Beckett, Péron, Joyce, and the Strange Case of the French ALPs – Patrick O’Neill

Beckett, Péron, Joyce, and the Strange Case of the French ALPs


Patrick O’Neill*


James Joyce and Samuel Beckett

James Joyce and Samuel Beckett

Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle (hereinafter ALP)first appeared in book form on 29 October 1928. Three days later, the just graduated 22-year-old Samuel Beckett arrived in Paris, having been selected by Trinity College Dublin, as part of a standing exchange agreement with the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, to spend two years as lecteur d’anglais at that institution. Beckett immediately became an enthusiastic member of the circle of admirers surrounding Joyce – who one year later, in December 1929, invited him to undertake a French translation of the opening pages of ALP. The invitation was conveyed by Joyce’s friend Philippe Soupault, already a force to be reckoned with in French literary circles as one of the founders of the much publicized Surrealist movement.

The proposed translation was intended to appear in the recently founded avant-garde journal Bifur. Soupault’s role in the matter was a double one, acting on behalf of Joyce in soliciting the translation and on behalf of the journal in overseeing its progress (Knowlson 1996: 115). According to Beckett’s biographer Deirdre Bair, “Beckett was delighted by the opportunity, but still not sure of his command of French, and he asked Alfred Péron to assist him. He brought him to meet Joyce, and Péron passed Joyce’s test and became Beckett’s collaborator” (Bair 1978: 95). Péronhad graduated in 1924 from the École Normale Supérieure and subsequently spent two years (1926-1928) as an exchange lecteur of French at Trinity, where Beckett, just two years younger than he, was one of his language students. The two young men quickly struck up a close and lasting friendship. Péron’s two years at Trinity also had the significant advantage that they “had given an Irish cast to his English, which delighted Joyce” (Bair 1978: 95).

Beckett and Péron began work early in the spring of 1930 and continued to work on the task during the summer, meeting several times a week to work on the dauntingly complex text (Knowlson 1996: 115). The task began to seem insuperable as the work progressed. Beckett increasingly felt it was even impossible and considered telling Soupault that it simply could not be done (Cronin 1996: 119). In a progress report of 5 July 1930, he was nonetheless able to write that two large single-spaced typed pages of the translation were ready (Aubert 1985: 417). When Péron made arrangements to leave Paris on vacation for most of August, a seriously disgruntled Beckett wrote to his friend Thomas MacGreevy shortly afterwards, on 7 July 1930, that he did not want to continue working on the translation alone, or to sign a contract with “that bastard Soupault.” He continued to worry that Joyce might be disgusted “by the chasm of feeling and technique between his hieroglyphics and our bastard French” (Ackerley and Gontarski 2006: 13).

They continued with the task, however, and since Beckett had to return to Dublin in mid-September to take up a lectureship in French at Trinity (Pilling 2006: 25), Péron was entrusted with the final polishing of the manuscript, rather extravagantly entitled “Anna Lyvia Pluratself,” which he presented to Joyce in late September 1930 (Pilling 2006: 26). “Joyce seemed satisfied with it and sent it to the printer” (Bair 1978: 112). The manuscript, which translated the equivalent of the first six pages of the future chapter I.8 of Finnegans Wake (FW 196.01-201.21) reached the page-proof stage for Bifur by mid-October. In early November, however, Joyce abruptly instructed the two young men to withdraw their rendering. Eugene Jolas reports that it “had even been announced for appearance in a coming issue. I mentioned this fact to Joyce, who seemed disturbed. ‘The translation is not yet perfect,’ he said. ‘It should be withdrawn.’ … In reality, this version was already quite remarkable, when one considers the almost insuperable difficulties involved” (Maria Jolas 1949: 172).

Several reasons have been suggested for what Beckett and Péron no doubt saw as an entirely ruthless intervention on Joyce’s part. First, the translation, at least in Joyce’s opinion, presumably did still leave something to be desired. Second, Joyce very likely realized the desirability of a strategic move away from a small experimental journal whose continued survival was doubtful – and which did in fact very soon cease publication. Third, as Megan Quigley observes, he very likely saw the commercial value of becoming involved himself and having his own name rather than those of two unknown young men associated with the translation (2004: 479). Finally, however, and perhaps most important, a role was undoubtedly played by a significantly increased interest on his part in the possibilities of translation as related to the compositional process of Finnegans Wake itself. Ferrer and Aubert write that a new development in the twenties was that foreign languages, long a part of Joyce’s private life, “invade, and become active in, his actual writing. How could he then fail to take part in such an experiment … ? Was he not, after all, engaged in a ‘Work in Progress’ which was nothing less than generalized translation – translation raised to its ultimate power?” (1998: 180-81). Joyce, in short, decided to coordinate a team translation himself – and to extend it by including those final paragraphs of ALP on which he had declared to Harriet Weaver that he was “prepared to stake everything” (L 3: 163).

