Why Jane Eyre?

As we saw on the Ideas page, the Prismatic Jane Eyre Project  set out to explore a phenomenon of translation, rather than to advance scholarship on Charlotte Brontë (though we hope we might do that too). How then did Jane Eyre come to be our focus?

I wanted a text that had been widely translated.

I wanted it not to be a poem. Why? Because there’s a widespread idea that the translation of poetry is something special, unusually inventive, really needing to be done by translators who are also poets. Few people will dispute that there can be no right or best translation of a poem, or that it is revealing to look at multiple versions. There’s nothing wrong with this view – except that it implies a contrast with ‘ordinary’ or ‘prose’ translation which is assumed to be more straightforwardly about ‘getting it right’. Yet prose can be inventive too; translating fiction is a matter, not only of language competence but also of imagination and style; and novels, like poems, are translated again and again. Studying this phenomenon in a novel, we can begin to see the creativity that is at work in all translation, and all people who translate.

Our novel needed to be out of print, for practical reasons. Ideally, it should have an uncomplicated textual history in English, so that it would not be hard for us to be sure which text a translator was working from.  I wanted the book not to be enormously elaborate stylistically because, if it were, (eg a late work by Henry James)  the question of how the translators had met the challenge of the style was likely to dominate discussion.

So our novel  was starting to look rather mid-nineteenth century … and then Jane Eyre floated into view. A book that was brilliantly written, but in a fairly plain style. One that was popular, as well as canonical. One that had been much translated (thought quite how much, I didn’t realise at this initial stage).

The more I thought about and re-read Jane Eyre, the more it came to seem the perfect book for the kind of exploration I wanted to make. It was full of contradictions that were likely to play out differently in different places, times and tongues.  It was a powerfully feminist book, yet also a romance. It attacks slavery and the class system, and yet is permeated by racist and classist assumptions. It sets ‘Reason’ against ‘Passion’, independence against love.

It is often felt to be an archetypally English novel, anchored in Yorkshire; but it is in fact made from quite varied linguistic and cultural materials. Written in the wake of Charlotte Brontë’s intense two years studying French in Brussels, it includes a French character, Adèle, and a Parisian flashback, as well as being peppered with French words and turns of phrase. It has a connection to Jamaica, and therefore to empire, through the character Bertha Mason. St John Rivers learns a language he calls ‘Hindostanee’ before setting out for missionary work in India.

And Jane Eyre gives an unusual prominence to translation. Near the start of the last phase of the novel, after she has fled Thornfield, and has been sleeping rough, and is weak from hunger, Jane gazes through a window and sees ‘two young, graceful women’ who will later turn out to be her cousins. Look at what they are doing: ‘a stand between them supported a second candle and two great volumes, to which they frequently referred; comparing them seemingly with the smaller books they held in their hands, like people consulting a dictionary to aid them in the task of translation.’

A book that has been much translated, that is itself interested in translation, and offers great challenge and stimulus to translators? A book that has provoked and fascinated generations of readers in many places in the world?

So Jane Eyre became the focus of our project.

Text by Matthew Reynolds.