The word ‘plain’, with its derivatives ‘plainly’ and ’plainness’, appears 48 times in Jane Eyre. Like ‘passion’ – only perhaps even more so – it covers a wide semantic range. It can refer to physical looks – Jane is frequently called ‘plain’, by herself and others – and to dress, hairstyle and food: plain uniforms and ‘plain fare’ form part of the grim régime at Lowood School. But it is also, crucially, used of perception and speech, especially when they are performed by Jane: she sees and hears things plainly, and speaks ‘the plain truth’. Her behaviour in the book shares these traits with the narrative that she is imagined as having written: when the second edition of Jane Eyre came out in 1848, Brontë described it in the ‘Preface’ as ‘a plain tale’.

Again like ‘passion’,  the repetitions of ‘plain’ in the English text imply an argument about values, and one which has particular force in the context of Victorian ideas about gender. To put it briefly: it shouldn’t matter if a woman looks plain; what is important is that she perceives things plainly (ie, gets at the truth) and utters them plainly, whether she is speaking to Mr. Rochester or writing for the public.

As we will see in more detail in the pages that follow, no one word in any translation covers the same range as Brontë’s ‘plain’ (though the Slovenian ‘preprosto’ comes close). In fact, research by Caterina Cappelli has shown that, in thirteen Italian translations of Jane Eyre, ‘plain’ is translated by a total of 68 separate terms. Here is a table, constructed by Caterina, that shows how often different groups of terms are used:

And here is the same data visualised as percentages:

So none of the translations imply the same argument through their use of a single word as Brontë does with her repetitions of ‘plain’.

But the book’s argument about the complex power of plainness is not made only through particular vocabulary. It is also made through the plot, the sequence of scenes in which the novel’s valuations are acted out by its characters. In this dramatic unfolding of meaning, Jane’s looks and language are still, broadly speaking, ‘plain’ whatever words are used to describe them.

So when we study the source text and the translations together we can see, in the English, the particular verbal texture that helped Brontë develop her distinctive understanding of the significance of plainness; and then, in the translations, an explosion of re-wordings, through which the nuances of that understanding shift as it is re-formed with different linguistic materials.

What in English is the plain truth may be described with words that can be back-translated as ‘naked’, ‘simple’ or ‘unadorned’ (and many more), while plain speech might be seen as ‘hasty’, ‘blunt’ or ‘open’. These re-wordings then establish new connections across the texts and contexts in which they appear. For instance – as we will see – where Brontë’s English maintains a distinction between ‘plain’ and ‘ugly’, several French and Italian translations use just one word (‘laid’ or ‘brutto’) to span both English terms.

In Brontë’s text, ‘plain’ establishes various fleeting and perhaps accidental relationships with other words to which it is connected by sound and/or etymology. It rhymes with ‘pain’ and has a kinship to ‘explain’. It overlaps with its homonyms ‘to plain’ – that is, to lament, as when, in chapter 28, Jane’s heart ‘plained of its gaping wounds’ – and ‘a plain’ in the sense of a flat stretch of landscape, as when, in chapter 24, Mr. Rochester plans to take Jane to ‘Italian plains’ after the wedding. And of course it rhymes with the protagonist’s own name. The phrase ‘plain Jane’ never exactly appears in the novel (it is first found in print in a play by M. Rophino Lacy, Doing for the Best, which premièred in 1861, and which has some thematic similarities to Jane Eyre though no explicit indebtedness). Nevertheless, ‘plain’ is at the heart of Jane’s being, and her book charges the word with new energies.  

In the translations, the linguistic phosphorescence of rhyme of course plays out differently, across other words. But the feminist thrust of Jane’s association with plainness – in all its meanings – does not therefore lose its force. In the book of the project, essays by Andrés Claro, Claudia Pazos Alonso and Ana Teresa Marques dos Santos will show this in detail. Jane may no longer rhyme with ‘plain’, but – in the eyes of many translators – her tale still speaks plain truths. 

Text by Matthew Reynolds, incorporating research and graphics by Caterina Cappelli.