Impact Case Study: Prismatic Translation

prismatic translation book cover

We are always looking for new ways to share the benefits of our research with a wide audience and we employ a variety of channels and innovative methods to assist its social impact, from theatrical productions to films, books, school workshops, games, apps, public engagement events, art, and more! We've asked a selection of our researchers to explain the different ways they are sharing their research. In the Impact Case Study below, Professor Matthew Reynolds introduces the Prismatic Translation project and describes how they have shared their research through school workshops, competitions and exhibitions. You will be able to browse all the case studies in the Research section of the website.

What does translation do? Well – we might think - it can let you read in English a novel first written in another tongue, or help you put your story across at a hostile foreign border. When you look at individual cases like these it seems obvious to see translation in terms of equivalence: the translated novel needs to substitute effectively for the source text; and the translation at the border needs to give an accurate rendition of your words. But what about when the same text gets translated over and over again, each time slightly differently? – what happens to the idea of equivalence then?

This multiplicatory kind of translation is one of the characteristic features of literature. Think of all the versions of Dante in English, or all the performances of Shakespeare in different languages around the world. Each of them makes something different of the source text, so each of them is creative. I call this creative, pluralising phenomenon ‘Prismatic Translation’, and I have been exploring it in a series of books and projects starting with The Poetry of Translation in 2013, and culminating in ‘Prismatic Jane Eyre’, in which – with many collaborators – I try to read the astonishing global entity that is Charlotte Brontë’s novel as it co-exists in more than 595 translations into at least 67 languages – see

The Prismatic Translation project teamed up with the Poetry Hub at a local school, Oxford Spires Academy, where more than 30 languages are spoken. Writers in Arabic, Polish, Swahili and Portuguese led workshops to activate this linguistic diversity, with the school students generating poems in their home language, or English, or a mix of the two. Here was the poetry of translation in action, and the results were fabulous, with the young poets winning national competitions including the Foyle Young Poets’ Competition and the Betjeman Prize. The knock-on effects on their school-work were impressive too, with all the participants reporting increased confidence in their writing.

I brought these perspectives to a wider audience by contributing to the exhibition Babel: Adventures in Translation, which was visited by over 35,000 people in 2019. Here we displayed multilingual and translational books and objects, ranging from the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, published in the Spanish town Alcalà in 1517, which shows the Old Testament in five languages side by side, to recent digital artwork by John Cayley in which texts morph, letter by letter, from one language to another, as the computer follows its own translational routine.

As I write, another schools project is building on the Oxford Spires workshops by again involving school students in creative translation, this time connecting it directly to Jane Eyre. Translators have been visiting many schools and there has been a nationwide competition which has generated creative translations of selected passages of the novel into 26 languages including Yoruba, Ukrainian and Tamil. Now these school students have joined the book’s many translators; and they have begun to discover that studying English literature does not entail turning your back on other languages. Instead, it opens onto a world of language variety.

Matthew Reynolds, Professor of English and Comparative Criticism