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Episode 6, Hades // Celebrating the centenary of the French translation of Ulysses with Distillerie des Menhirs

Release date: June 16th 2029

The Distillerie des Menhirs story began in 1921, (Ulysses was first published in Paris the following year), driven by an astonishingly determined lady called Francès Le Lay, great-great grandmother to the brothers Erwan, Kévin and Loig who now manage the company. Francès bought a second-hand pot still used for distilling cider into apple brandy known as lambig in Brittany. Her son Guillaume, then her grandson René perpetuated the tradition, playing their part in making Plomelin the regional lambig capital. In 1955, there were no less than seven registered itinerant pot still distillers from Plomelin with its 1,400 inhabitants!

The 1980s were a turning point. René’s son, Guy was a maths teacher and spent his school holidays distilling. René didn’t encourage him to take over the business as distilling permits were getting harder to get and the trade seemed to be doomed. Guy’s passion got the better of him, and against all the odds, he left teaching with the initial idea of just wanting to keep the family tradition alive. However, he ended up completely rethinking it and in 1986, he officially established the Distillerie des Menhirs at Pont Menhir. He started making cider and pommeau. In 1989, the very first lambig, bottled and labelled in Brittany, left the Distillerie des Menhirs.

The making of buckwheat whiskey...

Legendary Lands

Pont-Menhir, Plomelin, Finistère: here in this apple-tree lined valley, where 5,000 year-old standing stones lean together over a bubbling stream, the French whisky EDDU was born (“ed-du” means buckwheat in the Breton language). It was created by the independent Le Lay family distillery and was the first, and to this day, only whisky in the world to be made entirely from buckwheat. EDDU is deeply rooted in this region. It tells the story of a family who are as attached to preserving their ties to the past as they are reinventing traditions for the sheer delight of whisky enthusiasts.

Distillerie des Menhirs

The family business is currently under the stuartship of 5th generation Le Lay.

Every year Distillerie des Menhirs welcomes 15,000 visitors, from the true enthusiast to the simply curious. The Le Lay family will be happy to welcome you and share their passion with you. The distillery is on your way out of the village of Plomelin. You will see two tall standing stones and some apple trees. The aromatic smells escaping from the oak staves will lead you in the right direction!

The Origins of Buckwheat Whisky

There are many good reasons why no one had thought of buckwheat before Guy Le Lay. Known as “Poor-mans’ wheat” it not only has a low yield per hectare, but also produces half as much alcohol as barley which is usually used to make whisky. However, these drawbacks are more than compensated for by its exceptional, powerful aromas. Add to this the Breton climate with humidity levels similar to those in Ireland and Scotland but with warmer temperatures, giving Brittany a distinct advantage in the ageing process. All that remained to be done was understand the cereal so as to reveal its perfumes in a spirit. During this testing phase, Guy Le Lay was lucky enough to be advised by an international expert, Robert Léauté, a well-established cellar master from Cognac. Robert Léauté taught Guy the art of distilling, ageing and blending and guided him in creating EDDU. As it happens, buckwheat, a cereal originating centuries before from the Far East, is remarkably well adapted to Breton soil.

The story behind Distillerie des Menhirs...

The alembic pot stills (hybrids of the Cognac stills and the Scottish pot stills), heated with a naked flame rather than steam heating commonly used, as well as casks (ex- Cognac made of French oak from the Limousin region and Breton oak from the Brocéliande Forest) contribute to giving EDDU its aromas and its character. Its success was immediate, in stark contrast with its arduous and lengthy production.

Ulysses Whiskey x Art, Episode 6, Hades

Distillerie des Menhirs are creating a unique expression of their EDDU buckwheat whisky, with handpicked ex-cognac casks and three aging processes (one for each of the three iterations of the French translation of Ulysses and the three brothers Le Lay). The second and third casks should impart additional flavors and nuances to the whisky, resulting in a unique and complex dram. We will be filling only 3,750 bottles on June 16th 2029 in celebration of the centenary of the French translation of Ulysses. We await this episode with great anticipation!

