When grammar enriches a translation: Jane Eyre in German

Dr Mary Frank (Freelance; Bristol) looks at three German translations and formality of address.

Jane Eyre has existed in German almost as long as in English. The first translated excerpts were published in 1848, and more than 20 partial or complete translations into German have appeared since then. For more than 150 years, German readers’ impressions of the novel have been moulded by the decisions taken by successive translators.

My research focused on three of these translations. I looked at how the translators’ handling of formality of address affects readers’ perceptions of Jane’s interactions with certain characters. The earliest translation I studied, published in 1887-90, was made by Marie von Borch. I compared this with Helmut Kossodo’s translation, published in 1979, and with the most recent translation (2015), by Melanie Walz. I traced formality of address expressed by the translators’ choices between German’s two second-person personal pronouns: Sie (which is formal) and du (informal). While English has only you, which is neutral, translators into German must constantly choose between Sie and du. These choices influence German readers’ perceptions of characters and their relationships. They also reveal something about the translator’s views. I’ve known this ever since I began translating myself, but tracing this effect in these three translations was a fascinating reminder of its importance!

The choice between Sie and du in these translations is most significant at moments of emotional intensity. When Jane pleads with Mrs Reed to be released from the Red Room, in the von Borch translation she switches from addressing her aunt as Sie to using du. Given the coldness between the two, this shift to informality attracts the reader’s attention and creates a layer of emotion that is not present in the original text, where Jane uses only the undifferentiated you. It also raises questions about the translator’s perspective. Does von Borch make the switch to highlight Jane’s distress, which causes her to forget convention, or does the switch suggest that von Borch feels Jane is manipulative or offensive?

All three translators have Rochester switch to addressing Jane as du at his first proposal, exploiting the contrast between Sie and du to signal both emotional intensity and a milestone in their relationship. In this way, the translations can almost be said to improve the original, where only you is available. Similarly, the translations add a layer of nuance to Jane’s relationship with Rochester through the fact that, in all three, she never addresses him as du face-to-face. This is appropriate for, initially, a master-servant relationship and, later, a 19th-century marriage. In both the von Borch and the Walz translations, however, Jane addresses Rochester as du when speaking to him in her mind. Later, when she calls out to him in response to hearing his voice, all three translators have her address him as du. Again, the translators exploit the contrast between Sie and du to convey emotional intensity.

In contrast, only von Borch has St. John Rivers switch to addressing Jane as du when he proposes to her. The fact that Kossodo and Walz do not have St. John switch to addressing Jane as du at this point of emotional intensity could reflect their response to Brontë’s portrayal of St. John as a man who puts religious duty before love. These translators’ decision thus reveals a value judgement: St. John is not sufficiently capable of true love to call Jane du. For her part, Jane does not deviate in any of the translations from addressing St. John as Sie, even after – in the von Borch translation – he switches to addressing her as du. The translators exploit a choice made necessary by grammar to signal that Jane’s continued love for Rochester prevents her forging an emotional connection with St. John.

That the German translator of Jane Eyre has both Sie and du available means that a clear lexical signal can be given of the nature and progression of Jane’s relationships, something that the neutral you does not allow. This can be regarded as enriching the text, a gain in translation. It can also be argued, however, that the translators’ choices between Sie and du, inevitably shaped by their interpretation of the characters, can prevent readers making their own judgements, and so impoverish the reading experience. On balance, I like to think that translators’ choices challenge and stimulate readers, prompting questions and interpretations rather than hampering them. No language can ever be complete in itself. In this case, German can give Jane Eyre something that English lacks. The necessity of choosing between Sie and du becomes a virtue.

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