Translations are different from their source texts, but are taken by readers as equivalents – ie, are used as though they are the same. It’s what happens whenever anyone says ‘yes, I have read Elena Ferrante’, or ‘yes, I have read the Iliad’, when really they have been reading translations.

This definition helps us to distinguish between texts we want to call translations and those that are adaptations or imitations. Anyone can see that a film adaptation of Jane Eyre is substantially different from the novel; anyone can see that a response to Jane Eyre like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) is a different book from Charlotte Brontë’s, even though it includes some of the same characters, plot elements and themes. Translations too are different from their sources, but the differences are harder to grasp because they are in language rather than medium or plot. For the person reading it, a translation of Jane Eyre usually IS Jane Eyre.

Many of the Jane Eyres we have included in our research are very different from the book Charlotte Brontë wrote: radically abridged, like the first Chinese version, Chong guang ji (See Light Again Story) by Zhou Shoujuan (1925); abridged and re-written, like the first French version by ‘Old Nick’ (1849); censored for political reasons; or simplified for children. Yet what these texts all have in common is that they offer themselves as being the novel again, though in a different language; and they can be taken in that way by readers.  

As we began to see on the Ideas page, this mix of difference with equivalence is what makes translation so fascinating, and so tricky to think about. It also drives the generation of ever more translations: a translator, or a publisher, will think: these existing Jane Eyres are not really doing the job of being Jane Eyre for me – I don’t like the style, the idiom seems out of date or (simply) they are not in the right language. And so another translation is undertaken. This ever-increasing plurality is the main sign of the phenomenon I call Prismatic Translation.

The mix of difference with equivalence in translation raises profound questions about the nature of literary texts – indeed, of any text. To what extent are they made from language, or from any particular language? Do they have some sort of existence that is separable from language, or from any particular language? How far, when we read a translation, can we really say that we are reading the same book? Even when people read Jane Eyre in English are they really all reading the same text, seeing the same things?

In a famous essay, Die Aufgabe des Übersetzers (The Task of the Translator – 1923), Walter Benjamin tried to describe the ever-evolving existence of a literary work across languages. He talked of ‘Überleben’ – afterlife, or survival, and ‘Fortleben’ – life after death, or in memory;  of ‘Entfaltung’ – unfolding, or flowering, and of ripening and maturing. These ways of putting it help us to get away from the narrow way of thinking according to which translations are always trying to be the same as the original, and always failing. It helps us to be more open to the transformations that happen as a work is remade in new languages, by new people, in new contexts; to conceive of them as growth more than as loss; as realisations of the generative potential of the source, and struggles with its challenges and contradictions. Viewed like this, translations become instances of the human and shared workings of all reading, writing and imagining.  

You can explore examples of this phenomenon in our Close Reading pages.

Text by Matthew Reynolds

You can read more about these ideas in Matthew Reynolds (ed.), Prismatic Translation (Oxford: Legenda, 2019) and Matthew Reynolds, Translation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2016). Other books that have shaped the prismatic approach totranslation include Charles Martindale, Redeeming the Text: Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Douglas Robinson, The Translator’s Turn (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991); Theo Hermans, The Conference of the Tongues (Manchester: St Jerome, 2007); Lydia H. Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture and Translated Modernity: China, 1900-1937 (Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 1995); Eugenia Loffredo and Manuela Perteghella, eds, One Poem in Search of a Translator: Rewriting ‘Les Fenêtres’ by Apollinaire (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009); David Chioni Moore et al., ‘An African Classic in Fourteen Translations’, PMLA 128. 1 (January 2013), 101-11;  Patrick O’Neill, Polyglot Joyce: Fictions of Translation (Toronto, Buffalo and London: University of Toronto Press, 2005); Kate Briggs, This Little Art (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017); Barbara Cassin, Vocabulaire européen des philosophes: dictionnaire des intraduisibles (Paris: Éditions de Seuil, 2004); Annmarie Drury, Translation as Transformation in Victorian Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Karen Emmerich, Literary Translation and the Making of Originals (London: Bloomsbury, 2017); Christian M.I.M. Matthiessen, ‘The Environments of Translation’, in Erich Steiner and Colin Yallop, eds, Text, Translation, Computational Processing [TTCP]: Exploring Translation and Multilingual Text Production: Beyond Content (Berlin and New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2013), pp. 41-126; Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei: How a Chinese Poem is Translated (Kingston, Rhode Island and London: Asphodel Press, 1987); Naoki Sakai, ‘Translation’, Theory, Culture & Society23. 2–3 (2006), 71–86. DOI: 10.1177/0263276406063778; Clive Scott, Literary Translation and the Rediscovery of Reading (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Adam Thirlwell, ed., Multiples: An Anthology of Stories in an Assortment of Languages and Literary Styles (London: Portobello, 2013).