Soupault, in an introduction to the resulting team translation in the Nouvelle Revue Française, offers a detailed account of the complex process of its development. First of all, there was Beckett and Péron’s “first attempt,” as Soupault rather slightingly called it. A first revision followed, during which that version was reviewed by Paul Léon, Eugene Jolas, and Ivan Goll, under Joyce’s own supervision (Soupault 1931: 633). In a third stage, Soupault was enlisted to meet with Joyce and Léon every Thursday at 2:30 in Léon’s apartment. “They sat for three hours at a round table … and while Joyce smoked in an armchair Léon read the English text, Soupault read the French, and Joyce or one of the others would break into the antiphony to ask that a phrase be reconsidered” (Ellmann 1982: 632). In a statement that further irritated Beckett, Soupault asserted that the team “rejected, with Mr Joyce’s approval, everything that seemed contrary to the rhythm, the meaning, or the transformation of the words and then tried to suggest a new translation.” In a fourth stage, the resulting draft, arrived at in early March 1931 after fifteen three-hour meetings, and which by that stage also included the rendering of the final pages, was sent to Eugene Jolas and Adrienne Monnier, both of whom contributed further suggestions, which were then considered at two further meetings. “The completed version, published on May 1, 1931, in the Nouvelle Revue Française, is even more than the French translation of Ulysses a triumph over seemingly impossible obstacles” (Ellmann 1982: 633).

Beckett, meanwhile, confirmed to Jacques Aubert on 16 September 1983 that the final published version was arrived at without any further input from either Péron or himself. Beckett was clearly deeply disappointed with what in his view amounted to a rejection of their work on Joyce’s part and “could not help but consider it a personal affront” (Bair 1978: 113). While the two young men’s names do indeed figure as the first two names in the published list of seven translators, Péron’s name, adding insult to injury, was misspelled as “Alfred Perron.” Joyce’s own enthusiasm for the result of the team project was obvious. He reports to Harriet Weaver on 4 March 1931, possibly tongue in cheek, possibly not, that “the French translation of A.L.P. is now finished and I think it must be one of the masterpieces of translation” (L 1: 302).

Definitively sidelined by Joyce’s “official” team translation, Beckett and Péron’s version disappeared from general view for more than half a century, until it was published for the first time in 1985 by Jacques Aubert under the title “Anna Lyvia Pluratself” (Aubert 1985: 417-22), making it available for comparison with the Nouvelle Revue Française version. And thereby hangs a tale, indeed more than one tale. Aubert reports in an introductory note that, according to information received from Alfred Péron’s son Michel Péron, one set of the Bifur page proofs, corrected in pencil by Péron and in ink by Beckett, are deposited in “an American university” in a collection of Péron’s personal papers (1985: 418). Aubert observes, however, that he was unable to consult the corrected proofs and consequently printed the text from an uncorrected set instead, provided by Maurice Saillet (1985: 418) – who, as it happens, was for some time employed in Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop. Working years later with access to the Péron papers, held in the Beinecke Library of Yale University, Megan Quigley made the dramatic assertion that those papers also included a much more thoroughly revised and correctedversion of Beckett and Péron’s translation that was in fact very nearly identical – with “fewer than a dozen small changes” (2004: 477) – with the version of the same pages eventually arrived at by Joyce and his team after more than fifty hours of detailed communal work.

