Prismatic Jane Eyre Schools Project: from Spanish to slang and beyond

Jessica Rainey is a translator from French and Spanish, and an Associate Lecturer in Translation at Durham and Newcastle Universities. Jessica produced the Spanish resources for the Prismatic Jane Eyre Schools Project and ran online and in-person workshops at Luton Sixth Form College, London Enterprise Academy, The Ursuline High School and Sedgehill Academy.

I don’t recall Jane Eyre being a school text, but I certainly read it as a teenager, ploughing my way through the classics and devouring the Brontë sisters’ work. I read it again at university, this time as background reading for the post-colonial novel, Wide Sargasso Sea. This prequel opened my eyes to the ‘other’ and forced an unexpected reappraisal of the main characters in Jane Eyre. It was probably this prior focus on alternative perspectives and rereading that came to mind when I saw the possible extracts for the workshops.

The extract featuring Bertha in the fire at Thornfield Hall – and the corresponding Spanish translations – immediately grabbed my attention: no doubt because of the earlier awareness of this marginalised character, but also because of the noticeable differences in the three translations. One in particular stood out as having significant omissions in the description and actions of Bertha. In some ways, then, the workshop for older students suggested: a look at these differences in translation; how translation can influence the reading of a text (or how translation is an act of reading); and how translation can therefore be used as a springboard for creativity.

The creative challenge was to rewrite their literal translation (from the Spanish) using either very formal or very informal language. The creative freedom of this task was intended to be, and really was, surprising for the students:

“So we can write it how we want?”
“So you want us to write this in English?”
“And we can say it how we would with our mates?”
“Yes. Definitely. Do that. Use slang. Use dialect if you want.”

The result was that I had to look up some of the terms in urban dictionaries when I typed them up. And check Portuguese conjugation tables when two students decided to translate the text into their home language. The result was, hopefully, that students went away with a shift in their view of translation as a tick-box language exercise, as something that has only one answer.

For the younger group, in line with the competition, I wanted to do a workshop that involved rewriting a prose extract as a poem. The selected extract (Women feel just as men feel) comes from a section where Jane Eyre is reflecting on her situation, and the situation of women in general, and which leant itself – with its passion and repetitions – to the form of a protest poem. As with the older students, the aim was to bring their own experiences, their own use of language, to the translation. And, crucially, to make it relevant to them today. So they were tasked with rewriting the extract about something they felt passionate about, something they thought worth fighting for. The results were sometimes humorous, sometimes personal, always engaged. There was a strong theme of teenagers being misunderstood by adults! There were also thoughtful reflections on animal rights, and a reversal of the extract arguing that men feel too.

Again, there was some bafflement as to what they were being asked to do – sitting in a foreign language class being asked to be creative in English – and this is perhaps where the overlap between certain subjects seems underexploited. Students have certain expectations for certain subjects: English Literature involves knowledge of an author, analysis of style and interpretation of a text; English Language involves the mechanics of language use but also that language use in practice, i.e. writing and creativity; MFL involves understanding and (the somewhat mechanical) use of a foreign language. Creative Translation involves all of these things. Yet the connection is currently weak. One aim of the Prismatic Jane Eyre workshops and resources, then, was to strengthen these connections, making students aware that they already possess all the skills to produce vibrant and meaningful translations – meaningful to them, and their peers.

And this process can be further enhanced with the upcoming competition anthology. Featuring student translations of a prose extract into a foreign language poem, there is clear potential for these texts to tie-in with the existing Prismatic Jane Eyre resources. First, simply as inspiration and examples for creative translation ideas, integrated into the teacher-led workshops. Further, as homework, independent study or an extension to the workshops, students could:

  • Analyse the original passage
  • Select a poem from the anthology and analyse the translation choices
  • Translate the poem back into English
  • Compare the shifts in vocabulary between the new translation and the original extract
  • Or turn the poem back into a prose extract maintaining the foreign language
  • Even translate into another language, say, from community language into studied language, or between two studied languages.

Anything really to achieve the ultimate aim: to encourage a perception of language as dynamic, and language-learning as relevant and – in the words of one student – bere.

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