Prismatic Translation and Prismatic Jane Eyre

Prismatic Translation and Prismatic Jane Eyre

Prismatic Translation is led by Matthew Reynolds in collaboration with Sowon Park and Eleni Philippou. The key idea is to see translation as a process that inevitably produces multiple variants, both within and across languages, and to trace out the theoretical, practical, cognitive and creative consequences of this view. It began at the conference ‘Prismatic Translation’ held at St Anne’s College in 2015, and was further developed at the AILC/ICLA Research Committee on Literary Theory’s workshop on the same theme at the Universität Wien in 2016. It was then funded by the AHRC as part of its Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) Programme in Creative Multilingualism.

Here is a fuller account of the ‘prismatic’ approach: Translation can be seen as producing a text in one language that will count as equivalent to a text in another. It can also be seen as a release of multiple signifying possibilities, an opening of the source text to Language in all its plurality. The first view is underpinned by the regime of European standard languages which can be lined up in bilingual dictionaries, by the technology of the printed book, and by the need for regulated communication in political and legal contexts. The second view attaches to contexts where several spoken languages share the same written characters (as in the Chinese scriptworld), to circumstances where language is not standardised (e.g., minority & dialectal communities & oral cultures), to the fluidity of electronic text, and to literature, especially poetry and theatrical performance. The first view sees translation as a channel; the second as a prism. 

The Prismatic Translation Project resulted in five main outputs: 

Theoretical Foundations. Research presented at the ‘Prismatic Translation’ conference held at St Anne’s College in 2015 and the AILC/ICLA Research Committee on Literary Theory’s workshop on the same theme at the Universität Wien in 2016 was developed into a book, Prismatic Translation, edited by Matthew Reynolds and published by Legenda in OCCT’s partner series Transcript. The Introduction gives a full account of the prismatic approach, which you can read here. Prismatic Translation was shortlisted for the 2021 ESCL Excellence Award for Collaborative Research.

Prismatic Jane Eyre. This collaborative experiment looks closely at Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre as it is translated into multiple languages, understanding this process as transformation and growth rather than as loss. Our results in progress are presented on the website-publication Prismatic Jane Eyre: an Experiment in the Study of Translations; the open access book of this project is Prismatic Jane Eyre: Close-Reading a World Novel Across Languages (Open Book, 2023).

Here is a brief account of Prismatic Jane Eyre: is comparative close reading possible in a world literary context? How can it be framed and what might it discover? Prismatic Jane Eyre seeks to answer these questions, taking as its focus a novel that has been translated both between and within a very large number of languages. Through comparative close reading of parallel passages, we explore shifts and transformations, tracing how the text is re-realised in different linguistic media with diverse affordances and limits. Grammar and semantics, politics and history, textual productivity, and the agency of translators are all at stake. The project is fundamentally a matter of collaboration and conversation between human beings, though we also investigate how digital technology can aid and visualise our research. Jane Eyre became our focus for a combination of reasons: it has been very frequently translated, is out of copyright, and is both popular and canonical; and it is a conflicted text with a probing relationship to language, place, identity, metaphor and genre—all elements which play out differently in translation. 

For a list of Prismatic Jane Eyre collaborators, see here.

Multilingual Creative Writing in Schools. This experiment aimed to release multilingual and prismatically translational energies in school creative writing workshops. It was led by Kate Clanchy: during 2016–2019, it was based in the Poetry Hub at Oxford Spires Academy; afterwards, it was based at EMBS, Cowley. Students in both schools have many languages: we brought in community-language authors to animate workshops, and supported pupils in developing the writing that resulted.

For more information, as well as two anthologies that resulted from the project, see here.

Babel: Adventures in Translation. Matthew Reynolds collaborated with Katrin Kohl, Stephen Harrison and Dennis Duncan to curate a major exhibition at the Bodleian Library in 2019. The exhibition took visitors beyond the ancient myth of the Tower of Babel and society’s quest for a universal language to explore the ubiquity and power of translation in the movement of ideas, stories and cultural practices around the world. The exhibition was followed by the publication of Babel: Adventures in Translation (Bodleian Libraries, 2019), edited by the curators.

Watch a short video about the Babel: Adventures in Translation exhibition here.

Prismatic Jane Eyre Schools Project. In 2021, Prismatic Jane Eyre received follow-on funding from the AHRC to support the Prismatic Jane Eyre Schools Project, co-ordinated by Eleni Philippou. This was an AHRC-funded joint project with the University of Oxford and the Stephen Spender Trust (SST), the leading UK charity for creative multilingual activities in schools. Over 2021, the Project ran workshops in translation and creative writing for young people who are learning modern languages or are speakers of community languages. Using the classic novel Jane Eyre and research about how the text has been translated across the world since its 1847 publication, professional translators delivered workshops to secondary schools in the UK. 

We launched a nation-wide creative translation competition on 30 September 2021. Entrants were asked to compose a poem in another language inspired by a selected passage from Jane Eyre. The competition accepted submissions in any language, and all entries needed to be accompanied by a literal translation into English. The competition’s best entries were published as an anthology in September 2022, which can be accessed here