On this day…19 March

On 19 March 1924 the French translation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was published.

The translation – entitled Dedalus – Portrait de l’artiste jeune par lui-même – was by Ludmila Bloch-Savitsky (1881-1957), a Russian-born French translator. In addition to translating French works into Russian she also translated English works into French, including works by Virginia Woolf and Christopher Isherwood.

Work on the French translation of A Portrait dated back to 1919 when Florent Fels (1891-1977), editor of the magazine L’Action, wrote to Joyce asking permission to make a translation. The job of finding a translator, however, fell to Ezra Pound.

Pound first asked Jenny Serruys (1886-1983) to make the translation. Serruys was engaged (and in 1921 married) to William Aspenwell Bradley, a writer and Paris agent for the American publishers Harcourt, Brace. Serruys initially agreed to do the translation, but then decided it would be too much work.

Pound then approached Ludmila Bloch-Savitsky. She was about to start work on another translation but Pound persuaded her that translating Joyce’s book was more urgent and she finally agreed. On 12 July 1920, Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver to say that the translation was to be serialised in L’Action and that Fels was to publish it as a book once the serialisation was complete.

By the end of July 1920, however, the situation had changed. Joyce wrote to Pound to say that the first chapter of A Portrait had been translated but also that Fels was in debt and that his magazine, L’Action, would not survive. It was then suggested that the serialisation appear in the Mercure de France but that plan too fell through, as did another plan to have it published in Ecrits Nouveaux. Finally a contract with Editions de la Sirène was signed in August 1921.

In the meantime, work on the translation proceeded slowly, sometimes frustratingly slowly as far as Joyce was concerned. It seems that Joyce hoped a French translation of A Portrait would launch him in Paris, so the slow speed of the translation annoyed him. At the end of August 1920, Bloch-Savitsky even offered to hand the translation over to somebody else, but Joyce wanted her to continue, even if it was slow. However, there were arguments between them: in one letter to Frank Budgen in February 1921, Joyce even notes that he had received a “hysterical” letter from her. He suggested that she abandon the English names of the characters and use French ones instead, and in December 1921 Joyce agreed to her suggestion that the French title should be Dedalus. When the book was finally published in 1924, it also carried the subtitle Portrait de l’artiste jeune par lui-même.

In the meantime, Joyce had other reasons to be grateful to Ludmila Bloch-Savitsky. A week after Joyce and his family arrived in Paris from Trieste in July 1920, they moved into an apartment she gave them rent-free where they remained until November. Nora, however, didn’t find the apartment to her liking, complaining that the furniture there was only stuck together with spit. Bloch-Savitsky also introduced Joyce to her friend André Spire, a poet, and it was at a party in Spire’s apartment on 11 July 1920 that Joyce met Sylvia Beach for the first time. And Bloch-Savitsky’s daughter was married to the poet John Rodker under whose imprint an edition of Ulysses was later published.


Sources & Further Reading:

Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. I, edited by Stuart Gilbert, London: Faber & Faber, 1957; vols. II & III, edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.

Livak, Leonard: “‘A Thankless Occupation’: James Joyce and his Translator Ludmila Savitsky,” in Toronto Slavic Quarterly, no. 41, Summer 2012, pp. 138-168. (To read this article, click here.)

Norburn, Roger: A James Joyce Chronology, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.