Jane’s Voice in Spanish Translation

Patricia González Bermúdez is a Teaching Fellow at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Creative Practitioner at the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation (TCLCT), with a particular interest in the Spanish translations of Jane Eyre. In this post she explores Jane’s voice in three Spanish translations.

Jane Eyre is a novel of female agency where Jane, the central protagonist, writes her own story in her own words, in her own voice. When moving the text from English into another language, translators make a variety of stylistic and conceptual choices to re-create Jane’s unique voice. Of the numerous Jane Eyre translations available in Spanish (over 30), I will explore three that were carried out during the 20th century to see how the transposition of voice has been approached. I have chosen the unabridged translations by José Fermández (1928), Camila Batllés (1971), and Carmen Martín Gaite (1999), all done in very different socio-political backgrounds, stretching respectively from Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship to Franco’s regime and then to secular democracy.

To explore the various renderings of Jane’s voice, let’s look specifically at a section in Chapter 27, after Jane finds out that Rochester is married, and she decides that she must leave him:

But, then, a voice within me averred that I could do it and foretold that I should do it. I wrestled with my own resolution: I wanted to be weak that I might avoid the awful passage of further suffering I saw laid out for me; and Conscience, turned tyrant,held Passion by the throat, told her tauntingly, she had yet but dipped her dainty foot in the slough, and swore that with that arm of iron he would thrust her down to unsounded depths of agony.

In his translation of the above passage, José Fernández reduces Jane’s inner struggle to a simple matter of “conscience” while also introducing the notions of “decency” and “duty” (“me imponían ladecencia y la propia estimación, y si este era mi deber…”; back translation: “decency and my own self-respect imposed this onto me and if this was my duty…”). These notions are absent from the source text where Jane says she would like to avoid “further suffering”. In contrast, Camila Batllés and Carmen Martín Gaite maintain the anthropomorphic metaphors for Conscience and Passion (although Martín Gaite does not capitalize them). These two later translations have more clearly retained the emphasis on the protagonist’s ongoing inner struggle. There are some differences between the source text and the translations in vocabulary and attitudinal values, especially in Martín Gaite’s version. Significantly, we find the mistranslation of “wrestled” as “debated” (“Me debatí contra mi propia firmeza”; back translation: “I debated myself against my own resolution”) that turns a violent physical battle between Passion and Conscience into a discussion.

In the English original, Conscience is personified as a tyrannical masculine figure who subdues Passion, a feminine figure. In Spanish, these gendered personifications pose a challenge to the translator since both abstract ideas are linguistically gendered feminine. The aforementioned translators offer three different solutions to this gender conundrum: Fernández erases the concepts altogether, simplifying the figurative language that Jane uses, while Batllés neutralises it and leaves both as feminine ideas: “la Conciencia, convertida en una tirana, asió a la Pasión por el cuello” (I have italicised the feminine articles and endings). Martín Gaite works around the morphological limitation in Spanish by presenting “Conscience” as a despot, a noun of the masculine gender and culturally and historically associated with males (“Mi conciencia, transformada en déspota, había acogotado a la pasión”; back translation: “My conscience, transformed into a despot had grabbed passion by the neck”).

The conflict between “will” or “conscience” and “grief” appears throughout the chapter and becomes the focus of Jane’s inner monologue when she has left Thornfield and is roaming the moors alone:

I had no solace from self-approbation: none even from self-respect. (…) I was hateful in my own eyes.  Still I could not turn, nor retrace one step.  God must have led me on.  As to my own will or conscience, impassioned grief had trampled one and stifled the other.  I was weeping wildly as I walked along my solitary way: fast, fast I went like one delirious.

Fernández’ translation of this passage is very concise: 67 words in English are reduced to a mere 52 words in Spanish, which is especially surprising as Spanish is a generally more expansive language. Batllés’ version is 82 words, and Martín Gaite’s 93. Fernández’ focuses on the idea of “decorum” which is actually absent in the source text. He also makes no explicit mention of the inner battle between “will or conscience” and “grief”, unlike Batllés and Martín Gaite.

Only one of the three translators have kept the mention of God in the passage. Neither Fernández nor Martín Gaite present Jane’s decision to walk away and not turn back as God’s guidance. The omission is particularly surprising in Fernández’ 1928 work, which was carried out during a historical period when Catholicism was a strong aspect of Spanish culture. It is perhaps more significant in Martin Gaite, who turns Jane’s determination not to go back into inability: “no fui capaz” (I was not able). It also questions God’s guidance: “no sé si sería un designio divino el que me empujaba hacia adelante” (“I don’t know if it might have been a divine design that pushed me forward”). Perhaps, Martín Gaite, translating in democratic secular Spain, considered that glossing over strong religious belief would make this proto-feminist heroine more attractive to a modern audience, but this choice is questionable in that it introduces a shift in the attitudes and values of the Jane in the English text.

As we can see in the two example passages, Jane’s voice is abundant in poetic language. The reader perceives Jane’s inner voice as both powerful and vulnerable: some of the sentences are broken, others are short to transmit her emotional exhaustion. Batllés is the only translator who transposes the novel’s conversational style, inserting commas to break the flow of Jane’s speech. In contrast, Fernández simplifies the syntax and the imagery, and Martín Gaite introduces long clauses, making the tone more formal and florid.

Looking at these examples, it is easy to see the important role translators have had in creating a voice for characters and narrators in novels. Spanish translators of Jane Eyre have dealt with the challenge of Jane’s narrative voice in different and interesting ways. When we look at the translations side by side it would be hard to deny that each of these voices are, in fact, different Janes.

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