Free indirect style in Jane Eyre and its German translations

Dr Jernej Habjan (Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts) showcases the novel’s peculiar use of free indirect style, a staple of modern prose since Jane Austen, and looks at how this peculiarity is refracted in German.

When I joined the Prismatic Jane Eyre project my plan was to look at the translations of Jane Eyre in Slovenian, my first language, and Serbo-Croatian, the first language in the country I grew up in, Yugoslavia. This focus on translations also helped me notice something peculiar in the source text itself, a feature that I found quite often in the novel but never in any of the translations nor in any modern novel in English. This historical change demanded a look at a tradition of translation older than that in Slovenian or Serbo-Croatian; I chose German, a language in which Jane Eyre has existed almost as long as in English, as Mary Frank writes in her blog, which can be found here.

The feature I have in mind concerns something as fundamental to literary prose as narration of speech. Most speech is narrated either as direct speech, where what is said is quoted verbatim, or as indirect speech, where what is said is conforms to the narrator’s tenses and pronouns. In Charlotte Brontë’s time, English novelists liked to mix direct and indirect speech to introduce a new perspective that is identical neither with the narrator’s nor with the character’s. Here is an example of direct speech:

He said: ‘You should not have left me thus, without any means of making your way: you should have told me your intention.’

An indirect rendering would look like this:

He said that I should not have left him thus, without any means of making my way, and that I should have told him my intention.

And here is the same example  as free indirect speech:

I should not have left him thus, he said, without any means of making my way: I should have told him my intention.

In fact, it may surprise you to learn that this very last example is taken from the second last chapter of Jane Eyre, which I have cited below:

I should not have left him thus, he said, without any means of making my way: I should have told him my intention. I should have confided in him: he would never have forced me to be his mistress. Violent as he had seemed in his despair, he, in truth, loved me far too well and too tenderly to constitute himself my tyrant: he would have given me half his fortune, without demanding so much as a kiss in return, rather than I should have flung myself friendless on the wide world. I had endured, he was certain, more than I had confessed to him.

Yet, this is not the only example of free indirect speech in the novel. In the second chapter, Jane’s past exclamation (the ‘why’) merges with her present report:

I could not answer the ceaseless inward question – why I thus suffered; now, at the distance of – I will not say how many years, I see it clearly.

In this example, Jane tries to embrace her own past speech – just as she tries to embrace Rochester’s present speech in the second last chapter. Embracing her past as an orphan of Lowood, and her future as Mrs Rochester; her past self, and her future other; her virtue, and her reward.

These are almost the only examples of free indirect speech in Jane Eyre. There is, however, in Jane Eyre a lot of what I have called free indirect style in quotation marks: a style that merges indirect speech with the tone of direct speech and also quotation marks. As they are used in Jane Eyre, these quotation marks bracket off the speech (and the speaker) they are quoting, just as standard free indirect style seemed to embrace the speech it was relaying. This is one of many examples of this peculiar free indirect style in quotation marks:

I felt sorely urged to weep; but conscious how unseasonable such a manifestation would be, I restrained it. Soon I asked her if there were any dressmaker or plain-workwoman in the village?’

‘Yes; two or three. Quite as many as there was employment for.’

Did she know of any place in the neighbourhood where a servant was wanted?’

Nay; she couldn’t say.’

What was the chief trade in this place? What did most of the people do?’

Some were farm labourers; a good deal worked at Mr. Oliver’s needle-factory, and at the foundry.’

Did Mr. Oliver employ women?’

Nay; it was men’s work.’

And what do the women do?’

I knawn’t,’ was the answer.

Interestingly, the last two lines shift to ordinary direct speech. The exchange itself appears to self-consciously notice, as it were, that it consists of reported, indirect speech which is at once quoted as if it were direct speech!

This tension between quoting and reporting is all the more obvious if we look at translations as they tend to resolve it in the direction of either quoting or reporting. In 2008, Martin Engelmann chose reporting for his German translation of the passage I discussed above:

Ob Mr. Oliver auch Frauen beschäftige?

Nein, dies sei Männerarbeit.

Und womit beschäftigten sich die Frauen?

Keine Ahnung’, lautete die Antwort.

This is a recent update of the first nearly complete German translation, published by Marie von Borch between 1887 and 1890. Her translation, however, turns the direct speech of the second last line back into free indirect speech in quotation marks:

Ob Mr. Oliver auch Frauen beschäftige?’

Nein, es sei Männerarbeit.’

Und womit beschäftigten sich die Frauen?’

Weiß nicht,’ lautete die Antwort.

Here, von Borch chose to ignore the solution proposed by the source text and reintroduces the tension, turning, in back-translation,

And what do the women do?’


And what did the women do?’

More Catholic than the Pope, von Borch’s translation brings back the tension resolved by the source text itself, a solution followed also by Engelmann’s revision of von Borch. As such, her 1887–90 translation is updated by Engelmann in 2008 in the same way the original exchange itself is altered by its final pair of lines. The dynamics of this passage in English are thus refracted in the history of its German translations. In turn, this translation history mirrors the history of English prose itself: much like Engelmann and other contemporary translators of Jane Eyre (Andrea Ott or Melanie Walz in German, Božena Legiša-Velikonja in Slovenian), the English novel after the Brontës, too, seems increasingly uncomfortable with the tension of quoted reporting, or, reported quoting. It would be fascinating to explore how this tension plays out in other languages, be they languages of source texts or languages of translations!

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