As soon as Jane Eyre was published, people started translating it, and they have carried on ever since. Three years after it came out people were reading it in Russian in St Petersburg and in Spanish in Havana, Cuba; and in lots of other places and languages too.
More recently, the novel has become hugely popular in many different cultures. There have been 38 different translations into Persian, in Iran; and as many as 130 into Chinese. If you’re interested, you can explore the spread of Jane Eyre using our interactive maps: you can zoom in, move around, and click for information. This one shows all the different places where it has been translated. This one shows the spread of its translations through time.
Whenever the book has been translated, someone has read it and re-made it in their own voice. It has changed, taking on different emphases and significance. This ability of the book to metamorphose and speak to many different people is the root of its popularity. It’s a creative process that every translator, and every reader, joins in.
Let’s look at a small example. When the young Jane is fighting back against her bullying older cousin, one of the watching servants says: ‘Did ever anybody see such a picture of passion!’ But what does that mean? If you wanted to say that again in your own words, what would you say? What do you see when you imagine the scene?
You might want to say: Has anyone ever seen such an angry girl! – or such a brave girl! – or such resistance! Or you might want to be a bit more inventive and go for something like ‘I’ve never seen anyone hit back like that!’ Or: ‘Look at her, she’s like a lion!’
These are the sorts of things translators write when they re-make the book in their own words in their own languages. A Russian translator in 1901 thought that Jane was rabid, like a mad dog. Two French translators in 1919, Marion Gilbert and Madeleine Duvivier, saw her has being like a fury. A Spanish translator in 1943, Juan G. de Luaces, though she was full of rage. To an Italian translator, Ugo Déttore, in 1974, the scene was pitiful.
What words would you choose, in any language that you know?
The animation on this page shows you lots of choices that have been made by translators over the last century and a half.
If you’re interested, you can explore other examples in the rest of our close reading pages.
And if you want to find out about some of the people who have translated Jane Eyre, go here.
Text by Matthew Reynolds