The corrected “Anna Lyvia Pluratself” page proofs have now been made available online by the Beinecke Library and may be studied in close detail at various degrees of online magnification. There are twenty-six corrections in ink, thus apparently by Beckett, made very clearly and carefully, as one would expect of an author correcting proofs. They are in general minor in nature, affecting only single misprinted letters, a dash corrected to a hyphen, a missing paragraph indentation indicated, and the like. Only two significant changes are made in ink: the title “Anna Lyvia Pluratself” is changed back with meticulous care, letter by letter, to “Anna Livia Plurabelle,” and the similarly exotic name “Husparey” is changed back to Joyce’s original “Humphrey.” The markings in pencil are similarly careful in a further five or six cases that are also of a relatively minor nature – and consist otherwise of a large number of lightly and carelessly scribbled marginal and interlinear notations, with underlinings and circlings of individual words and phrases. While the corrections in ink are clearly intended for a copy editor, those in pencil, other than the five or six exceptions noted, in fact give no such impression.

Megan Quigley, in a spirited attempt to show that Beckett and Péron’s version was in fact incorporated into Joyce’s final version to a very much greater degree than ever appropriately acknowledged, writes that the Péron papers at Yale in fact contain four versions of the Beckett-Péron translation: Beckett’s typed version, evidently the one prepared for final submission in late September 1930; the Bifur proof pages, corrected “in pen by Beckett and in pencil by Péron”; and also, very unexpectedly, two further typescripts labeled “Typescript of the second French translation by Beckett and Péron.” The second of these two typescripts, Quigley asserts, “labeled ‘Anne Livie Plurabelle,’ includes a few pencil changes made in Joyce’s hand, most of which (like the revised title) failed to be incorporated into the final published version of the text” – a fact that she understandably considers a “conundrum” (2004: 474).

Accepting the evidence of the file that the two typescripts in question were indeed the work of Péron, Quigley argues that “the most likely chronology of the translation is as follows: Beckett’s first text was used for the Bifur page proofs, which were heavily revised by both Beckett and Péron. Péron incorporated these changes into his two typescripts that were at some later date shared with Joyce himself” (2004: 474). The implication here is clearly that Joyce, having seen Beckett and Péron’s September typescript, expressed some reservations, whereupon Péron in great haste (and in Beckett’s absence in Dublin) revised the entire translation, resulting in a version almost identical with the final Nouvelle Revue Française version. The further unstated implication is that Joyce still quite unreasonably (and even unethically) refused to allow even this heavily revised version to go to press as Beckett’s and Péron’s work. Instead, and again quite ruthlessly, he simply used Péron’s typescript, rather than the Bifur proofs, as a basis on which to begin his team’s collaborative translation – though with most of the work having allegedly already been completed by Péron (Quigley 2004: 477).

Quigley admits that “other scenarios are possible” (2004: 486n24) – and clearly they are. First of all, it is entirely unclear on whose authority the two typescripts in question were labeled as containing “the second French translation by Beckett and Péron”; nor is it clear that those typescripts were in fact typed by Péron (Quigley 2004: 485n15); nor is it clear that the more careless jottings on the proofs predated the two typescripts. Since we know from Soupault (1931: 634) that Joyce’s team circulated typescripts among themselves, the two typescripts in question could in fact have been among those produced by that team – and Joyce, unable as always to resist making further revisions to his own text, could certainly have jotted down a few last-minute alternatives on one of them before, by accident or design, it reached Péron, thus explaining the “few pencil changes made in Joyce’s hand” mentioned by Quigley (2004: 474). Péron, in other words, I am arguing, having initially made his few careful penciled corrections on the Bifur proofs (which he then retained), could at some undetermined later date have first read the two typescripts, typed in fact by one or other of the members of Joyce’s team, and then, no doubt professionally intrigued after his own months of work with Beckett on the same text, have simply noted the results down on the original corrected proofs, without particular care and purely for his own comparative interest.

The case Quigley makes – in a laudable effort to see justice done to Beckett and Péron’s contribution – clearly rests on very shaky foundations. And after all, it is extremely unlikely that Joyce and his high-powered team, after meeting for more than fifty hours over a period of at least four months, could have succeeded only in translating the final 49 lines of ALP, while contenting themselves with making “fewer than a dozen” minor changes to the 189 lines of Beckett and Péron’s version. It is also highly unlikely that Soupault would have had the gall to dismiss that version as a mere “first effort.” Finally, of course, there is the letter of 16 September 1983 from Beckett to Aubert, already mentioned, in which Beckett unambiguously (if with considerable exaggeration) states that “practically nothing” of the rendering Péron and he had submitted survived in the final published version (Aubert 1985: 417). It is surely unlikely in the extreme that Péron would not have informed Beckett if he had indeed independently arrived at a rendering almost identical with the version Joyce finally published.

