Mapping translation – on the trail of Jane Eyre

Painting of Charlotte Brontë
Rachel Dryden

Rachel Dryden, research assistant on the Prismatic Translation strand, has been gathering information about the many translations of Jane Eyre. Here is her first bulletin about the endeavour.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre was an instant bestseller from the moment of its publication in 1847 and the novel’s popularity has only increased in line with the number of languages into which it has been translated (as far as I can ascertain, around 60) and the different formats in which it has been interpreted. To date, there have been not only theatrical, musical, operatic and film interpretations (in multiple languages) but also a ballet and manga version. With the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth being celebrated in 2016 and those of her siblings to follow in 2017 (Branwell), 2018 (Emily) and 2020 (Anne), interest in the Brontës, their lives and works is set to continue to rise.

In mapping literary translations generally, I have found that they tend to move in concentric circles from the point of origin. In the case of Jane Eyre, this means that, broadly speaking, the first translations were into Western European languages (German 1848; Russian 1849; Danish 1850; Swedish c.1850; French 1854) followed by European languages slightly further afield (Hungarian 1873; Polish 1880 – 1881 (abridged); Romanian 1891; Norwegian 1902 (abridged); Italian 1904), before expanding across the globe.

Perhaps this is not surprising, and yet there are anomalies even here: can it really be that readers in Demark and Sweden were au fait with Miss Eyre before the presumably much larger and potentially more global, French-reading audience? While we can perhaps account for some early (Russian 1849) and late (Icelandic 1948?; Finnish, date unknown) translations as being due to the respective sizes of their prospective readerships, this doesn’t hold for Esperanto (1930), which in comparison would appear to have been translated relatively early. Why were Polish readers expected to be satisfied with an abridged version, less than half the length of the original novel until 1930, while there were at least six translations into Russian within the same time period? Basque readers still have to content themselves with an abridged 56-page version (date unknown, possibly c.1998).

Is it surprising that there are translations available in eight Indian languages, (Assamese, Bengali, Gujurati, Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Sinhalese and Tamil) and six South-East Asian ones, (Burmese, Indonesian, Malay and Tagalog, Thai and Vietnamese – admittedly many of these are abridged) and yet no evidence of a translation in Welsh, Scots or Irish Gaelic? Though I am not a speaker of any of these languages, it strikes me that Jane Eyre would translate well to the Welsh mountains, the Scottish highlands or the Irish hills.

As for the Far East, although the first Chinese translation was not published until 1935, since then there have been as many as 40 further translations and an opera based on the novel. Despite being banned from 1950 – 1970, today there are at least five popular translations in circulation in mainland China and a further two or more in Taiwan. Jane Eyre is taught in Chinese schools and was voted one of the top 50 books in the world by the people of China in 1999. The amount of material available that discusses the translation of Jane Eyre into Chinese is clear testament to the novel’s continuing popularity in China. The first translation into Japanese (1896) was apparently abandoned after 14 chapters and not fully translated until the 1930s. Whether this was because of the untranslatability of the text or not is unclear. In Korea, while the first translation may have been made from the Japanese in the 1930s, what is now one of the most respected translations was not published until the 1960s. At that time, it was the norm to write in mixed Korean/Chinese script but the original translator updated the translation to “pure” Korean in 2004.

Jane Eyre arrived in the Balkans and Eastern Europe relatively late (Serbia and Bulgaria in 1952; Bosnia in 1971; Croatia in 1974), while the Arabic-speaking world has apparently only known of Jane’s story since 1985. The late dates of these translations are all the more surprising when compared to the, in contrast, early Turkish (1945), Burmese (1953), and Amharic (1981) translations.

Afrikaans appears to offer only an abridged or learners’ translation at present (2005; 2008), while there have been at least twelve translations into Greek since 1990 and several translations specifically aimed at children. The late translation into Hebrew (1946) can perhaps be explained by the fact that until the period immediately prior to the foundation of the State of Israel, when there was a big push to translate world classics into Hebrew, European Jewish readers would probably have read Jane Eyre in English, or else in German or Russian – translations that were made relatively early on. Interestingly, with one exception, the Hebrew translators of Jane Eyre all appear to have been women.

One language which is a complete newcomer to the tale of Jane Eyre is Tajik, the first translation being commissioned in 2010 with financial support from the British Embassy, allowing 5,000 copies to be printed, at the launch of which the British Ambassador compared the setting of Jane Eyre “in Yorkshire, a beautiful but not rich part of England” as being “perhaps a little like Tajikistan.”

What though is translation? Is the success of Jane Eyre, The Musical in Belorussia, the Netherlands, Estonia and Russia (among other countries) due to the format in which it is presented or does the essence of the story transcend the boundaries of medium? Reports and reviews of play versions in China (2004), Hungary (2006), Latvia (2016) and Slovakia (2014), as well as a Czech language film version dating from 1972 would suggest this is the case and that Jane’s story and character can and have successfully migrated into a myriad of linguistic and cultural environments, even if Brontë’s language and style cannot always be faithfully recreated.

Rachel Dryden, May 2017

The dates for translations cited above are based on preliminary research, mainly conducted online and necessarily generally limited to information available in European languages. A number of scholars of languages that were not accessible to me (namely Afrikaans, Chinese, Korean, Greek, Hebrew and Turkish) kindly clarified the situation regarding translations into those languages.

Over the coming months, a group of collaborators will conduct more detailed research on specific languages. More information regarding translations of Jane Eyre, particularly into languages not discussed here is gratefully received.

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