Ugly and Brutto/a

The anonymous translator of the first Italian Jane Eyre, published in 1904, had Lesbazeilles-Souvestre’s French version open in front of them as they worked, alongside Brontë’s English. And they followed Lesbazeilles-Souvestre in abolishing the English distinction between ‘plain’ and ‘ugly’. Where she wrote ‘laid(e)’, they put the nearest Italian equivalent – ‘brutto’ and its derivatives – in almost every instance. There is just one case where the Italian translator deviates from Lesbazeilles-Souvestre’s example: right at the end of the novel, in Chapter 37, where Rochester asks Jane if he is ‘hideous’, the Italian gives, not ‘brutto, but ‘orribile’ (horrible).

Yet ‘brutto’ does not have exactly the same range as ‘laid’. It can be used more casually, for instance to talk about bad weather ‘brutto tempo’. The 1904 Italian translator exploits this flexibility in the word: ‘brutto’ and its derivatives appear 29 times in their translation where ‘laid’ etc had appeared only 22 times in Lesbazeilles-Souvestre – this despite the fact that the 1904 Italian version shrinks the text to about 145,000 words in length, by contrast with Brontë’s c. 189,000 and Lesbazeilles-Souvestre’s c. 193,000.

Here in the animation you can see all the extra moments (in addition to those that copy Lesbazeilles-Souvestre) where the Italian translator reaches for brutto/a:

These additional instances soften the linguistic focus of the text. They help us see, by contrast, how it matters that Brontë’s English gave particular attention to ‘plain’, together with its relation to ‘ugly’; and indeed how it matters – in a different way – that the French of Lesbazeilles-Souvestre merged the two terms of that articulation, so as to give distinctive prominence to the ‘laid(e)’.

List of translations quoted.

Text, animation and research by Matthew Reynolds