Close Reading

You might think that it is impossible to look in detail at the text of the novel as it is transformed across so many languages. There is just so much of it! So much novel, and so many translations. In total, in the language-cloud of global Jane Eyre, there are more than a hundred million words.

One way of working with such vastness is to map it, as we have done on our Maps pages; another is to investigate it with computer analysis, as we are beginning to do on our Distant Reading pages. Much can be discovered by these techniques. Yet if we can find a way of Close Reading too, then so much more can be brought into view.

We can explore the variety of ways in which people have interpreted and imagined the book. We can trace the differences in meaning and texture between different languages. We can investigate cultural difference at the micro level. And we can really get to grips with the large conceptual question that underpins this project. What sort of existence does a novel have across languages? How much is Jane Eyre really made of English? Or is it somehow made from malleable imaginative tissue that can take on different forms in different languages, while still somehow being itself?    

Here is a small example. In the language of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, the old, intimate second person pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ have only a faint, residual presence in religious contexts like the marriage service. After he has proposed in chapter 23, Rochester seems full of Christian awe at what he has done, together with anxiety about his particular circumstance: ‘It will expiate at God’s tribunal. I know my maker sanctions what I do.’ The shadow of this mystical reflection falls on his choice of pronoun: ‘I could have sat with thee till morning, Jane’. The pronoun has the same Christian inflection in Chapter 37: ‘I longed for thee both with soul and flesh! I asked of God . . .’. But in non-religious contexts, however intimate or flirtatious, Jane and Rochester can only ever call each other ‘you’ (and it says something about Jane that she never reaches for the prayerful tonality of ‘thee’).

In other tongues, shifts between kinds of pronoun that might roughly correspond to ‘you’ and ‘thee’ carry different weight. Languages close to English like French, German or Italian maintain a systematic distinction between more formal kinds of ‘you’ (‘vous’, ‘Lei’ or voi’, ‘Sie’) and less formal kinds (‘tu’, ‘tu’, ‘du’). So in those languages it is possible for Jane and Rochester to do something that they can’t in English – to slip into calling each other ‘tu’, or ‘du’ as a sign of growing intimacy.

Where does it happen?  In all the French translations we have looked at it actually does not happen at all. In the German ones it does – but in different places for different translators. Mary Frank is writing in detail about this phenomenon for the book that will be published as Phase Four of the project, but already we can see the conceptual question it poses. Is that moment of switching into greater intimacy of address already somehow present in the English, but invisible? Or is it something new, something added, something that can only exist in German?

If we move to a language such as Korean – studied by Sowon Park – where the modes of address are much more complicated, and involve many levels of formality, then the question gets more complicated too.   

In order to explore such issues – in order to close-read this global novel across languages – we have had to be selective. Groups of us have got together and discussed the book in many of its different tongues, and defined the aspects we would like to investigate in detail.

We have chosen individual words that are particularly important in the novel and its translations: words that range from ‘passion’ to ‘plain’ and ‘walk’. We have chosen patterns of metaphor, some grammatical forms, and some extended passages. The results of this work will not appear until Phase Two of the project is published on this site (do use the Subscribe form in the sidebar if you wish to keep in touch with our progress). In the meantime, you can read brief treatments of Jane Eyre’s Prismatic Titles and Prismatic Words.

Text by Matthew Reynolds