How can you read a novel in hundreds of translations? (and why would you want to?)

our authors Nov 16, 2023

by Matthew Reynolds

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre has been translated hundreds of times – in fact, more than 600 times into at least 68 languages. So this novel, often thought of as a very English book, is in fact not that at all. Almost immediately after its publication it was being read, not only across Europe in Danish, Dutch, French, German and Russian translations, but also in Chile, Cuba and Bolivia, in a Spanish version that was serialised in newspapers. More recently Jane Eyre has had a vivid translation history in many Indian languages: Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Punjabi and Tamil. And there have been at least 38 translations into Persian, and more than a hundred into Chinese.

What can we do with this phenomenon? How can we set about understanding it? Could it be possible in some to way read all these translations? What would be the point?

The first step is to get away from that widely accepted idea of translations according to which they are simply not as good as their source text. On this view, what Charlotte Brontë wrote is what matters and the translations are just so many inadequate copies. In fact, translations are much more a matter of imaginative interpretation and recreation than this view assumes. Think of the many hundreds of Jane Eyre translations as being like the many thousands – or probably millions – of performances of Shakespeare plays. You wouldn’t refuse to go to a production of a play because it could never be as good as the printed text (which in Shakespeare’s case is variable and contested anyway). Obviously you accept that a performance can bring new interpretations and new insights. And it is easy to see that what a Shakespeare play means to people today has been affected by all the ways it has been interpreted. A production has the power to change what the play is.

Of course, translations are in some ways different from theatrical productions: they don’t happen on a stage. But what they have in common is that they are not mere copies of the source text: they re-make it, using a different medium (different language) for a new audience in different cultural circumstances. As they do so, they find new possibilities of meaning and draw out fresh interpretations. Just like an adaptation of Shakespeare (or of Jane Austen, for that matter) they keep the work alive. And obviously they are not any the less interesting and important simply because they are in languages other than English: in fact, the reverse is true.

Reading these translations, we can trace the effects of cultural difference, in how translators adapt the novel to new circumstances (for instance, creating anti-régime suggestions in Franco’s Spain). We also observe the ever-growing and changing imaginative life of the novel, conceived as a world work – that is, a work made up of the text that Brontë wrote and all the translations together.

So, that is the ‘why’; but what of the ‘how’? Clearly, the world work that is Jane Eyre can only be read collaboratively, so I have co-written Prismatic Jane Eyre: Close-Reading a World Novel Across Languages with twenty other scholars (Andrés Claro, Annmarie Drury, Mary Frank, Paola Gaudio, Rebecca Ruth Gould, Jernej Habjan, Yunte Huang, Abhishek Jain, Eugenia Kelbert, Ulrich Timme Kragh, Ida Klitgård, Madli Kütt, Ana Teresa Marques dos Santos, Cláudia Pazos-Alonso, Eleni Philippou, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh, Léa Rychen, Céline Sabiron and Kayvan Tahmasebian.)

Even they cannot read all the translations – and you would probably not have the time to read about them – so we have been selective. The process of deciding what to focus on was collaborative too: we recognised that our writing was itself a kind of translation, with each participant bringing their own perspective to our shared material and framing it in their own way. Though encyclopaedic in its range, the book does not have the homogeneity and closure of an encyclopaedia: it is, rather, an environment to explore, with a succession of chapters written by me offering overarching orientations, while essays by the co-authors zoom in on particular contexts, languages and issues.

Key to this open and dynamic conception of the book is the inclusion of interactive digital media which the pioneering flexibility of Open Book Publishers has made possible. You can investigate where and when the translations have been published via a suite of interactive maps created by Giovanni Pietro Vitali, and – if you wish – you can watch interesting moments in multiple translations unfolding as animations on your screen, as well as laid out synoptically on the page. Printing the scripts of many of the languages was a challenge too, as publishing software has a Eurocentric bias which Open Book has worked hard to overcome. Prismatic Jane Eyre is experimental in concept, method, and form, and it offers a landscape of fascinating imaginative transformations for you to explore. Begin here.

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