Chapter 14 of Joyce's Ulysses, The Oxen of the Sun, frequently changes writing styles as it unfolds. Joyce was attempting to mimic the development of the English language, from its Latin roots through to modern-day street slang.

Many of these passages are extremely difficult to understand. Here's an example modelled on the work of early Roman historians:

Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitable by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferent continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent nature's incorrupted benefaction.

Here's another, which mimics the work of Aelfric, a 10th century Anglo-Saxon writer:

Before born babe bliss had. Within womb won he worship. Whatever in that one case done commodiously done was. A couch by midwives attended with wholesome food reposeful cleanest swaddles as though forthbringing were now done and by wise foresight set: but to this no less of what drugs there is need and surgical implements which are pertaining to her case not omitting aspect of all very distracting spectacles in various latitudes by our terrestrial orb offered together with images, divine and human, the cogitation of which by sejunct females is to tumescence conducive or eases issue in the high sunbright wellbuilt fair home of mothers when, ostensibly far gone and reproductitive, it is come by her thereto to lie in, her term up.

My question is this: not being familiar with the overwhelming majority of historical styles employed, it is not clear to me whether or not the incomprehensibility of the text is a consequence of the style it's mimicking? Or to put it another way, could Joyce have attempted this literary history lesson while leaving the text easier for the reader to follow?

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    @DJohnson I am not a grad student, no. And I'm afraid I fail to see how this question relates to the answer given to my other on the book unless you think the answer to all questions on Ulysses is "read a schema". Both are narrow in focus because the answers to wider questions are more easily found online, and because I have always felt narrow focus in a Q&A site is a good thing, leading to focussed answers, not a matter for criticism. If you feel the question is poor, vote to close it, which will bring it to the attention of moderators.
    – Matt Thrower
    Apr 7, 2018 at 19:01
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    @DJohnson If you think a valid answer to any question about Ulysses is "consult the schema", then you might want to check out the site tour. The idea is to provide information here, not refer users to other media to get their answers.
    – Matt Thrower
    Apr 7, 2018 at 19:47
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    @DJohnson There is no self-study tag (that would be a meta tag). This site's policy on homework questions is laid out here, but the TL;DR is that we should ignore whether or not it's inspired by homework and instead focus on whether or not it's a good question. Personally I don't think there's anything wrong with this question, and have upvoted it. But you've provided some great answers here, so I'd be interested to see you post what you consider a good question!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Apr 7, 2018 at 20:43
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    Is there any evidence that making the text easier for the reader to follow has ever been one of Joyce's goals?
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 8, 2018 at 12:42
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    So I think it's pretty clear that the answer to your question "could Joyce have attempted this literary history lesson while leaving the text easier for the reader to follow?" is "yes", since he wasn't trying at all to make it easier to follow. Could he have made it easy to follow? I suspect not.
    – Peter Shor
    Apr 9, 2018 at 3:12

1 Answer 1


To respond to what I think is the core of your question, yes, it is possible to translate the style of old forms of literature while still being quite readable for a present day audience.

However, there are a number of reasons why this is problematic and why Joyce would never have done so.

Firstly, the passages here mimic a translated style, in doing so these styles are not necessarily similar to other translations in Present Day English (PDE). Firstly, because PDE translations of Latin or Old English texts need to make quite fundamental changes like reconstructing the syntax as both Latin and OE use suffixes to mark case, and have a considerably less rigid word order, doing so is effectively an act of new textual creation. Therefore, unless you were to learn Latin or OE, it's likely you'll find that translations are difficult to compare in terms of style and will be more influenced by the time at which they were translated than the actual source text. This means its difficult to say how readable comparable texts are, because it's an oversimplification to compare those texts.

What Joyce is likely doing, and what he does in ever chapter after chapter 11 is unpack certain properties of language in order to experiment with form. Given that every chapter in Ulysses after Sirens is some kind of textual experiment, whether it be trying to recreate music, a series of questions and answers like a catechism or in this case a series of parodies, it would appear that Joyce is stress testing the novel form by putting his narrative through a series of challenging formal constraints. The reason why these passages are so challenging is because Joyce is here emptying words of meaning in order to better fulfil formal constraints, for example, many of the syntactic and lexical choices made here are made not to more clearly communicate meaning, but instead to sound more like what readers expect those texts to sound like.

Finally, as with the whole of Ulysses, Joyce wrote the text in the manner that he did specifically for it to be examined, he said that it would be his way of becoming 'immortal', so he frequently makes decisions to be deliberately opaque and overly obscure.

In summary, while you could find translations of texts that are more readable, Joyce would've never done it in Ulysses.

PS Beware the schema, they are not the keys to meaning they are often sold as and it's unclear whether they were even written during the production of the text

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