Alma Cardell Curtin and Jeremiah Curtin: the Translator's Wife's Stylistic Fingerprint

  1. 1. Jan Rybicki

    Pedagogical University of Krakow

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Alma Cardell Curtin and Jeremiah Curtin: the Translator’s Wife's Stylistic Fingerprint
Rybicki, Jan, Pedagogical University of Kraków, Poland,
The Problem
Poland’s first literary Nobel Prize winner, Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), owed his great if short-lived fame to the very numerous if very mediocre translations by Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906), diplomat, ethnographer, polyglot. Born in a Catholic Irish family in Wisconsin, he graduated from Harvard and was posted as a secretary to the American mission in St. Petersburg, Russia; his fluency in Russian made him a popular figure among the local aristocracy. Paradoxically, it might have contributed to his conflict with Ambassador Clay and precipitated the end of his diplomatic career (1869). Curtin switched to two professions he continued till the end of his life: that of the ethnographer (employed, for a time, by the Smithsonian Institution) and of the literary translator. In 1872, he met and promptly married Alma Cardell (1847-1938), who soon abandoned her post as a teacher in a Soldiers’ Orphans’ Home (for which her studies at the Barre Academy had made her more than qualified) to become her husband’s secretary, amanuensis and editor; until her peripatetic husband’s death, her life was to be led in hotels and boarding houses around the globe – especially after the Curtins stroke gold with Sienkiewicz’s international bestseller Quo vadis (1896). Alma devoted much work to virtually all publications signed by Jeremiah: his translations of Sienkiewicz and of other Polish authors (Orzeszkowa, Prus and Potocki); his translations from the Russian (Gogol, Zagoskin’s and Alexy K. Tolstoy); and his ethnographic studies on myths of Native Americans, Ireland and Slavic peoples. She also published and edited three books on Mongols after her husband’s death.

Yet the story of Sienkiewicz’s translator is most extensively told in Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin (1940), published after the death of Alma Cardell Curtin. Although written in first-person narrative, they have been since proven to be the work of the wife. Michael Jacek Miko? has shown that Curtin’s alleged memoirs are in fact a compilation of “somewhat edited" fragments of Alma’s diaries and letters to her family (Miko? 1990). The same diaries (and not the Memoirs) show the extent of Alma’s contribution to Jeremiah’s translations: after a whole day of taking her husband’s dictation, he would go to sleep while she would copy and correct the day’s work (Miko? 1994). And although she knew no Polish and, at most, but a little Russian, it is not implausible to suspect that some traces of the translator’s wife’s hand might have been left on Sienkiewicz’s fiction in English. In the most radical hypothesis by Cheryl L. Collins, Alma, “held hostage by Jeremiah’s almost pathological restlessness," could have been “his full partner" in his literary work (Collins 2008).

This presents a nice authorship attribution problem. All that could have been done in this respect with traditional methods has been done by Miko?; the rest is the attributor’s nightmare, as all work published under Curtin’s name has been preserved in manuscripts in Alma’s hand alone. And while traces of the style of the Memoirs could perhaps be found in Alma’s editions of Jeremiah’s ethnographic works, it is highly uncertain if similar traces can at all be found in his translations.

The Method
All hope there is lies in non-traditional methods of authorship attribution, developed at least since the seminal Inference and Disputed Authorship: the Federalist (Mosteller, Wallace 1964) and proven to be helpful in plagiarism detection (although Alma’s is plagiarism a rebours). This study applies Cluster Analysis to normalized word frequencies in texts; as shown by (to name but a few) Burrows (1987, 2002), Hoover (2004, 2004a) or Daren-Oskam (2007), this is one of the most precise methods of “stylistic dactyloscopy." A script by Maciej Eder, written for the R statistical environment, converts the electronic texts to produce complete most-frequent-word (MFW) frequency lists, calculates their z-scores in each text according to the Burrows Delta procedure (Burrows 2002); selects words for analysis from various frequency ranges; performs additional procedures for better accuracy (Hoover’s culling and pronoun deletion); compares the results for individual texts; produces Cluster Analysis tree diagrams that show the distances between the texts; and, finally, combines the tree diagrams made for various parameters (number of words, degree of culling) in a bootstrap consensus tree (Dunn et al. 2005, quoted in Baayen 2008: 143-147).

The analysis included all original works by Curtin (12 extensive studies) and a great majority of his translations (21 novels or long novellas).

Figure 1. shows the patterns of similarity and difference of word frequencies in all texts studied. The bootstrap consensus tree neatly divides Curtin’s oeuvre into two discrete groups: the upper branches are his translations while his Memoirs and his ethnography lie below. Yet the Memoirs are placed away from his ethnographic studies; also, what has been proven by Miko? to be Alma’s work, lies close to two of Jeremiah’s books on the Mongols, published by Alma after his death.

