, at least: we assume the envelope contains a letter. Did this person gaze long enough at this ordinary everyday stamped and addressed envelope? or fact, ever looked sufficiently longly at a quite everydaylooky stamped addressed envelope? Is it perhaps an empty wrapper, an outer husk, which we can fill with our own imagination? Or is it an attempt to analyse a single viewpoint from a multitude of viewpoints?, as the retranslation claims. Who knows?

Stop his laysense. Ink him! (FW 373.18)  


Derek Attridge, Peculiar Language, Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY 1988.

Jacques Deridda, "Two Words for Joyce", in: Derek Attridge & Daniel Ferrer (eds.), Post-Structuralist Joyce, Essays from the French, Cambridge UP, Cambridge etc. 1984.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, 1939.

Arno Schmidt, "Kaleidoskopische Kollidiereskapaden", in: Der Triton mit dem Sonnenschirm, p. 293-320.

Arno Schmidt, Vorläufiges zu Zettels Traum, 1970.  

Japanese Translation

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake I / II,
translation: Yanase Maoki,
Japan 1991, ISBN 4309 20169 5, Japanese text.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake III / IV,
translation: Yanase Maoki,
Japan 1993, ISBN 4309 20228 4, Japanese text.

some rights reserved
Arie Altena
published in Mediamatic Magazine, 9#1, summer 1998
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