The French Translation of Ulysses in 1929

In the annals of literary translation, few endeavours have been as ambitious or as fraught with difficulty as the French translation of James Joyce's Ulysses. The title page alone bears testament to the complexity of the task, listing a veritable who's who of translators: “Traduit de l’anglais par | M. AUGUSTE MOREL | assisté par M. STUART GILBERT | Traduction entièrement revue par | M. VALERY LARBAUD | avec la collaboration de L’AUTEUR”.

Valery Larbaud, a luminary of French literature in the 1920s, was renowned for his receptivity to the works of others. It was only natural that Sylvia Beach, the Paris-based publisher, would introduce him to Joyce, a meeting that took place on Christmas Eve 1920. The two men found common ground, and Larbaud expressed more than a passing interest in Ulysses.

The publication of Ludmila Savitsky’s translation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in early 1924 sparked Joyce's interest in having Ulysses translated. He was keen for Larbaud to take on the task, but Larbaud was otherwise engaged. Enter Auguste Morel, a young Breton who had demonstrated his linguistic prowess by translating Thompson’s The Hound of Heaven and other English poems. Morel was imaginative and gifted, but his command of English was not on par with Larbaud's, and even Larbaud struggled with Joyce's local allusions.

The translation process was slow and fraught with disputes over both the details of the translation and personal issues. The team, which included Larbaud, Morel, Joyce, Monnier, and later addition Léon-Paul Fargue, was a veritable team of rivals, each member feeling underappreciated by the others.

Prior to the initial English edition published by Shakespeare & Co. in February 1922, Joyce was already involved in the French translation of Ulysses. In 1921, Jacques Mechin translated the final episode, Penelope, for Valery Larbaud's renowned lecture on Ulysses. The lecture was organized by Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier and took place on December 7, 1921. During this process, Mechin made a significant addition to the novel: the famous final affirmative word, "oui". After an extensive discussion lasting several hours, Joyce decided to incorporate this suggestion into the original version of the novel.

In early 1927, Stuart Gilbert (born Arthur Stuart Ahluwalia Stronge Gilbert, the only son of a retired army officer, Arthur Stronge Gilbert, and Melvina Kundiher Singh, the daughter of Randhir Singh, the Raja of Kapurthala), who would later become a key figure in Joyce's circle, pointed out some significant errors in Morel's translation. At Beach's request, he sent these to Joyce and offered to review the French version. Joyce accepted, but this only led to further bickering. In 1928, Joyce convened all of his translators and publishers at Les Trianons and brokered what he later referred to as the 'Trianons Treaty', establishing Larbaud as the final arbiter.

Translating "Joyce’s Voices" into another language was a Herculean task. The French version of Ulysses is a fascinating study in comparative wordplay. For instance, Buck Mulligan’s pronouncement on the genital effects of cold sea water is rendered in French as ‘la grise et douce mere. La mer pituitaire. La mer contractilo-testiculaire.’ The French equivalents are as delightful and as witty as the English, and they also rhyme and introduce a meaningful homonym (the passage’s comparison of the sea with a mother is even more felicitous in French where mother is ‘mere’ and sea is ‘mer’).

In the realm of literary translation, the chasm between English and French can often seem insurmountable. This is particularly evident in the French rendition of the "Nausicaa" episode. The original line, ‘Think you’re escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home,’ has been translated as ‘Vous croyez vous echapper et c’est sur vous que vous tombez. Tous les chemins ramènent à Rome.’ All roads lead to Rome. This happens to rhyme with the English line, but, since Rome was the imperial hub of the ancient world, it compromises the book’s drive to locate the feeling of home in one’s colonized country. It matters that Leopold and Stephen find late-night friendship in Dublin, and that Leopold comes home to Molly there, not in Rome.

Exploring the French translation offers a deeper appreciation for the polylingual pleasures of Joyce’s prose. The first French edition of Ulysses, published by La Maison des Amis des Livres in 1929, is a testament to the monumental effort of the team of translators.


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