Original, Translation, Inflation. Are All Translations Longer than Their Originals?

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Jan Rybicki

    Pedagogical University of Krakow

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

Original, Translation,
Inflation. Are All
Translations Longer than
Their Originals?
Rybicki, Jan
Pedagogical University, Krakow, Poland
It is a truth almost universally acknowledged,
at least among translator service providers, that
some languages take fewer words to express
the same thing than some other languages, to
the extent that translator remuneration is often
calculated accordingly. To further paraphrase
Jane Austen and John Burrows: this truth is so
well fixed in the minds of the general translating
community that the scant reports pointing to
the contrary – or, at least, to a possibility
that this effect might be exactly contrary to
expectations – are either ignored or appear in
the wrong journals (Rybicki, 2006). While this
problem is not entirely ignored by traditional
translation studies, it is usually dealt with as an
aside in publications where this discipline meets
corpus linguistics to define and study translator
style (Baker, 1993, 1996, 2000), or applied to
no more than two languages, very few texts
and, more often than not, small sample sizes
(Englund Dimitrova, 1994, 2003, Pápai, 2004),
or oriented to point out differences between two
translations rather than original and translation
(Rybicki, 2009). Theoretical considerations are
just as unsatisfactory. Differences in the level
of inflection of the two languages are usually
seen as the reason for the differences in length
between the native and the foreign version of
the same text; the rare exception, i.e. a more
or less positive statement on the subject, has
been made by George Steiner: “translations are
inflationary” (Steiner, 1978) in a discussion of
explicitation, one of the so-called translation
universals (Baker, 1993, 1996). Still, while
explicitation is a mechanism that certainly does
involve using more text in the target language
to denote less text in the original, it is not clear
whether Steiner had any specific textual unit in
mind that would undergo inflation – as opposed
to another possibility, the inflation of meaning.
Indeed, it is even less clear whether mere
difference in the number of words – the first
and reflexive approach most stylometrists would
take – between a novel in one language and
another novel, the former's translation, is at
all of any scholarly interest; it is quite possible
that what matters more is the increase (or
decrease) in the number and/or the length
of, say, sentences. Even then, however, the
differences could be a simple consequence of
the divergent linguistic systems and the whole
problem should be left at that.
It is almost a tradition that, faced with
such theoretical quandaries, members of our
community turn to empirical practicalities, to
experiment – and this is exactly what this paper
does. Using a series of fairly extensive bilingual
corpora or, simply speaking, combinations of
original and translation (and, in some cases,
another, and yet another translation of the same
text) in a variety of source and target languages,
the study compares the sizes, establishes
their patterns and their statistical significance
(with z-scores). The corpora in question
include: English translations of Polish novels
by Henryk Sienkiewicz; Polish translations of
American, English, French, German and Italian
prose (including the interesting sub-corpora
of translations of Tolkien and of translations
by the author of this paper); French and
Polish translations of Shakespeare; Polish and
English translation of Latin prose, Portuguese
translations of English prose.
The results do not paint a uniform picture.
While expected general trends can be observed
in size variation between pairs of languages,
the discrepancies in “inflation rate” between
certain rival translations into the same language
at times hide any stable “language-to-language”
effect. This effect has been hypothetically
ascribed at first to differences between inflected
(agglutinative) and analytic languages. While
this would be difficult to prove, at the
same time – barring such extreme cases of
translator logorhea as W.S. Kuniczak's famously
overflowing translation of Henryk Sienkiewicz's
historical romances, where the translation-to-
original ratio reaches the vertiginous heights of
170%, the record value in the entire project –
some correlation has been observed not so much
between the general degree of inflection of a
given language as between standardized type-

token ratios in each of the studied individual-
language corpora. Thus, although it would be
too much to say that STTR is a good measure
of a language's inflection, the general trend in
STTR ranges observed in each of the corpora
used in this study corresponds fairly well
to the
order of languages exhibiting
difference between original and translation (see
Figure below): translations into English tend
to be longer than their Polish originals; Polish
translations are shorter than original English
novels; most translations of Latin prose tend
to be longer than the originals, and so forth.
With an important caveat: it only takes an
overambitious, overzealous or pathologically
lazy translator, or an unscrupulous publisher, to
alter this pleasant image beyond recognition.
Standardized Type-Token Ratio (Box & Whisker) and Original-
to-Translation Ratio (Scatterplot) in Selected Prose Corpora
Baker, M.
(1993). 'Corpus linguistics
and translation studies: Implications and
Text and Technology: In honour
of John Sinclair.
Baker, M., Francis, G.,
Tognini-Bonelli, E. (eds.). Amsterdam: John
Benjamins, pp. 17-45.
Baker, M.
(1996). 'Corpus-based translation
studies: The challenges that lie ahead'.
Terminology, LSP and Translation: Studies in
language engineering, in honour of Juan C.
Somers, H. (ed.). Amsterdam: John
Benjamins, pp. 175-186.
Baker, M.
(2000). 'Towards a methodology for
investigating the style of a literary translator'.
: 241-266.
Pápai, V.
(2004). 'Explicitation – A universal
of translated text?'.
Translation Universals.
Do they exist?.
Mauranen, Kujamäki (eds.).
Amsterdam – Philadelphia: John Benjamins,
pp. 143-164.
Englund Dimitrova B.
Analysis of Translations (On the basis of
translations from and to Bulgarian, Russian
and Swedish).
Scandinavian Working Papers on
Bilingualism. V. 9, pp. 87-103.
Englund Dimitrova B.
(2003). 'Explicitation
in Russian-Swedish translation: sociolinguistic
and pragmatic aspects'.
Swedish Contributions
to the Thirteenth International Congress
of Slavists, Ljubljana, 15-21 August 2003.
Englund Dimitrova B., Pereswetoff-Morath, A.
(eds.). Lund: Lund University, pp. 21-31.
Rybicki, J.
(2006). 'Burrowing into
Translation: Character Idiolects in Henryk
Sienkiewicz's Trilogy and its Two English
Literary and Linguistic
: 91-103.
Rybicki, J.
(2009). 'Liczenie krasnoludków.
Trochę inaczej o polskich przekładach trylogii
Po co ludziom krasnoludki?.
Warszawa, 2009.
Steiner, G.
After Babel. Aspects of
Language and Translation.
Oxford: Oxford
University Press V. 253, reprinted, 1992.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None