Prismatic Words

Like many novels, Jane Eyre orients its imaginative world, and its values, around key words. One of them is ‘passion’: the young Jane is thought to be ‘passionate’, in the sense of easily moved to anger; but this ‘passion’ is also a quickness to resist injustice. Later, she also feels ‘passion’ in the sense of love.

Another such word is ‘plain’ which, with ‘plainly’ and ‘plainness’ appears in the novel forty-nine times. Jane is plain (not beautiful), she speaks plainly (frankly), and she likes plain (simple) things; in the story, things are heard plainly (clearly) and become plain (are understood); and the novel itself is described as ‘a plain tale’ (a realist novel, that shows the world as it is).

One of Brontë’s ambitions in her writing was to re-assess both ‘passion’ and ‘plain’. She created a woman character who can be admired for her strength – rather than gentleness –  of feeling, and valued for her mind and principles rather than her looks. And she wrote a story that can be enjoyed for its truth-telling as much or more than for its excitements. For Brontë, ‘passion’ and ‘plain’ are what the literary critic William Empson called ‘complex words’: bundles of culturally-charged different meanings that need a whole play or novel to explore their synergies and contradictions.    

In translation, these meanings can be opened up in ways that allow us both to see new aspects of the novel, and to trace how such charged terms are reconfigured and re-oriented in different languages and cultures. Take just one instance of ‘passionate’, when the young Jane is being told off by Mrs Reed’s servant, Bessie: ‘if you become passionate and rude, Missis will send you away, I am sure.’ What exactly might ‘passionate’ mean in that context?  – and what is felt to be wrong with it?

Translators have inevitably faced the same question; and looking at their work can help us to explore its ramifications.  Here is a small, provisional prismatic array of translations: into Greek by Polly Moschopoulou (1991), Dimitris Kikizas (1997) and Maria Exarchou (2011), researched by Eleni Philippou, and into Portuguese by Leyguarda Ferreira (1951), Maria das Mercês de Mendonça Soares (1974), and  Alice Rocha (2011), researched by Ana Marques dos Santos:

Different aspects of ‘passion’ – more towards madness, or more towards anger – are brought to light and emphasized, according to the translators’ imaginings of the scene and the values of the cultures in which they were writing. For other scenes of passion, and many other translations, explore our pages on passion.    

‘Plain’ is an extreme case,  an Empsonian complex word which not only grows but explodes through translation. One of the group of researchers in Pisa, Caterina Cappelli, traced the word through thirteen Italian translations, and found that it was  translated in – wait for it – sixty-eight quite different ways, in terms that correspond to: simple, ugly, clear, frank, insignificant, sincere, well, open, modest, frank, easy, distinct, dull, common, smooth, white, and so on, and on. You can read more about this here, and discver what becomes of plain in many languages in our pages on plain.

Our last two key words are ‘walk’ and ‘wander’.

Text by Matthew Reynolds.