Research update: Prismatic Jane Eyre and Scriptworlds

Portrait of Charlotte Bronte

The Prismatic Translation strand is made up of three twined threads. ‘Prismatic Jane Eyre: Close-reading a global novel across languages’ looks at how that book has been transformed through translation into many languages across the globe. ‘Scriptworlds’ focuses on the written form of language which can work in very varied ways (as in the difference between Chinese characters and the alphabet), and explores how this complicates the way we think about language and translation. ‘Multilingual creative writing in the classroom’ discovers what happens when different languages are brought into creative writing workshops in schools.

Since our last research update there have been many developments.

Prismatic Jane Eyre, led by Prof Matthew Reynolds at Oxford, has entered a phase of focused research, with collaboration happening online. The twenty-five associated scholars involved in the project have been tracing the transformation of particular words, metaphorical patterns and key passages in their respective languages. Matthew has been working out how to understand and present the results. For instance, ‘conscience’ is really important to Jane: she draws on the word (and the idea) at crucial moments, so that its reappearance throughout the novel creates a sort of anthology of incidents in which conscience intervenes. The way Jane uses the word fills out what it means to her, and this becomes part of the understanding of the world that the novel provides for its readers. So it matters what happens to ‘conscience’ in translation.

In Slovenian, the word ‘vest’ corresponds closely to the English ‘conscience’, and there is a good deal of religious and cultural continuity between the two languages. As Jernej Habjan has discovered, in the translations by France Borko and Ivan Dolenc (1955) and Božena Legiša-Velikonja (1970, 1980, 1991), wherever ‘conscience’ appears in English, ‘vest’ appears in Slovenian. There is less in common between the religious and cultural worlds of English and Persian. Yet, as Kayvan Tahmasebian shows, in Persian too, in the translations by Bahrami Horran (1991) and Reza’i (2010), the word ‘conscience’ is consistently rendered by the same word وجدان [vijdān]. As Kayvan explains, “vijdān is defined in Persian as an inner faculty to distinguish good from bad. It is derived from Arabic وجد which means ‘discovery’ and refers to an autonomous innate faculty of recognition/intuition”. Here, the excitement of our project consists in discovering surprising uniformities.

‘Glad’ is the opposite. It is another of Jane’s favourite words (remember how the novel begins: ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day … I was glad of it.’) ‘Glad’ is different from ‘happy’: it is more sudden, more bodily, more relieved. This particularity in the meaning has resulted in the word playing out in very varied ways in different languages. So far we have results for several translations into German, Spanish and Slovenian, and the word is not consistently rendered in any of them! In German, for instance – as Mary Frank has discovered – that first ‘I was glad of it’ has come out as ‘Ich war von Herzen froh darüber’ (Maria von Borch, 1887-90), which we can back-translate as ‘I was happy about it from my heart’; ‘Mir war es nur Recht’ (Helmut Kossodo, 1979), ‘It was only right to me’; and ‘Mich freute es’ (Melanie Walz, 2015), ‘It pleased me’. Here we can see the possibilities of language and the choices of translators generating different voices for Jane, and creatively remaking her words.

The project’s postdoctoral research assistant Dr Eleni Philippou has been perfecting our global list which now records details of 589 translations into 57 languages. Eleni has also been focusing on the Greek translations. Our associated researcher in digital humanities, Dr Giovanni Pietro Vitali, has been trying out ways of visualising our material. Here is a glimpse of a visualisation that allows us to trace changes in cover design, mapping them against the places where they were published:

Prismatic Jane Eyre visualisations

All our lists, maps and visualisations will be released online when they are ready in the coming months.

Meanwhile, Scriptworlds, led by Prof Sowon Park at University of California Santa Barbara, is preparing for an international workshop which will take place on 31 May – 1 June. The workshop aims to ‘generate a new dynamic for thinking beyond the traditional rubric of nation, state and national language as well as to animate new links between existing literary scholarship and the notable advances that have been made in the study of visual communication in digital technology and cognitive neuroscience.’ Sowon has initiated a creative project on visuality in poetry, involving undergraduate and graduate students at UCSB and supported by an Arnhold Collaborative Research grant. There will be a series of seminars and a day spent at the International Concrete Poetry movement (1960–1980) archive at the Getty Research Institute. Building on the research visit, the graduate students will help the undergraduates produce shape poems using the latest digital technology. The results will be exhibited at the Scriptworlds workshop. Sowon has also written about creative multilingualism among fans of Korean pop.

Finally, in ‘Multilingual creative writing in the classroom’, led by Kate Clanchy at Oxford Spires Academy, the Anglo-Indonesian writer Will Harris has been holding workshops in the school, and the translator Sarah Ekdawi led an awayday with Kate at which students were introduced to Greek poetry, including fragments by Sappho, and invited to write their own poems in response. You can read about what happened here.

Image of Charlotte Brontë from Jane Eyre (London, 1897) via Flickr

Where next?

Performing Languages: on multilingualism and language hierarchies

Poetry in Translation, Poetics of Translation

Multilingual film competition for schools