Throughout our close-reading pages, we use back-translation (i.e., translating the translations back into English) to give you a sense of how the meaning and phrasing in the translation differ from the words that Charlotte Brontë wrote. This is a common thing to do in our line of research, but there is something paradoxical about it.

The whole interest of studying translations lies in opening your mind to new ways of making meaning through language, ways that cannot be exactly replicated in English any more than the translations themselves can exactly reproduce the nuances of Brontë’s text. How then can we use English to show you what they are?

Equally, if the translators are competent, isn’t the best back-translation going to be the text that they were working from, i.e. Charlotte Brontë’s own words?

To answer these questions, we need to see that translation is never just into ‘a language’, but always into something more specific: a kind of language. The Jane Eyre translators are – for the most part – working in a sphere of literary creativity, aiming to produce an idiomatic kind of language that suits the novel. They will all have different ideas about what that is, of course: some might want to make it sound modern, some might go for a more archaic feel; and in the particular case of Jane Eyre, many are abridging the book with an eye to engaging a teenage or young-adult audience. So they choose a kind of language appropriate to those aims.

In being idiomatic, or in capturing some effect of rhythm or tone, the translators might choose words or phrases that depart from the dictionary meanings of the text they are translating. Or they may have no choice, because the structure and vocabulary of their language may force them to generate divergent meanings.

But our back-translations have a different purpose. We want to help you understand what happens when the novel is re-made in a language that you do not know; and we want to give you an idea of how that differs from Charlotte Brontë’s English. We don’t mind if our back-translations don’t seem literary or stylish: that is not what they are for. So translation and back-translation do not travel along the same path in opposite directions: rather, they set off at different angles.

Let’s look at some examples.

In chapter 27, just before Jane leaves Rochester, she pauses to say farewell: ‘I walked back – walked back.’ In his 1997 Greek translation, Dimitris Kikizas gives ‘ξαναγύρισα, ξαναγύρισα’, which Eleni Philippou back-translates as:  ‘I returned again, I returned again.’ Here, Kikizas chooses not to make a construction with the usual Greek verb for ‘walk’ (περπατάω ) because it would sound odd to him in this context: he goes for more idiomatic Greek phrasing instead. Now, Dr Philippou could have translated that idiomatically in her turn, so as to give ‘I came back’ or even Brontë’s ‘I walked back’ in the back-translation. But, since the back-translation does not have to be idiomatic, she chooses instead words that help the English reader see the semantic distinctiveness of the Greek phrasing: ‘ξανα’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘γύρισα’ giving the idea of ‘turning’ or ‘returning’.

A more extreme example comes in the animation of the red-room scene from chapter 2. Here, where Brontë wrote ‘I was a discord in Gateshead Hall’ Dominique Jean, in his French translation of 2008, gives ‘je discordais’, which I back-translate as ‘I discorded’. Here again, Jean makes a choice that works idiomatically in French, while I choose not to be idiomatic in the back-translation. I want to show that Jean has turned ‘discord’ into a verb.

It is the same when Rochester’s attempt ‘to walk about’ in chapter 37 is translated into Chinese by Song Zhaolin in 2005 as 走动走动 {zoudong zoudong}, and back-translated by Yunte Huang as ‘walk move walk move’. Professor Huang wants to give an idea of the individual semantic content of the successive Chinese characters.

On other occasions, we add notes to the back-translations to indicate elements such as archaism, Anglicism, or the root significance of terms that have taken on substantially different meanings over time.

In all these cases, and whenever you are looking at a back-translation, the key thing to remember is that you are not getting an exact reproduction of what is going on in the translation, but only a gesture towards it. The back-translations are like rough sketches that have been done to help you imagine a place you cannot see.

Text by Matthew Reynolds, incorporating research by Yunte Huang, Eleni Philippou and Céline Sabiron.