Jane Eyre and you
Updated: Jan 11
This month I was fortunate to visit the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Yorkshire, the home of the Bronte sisters. Compact though the Bronte house is, it’s amazing how many interesting furnishings and personal belongings have survived to this day.
It was in the sitting room at the front of the house where Charlotte, Emily and Anne wrote their novels. As I stood there, my mind was overwhelmed with quotes from the novel that is perhaps known best of all – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.
I first read it when I was a teenager, and it was a Russian translation. I vividly recall following the romantic story so beautifully told and the twists and turns of the relationship of Jane and Mr Rochester. Much of the chemistry between them is felt through dialogue, and when reading it in Russian I couldn’t help noticing the contrasted use of “you”, especially on the part of Rochester. There are times when he would address the governess he fell in love with “you” formally (Вы) and more intimately (ты). Never had it occurred to me then that the choice was purely at the liberty of the translator…
Now that I am a translator myself, I can see the scale of the task at hand for someone translating a literary piece, even if you consider just the small issue of “you”.
You see, in English, unlike in other languages such as French, German or Russian, the pronoun “you” is just “you”. However, in the translation into languages where you have more than one form of “you”, it’s right and proper to use all of the expressive means available to us, or it would sound not only artificial, it would be wrong.
Ultimately the translator would have had to think: if Charlotte Bronte were writing it in Russian, would she use a mixture of both formal and informal “you”? I have now looked at two different translated versions of the book and in both the formal “you” prevails, especially on Jane’s part, even during tender conversations. This would reflect the reality of Victorian England as much as Jane’s independence-loving character.
And this is how a great English book can have many lives in many countries, to a certain degree through the eyes of book translators. One would not doubt it is a mammoth task to make the translation the masterpiece it is in the original…
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