On this day…16 December

On 16 December 1912 Joyce wrote to Yeats about The Countess Cathleen.

One of Joyce’s students, Nicolò Vidacovich, had made an Italian translation of part WB Yeats’ play The Countess Cathleen, but Yeats did not want it published. Joyce wrote a number of letters to Yeats trying to persuade him to allow Vidacovich’s translation to appear, but to no avail.

As early as 1908 Joyce and his student, the lawyer Nicolò Vidacovich, had made a translation of JM Synge’s play Riders to the Sea, and Vidacovich then undertook to translate Yeats’ The Countess Cathleen. It was a play Joyce himself admired, and he was particularly fond of the song ‘Who Goes with Fergus’ that appeared in early versions of the play.

The Countess Cathleen was first presented as the inaugural production of the Irish Literary Theatre in May 1899 and caused a lot of controversy. Joyce had been in the audience for the first performance and he later refused to sign a petition condemning the play. The play had started out as The Countess Kathleen, published in 1892, but Yeats continued to revise it even after the first performance in 1899.

In 1911 Vidacovich set about making a verse translation of the first act of an early version of The Countess Cathleen, with Joyce assisting him by explaining some of the difficult parts. This draft was then sent to Yeats who showed it to his continental agent Antonio Cippico. Cippico apparently did not like the translation, claiming that the language of the verse was too remote from common speech. Yeats objected to the fact that Vidacovich had used an earlier version of the play and so work on the translation came to a halt.

When Joyce saw Yeats in London in July 1912, Yeats told him that he had revised The Countess Cathleen again and promised to send a copy of the new version to Vidacovich. But in September Joyce wrote to Yeats again, saying that Vidacovich thought the other versions were not as suited to Italian as the version he had used. Joyce suggested that Yeats might offer another play to Vidacovich instead.

By 16 December 1912 Vidacovich still hadn’t received the version Yeats had promised to send, and Joyce wrote to Yeats again praising Vidacovich’s translation and commending the version of The Countess Cathleen that he’d used. Joyce again asked if Yeats would suggest another play for Vidacovich to translate, but nothing came of it and Yeats continued to refuse to allow the translation of the earlier version of The Countess Cathleen to be published.

In 1914 Carlo Linati published his prose translation of The Countess Cathleen. Joyce saw it before he left Trieste for Zurich, but didn’t think much of Linati’s translation. Vidacovich attempted a translation of Joyce’s story ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ but Joyce considered it a failure. The translation of Synge’s Riders to the Sea by Joyce and Vidacovich was published in the September-October 1929 issue of Solaria.


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, vols II & III edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1957, 1966.