Writing before Aubert published “Anna Lyvia Pluratself,” Ellmann suggested that perhaps the most important thing about Beckett and Péron’s contribution was that “although it was much changed in the course of revision by others, it demonstrated that a translation was feasible” (1982: 803). In fact, however, Eugene Jolas was quite right in suggesting that “this version was already quite remarkable, when one considers the almost insuperable difficulties involved” (Maria Jolas 1949: 172). Beckett and Péron’s French ALP is certainly not as close to Joyce’s French ALP as Megan Quigley asserts – nor is it by any means as comprehensively ignored as Beckett himself suggests.A detailed comparison of the two – which I am currently undertaking as part of a larger project – shows that the earlier version is very far from being merely a “first attempt,” as Soupault suggests, or merely a demonstration that a translation was feasible, as Ellmann suggests. It is in fact a sophisticated translatorial achievement in its own right, preliminary only in the sense that it precedes Joyce’s team translation. In the case of quite a few passages, phrases, coinages, wordplays, and conceits, indeed, Beckett’s rendering is by no means inferior to the version that officially supplanted it – but demonstrating that must remain a discussion for another day.


Works Cited


Ackerley, C.J., and S.E. Gontarski. 2006. The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett: A Reader’s          Guide to His Works, Life, and Thought. London: Faber and Faber.

Aubert, Jacques. 1985. Introduction to “Anna Lyvia Pluratself.” Trans. Samuel Beckett and Alfred Péron, In James Joyce, ed. Jacques Aubert and Fritz Senn. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 417-18.

Bair, Deirdre. 1978. Samuel Beckett: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Beckett, Samuel, and Alfred Péron, trans. 1985. “Anna Lyvia Pluratself.” Ed. Jacques Aubert. In James Joyce, ed. Jacques Aubert and Fritz Senn. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 418-22; rpt. Bosinelli 1996: 153-61. Corresponds to FW 196.01-201.21.

Beckett, Samuel, Alfred Péron, Ivan Goll, Eugène Jolas, Paul Léon, Adrienne Monnier, Philippe Soupault, and James Joyce, trans. 1931. “Anna Livie Plurabelle” [ALP, excerpts: French]. Nouvelle Revue Française 36 (1 May 1931): 633-46; rpt. Bosinelli 1996: 3-29. Corresponds to FW 196.01-201.20, 215.11-216.05.

Cronin, Anthony. 1996. Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. London: HarperCollins.

Ellmann, Richard. 1982. James Joyce. 1959. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ferrer, Daniel, and Jacques Aubert. 1998. “Anna Livia’s French Bifurcations.” Transcultural Joyce. Ed. Karen R. Lawrence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 179-86.

Jolas, Maria. 1949. “Traduttore … Traditore?” A James Joyce Yearbook. Ed. Maria Jolas. Paris: Transition Press. 171-78.

Joyce, James. Anna Livia Plurabelle [ALP]. Preface by Padraic Colum. New York: Crosby Gaige, 1928; London: Faber and Faber (Criterion Miscellany No. 15), 1930, (Faber Library 25) 1997. Corresponds to FW 196-216.

––– Finnegans Wake [FW]. London: Faber and Faber; New York: Viking Press, 1939. Intro. John Bishop. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1999.

––– The Letters of James Joyce, vol. 1 [L 1]. Ed. Stuart Gilbert. London: Faber, 1957; New York: Viking, 1966.

––– The Letters of James Joyce, vols. 2 and 3 [L 2/3]. Ed. Richard Ellmann. London: Faber; New York: Viking, 1966.

Knowlson, James. 1996. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett. London: Bloomsbury.

Pilling, John. 2006. A Samuel Beckett Chronology. London; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Quigley, Megan M. 2004. “Justice for the ‘Illstarred Punster’: Samuel Beckett and Alfred Péron’s Revisions of ‘Anna Lyvia Pluratself.'” James Joyce Quarterly 41 (2004): 469-87.

Soupault, Philippe. 1931. “A propos de la traduction d’Anna Livia Plurabelle.” Nouvelle Revue Française 36 (1931): 633-36.


*Queen’s University, Canada.