Jim Henry - A lifetime's odyssey

The Translation of Ulysses

Jim combined a love for his native language with a fascination with the work of James Joyce to produce Irish translations of Ulysses, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Dead. 

His early retirement meant he had the time to pursue this interest.

The Translation

How the Translation Came About

After leaving the RAF Jim lived permanently in Belfast. His brother-in-law, Basil Wilson from Holywood  visited from time to time and inevitably the talk would come round to Irish.

Basil was a lifelong Irish scholar. He was educated in Belfast at St Malachy’s, Christian Bros Grammar and Queens University. His first Irish teacher was Séamas O Searcaigh. He continued learning Irish at Gaeil Uladh in the Ard Scoil in Divis Street Belfast where his teacher was Dónal O Grianna (brother of writers Séamas and Seosamh.)

Jim and Basil would discuss translations of various phrases suggested by all sorts of things. When Jim read Martin Brennan’s book about ancient astronomy, (Brú na Bóinne was another Henry enthusiasm) and saw J.Patrick’s conclusion about the Newgrange lightbox that the sun will continue to shine through this opening irrespective of secular change in the obliquity of the ecliptic, he thought that this was a perfect sentence for their translation exercises. When he asked Basil how he would say it in Irish, Basil laughed and asked first what it meant in English. They chatted about odd phrases of this nature and then looked at some of Ulysses, including the opening of Episode 3, “ineluctable modality of the visible”. This was at the start of the Joyce Centenary year, 1982 and so it seemed particularly appropriate to  work seriously on the novel.

Basil was also a fluent German speaker. He worked in Telephone House in Belfast and used to talk to people in Germany (one of whom he played chess with by phone) and lighthouse keepers in the Hebrides. He just loved words and the sound of them and would even ask his niece and nephews for the latest slang.

There was no sudden decision to translate the whole novel Ulysses but a gradual extension of the initial translating of odd paragraphs and  single phrases.  From then on, Jim worked steadily on a page a day having found a perfect retirement hobby. The pemphlagoid condition which had caused his early retirement, meant that his muscles tired easily, even the eye muscles, so a page a day was the most he could manage.

Recording of episode 3 (initial paragraphs)

Gael Uladh Committee, 1936. (standing) S.Bunting,D.Gillespie,B.Wilson,B.Lavery, S.McAnearney,N.Donnelly. (sitting) C.McDonnell,D.Millar,B.Kelleghar,I. Pimley,T.McKeith
The Henrys with their grand daughter and a French friend
Young Basil with his chess board
Basil and Jim at work