Figure 1. Consensus tree for all texts

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The length of the word list used in this study (all the way to the 5000th most frequent word in the corpus) can raise doubts as to the validity, in this context, of the term stylistic similarity: after all, words so far down the frequency-ordered word list are often quite meaningful and might reflect differences of content as well as of style. Any chance of finding traces of the translator’s wife’s hand in the translations as well as in the Memoirs has to rely on somewhat shorter lists (tentatively, from 10 to 150) from the top of the frequency-ordered most-frequent-word list; dominated as it is by functions words and aided by a 100% culling rate (which limits the analysis to words that appear in all texts studied) and personal pronoun deletion, it might help purge any impact of the texts’ content to try to bring, say, a book on Irish myths and a translation of Sienkiewicz’s historical romance, to a common stylistic, or perhaps simply lexical, denominator.

The new result is presented in Figure 2. The texts attributed to Mrs Curtin either by Miko? or by Figure 1. are still immediate neighbours; more interestingly, the Memoirs (and the two “Mongol" works) now grow on the same branch with two translations: Lillian Morris and For Bread.

Figure 2. Consensus tree for short most-frequent-word lists and a 100% culling

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So far, attempts at finding stylistic traces of the translator or the editor have been only partially successful. Word-frequency-based stylometric methods have shown that they are better at attributing the author of the original than the translator (Rybicki 2009, 2010; Rybicki, Eder 2010), or that Henry James’s switch from writing to dictation left no stylistic trace (Hoover 2010).

This time, however, it is possible that the translator’s wife has left her mark. First, Miko?’s attribution of the Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin is visible in the consensus tree diagrams; second, the diagrams seem to validate the suspicions of Mrs Curtin’s significant contribution to The Mongols: A History and The Mongols in Russia.

Even more importantly, the most frequent words in two of the Sienkiewicz translations seem to exhibit a greater affinity to the Memoirs. It is hardly a coincidence that the two short stories depart from Sienkiewicz’s usual male- and Poland-dominated writing. Indeed, Lillian Morris and For Bread are two of Sienkiewicz’s so-called “American stories" (written during or immediately after his stay in America, 1876-1879) and both feature a strong female protagonist. If it ever made sense for Curtin to give his wife a somewhat freer hand at shaping the final version of the English version of this or that Sienkiewicz text, it would have been on the occasion of these two stories. After all, during the work on Lillian Morris and For Bread in the Irish summer of 1893, Jeremiah was busy, struggling with several other projects at the same time: he was collecting material for one of his Irish mythologies, translating a couple of other short works Sienkiewicz, and writing a lengthy “Translator’s Preface’ to the Polish writer’s another historical romance, Pan Michael.

Baayen, R.H. 2008 Analyzing Linguistic Data. A Practical Introduction to Statistics using R, Cambridge

Burrows, J.F. 1987 Computation into Criticism: a Study of Jane Austen’s Novels and an Experiment in Method, Oxford

Burrows, J.F. 2002 “Delta: A Measure of Stylistic Difference and a Guide to Likely Authorship, ” Literary and Linguistic Computing, 17 267-287

Collins, C.L. 2008 “Behind the Curtin, ” Milwaukee Magazine, 1. April

Curtin, J. 1940 Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin, Madison

Dalen-Oskam, K. van Zundert, J. van 2007 “Delta for Middle Dutch—Author and Copyist Distinction in Walewein, ” Literary and Linguistic Computing, 22 345-362

Dunn, M. Terrill, A. Reesink, G. Foley, R.A. Levinson, S.C. 2005 “Structural Phylogenetics and the Reconstruction of Ancient Language History, ” Science, 309 2072-2075

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Hoover, D.L. 2010 “Modes of Composition in Henry James: Dictation, Style, and What Maisie Knew, ” Proceedings of the Digital Humanities 2009 conference, College Park, MD,

Miko, M.J. 1990 “Alma Cardell Curtin, the Woman behind Jeremiah Curtin, ” Milwaukee History, 13 53-68

Miko, M.J. 1994 W pogoni za Sienkiewiczem, Warszawa

Mosteller, F. Wallace, D.L. 1964 Inference and Disputed Authorship: The Federalist, Reading

Rybicki, J. 2009 “Liczenie krasnoludków. Troch? inaczej o polskich przek?adach trylogii Tolkiena, ” Ludzie i krasnoludki – powinowactwa z wyboru? Conference proceedings, Warszawa,

Rybicki, J. 2009 “Translation and Delta Revisited: When We Read Translations, Is It the Author or the Translator that We Really Read?, ” Proceedings of the Digital Humanities 2009 conference, College Park, MD,

Rybicki, J. Eder, M. 2011 “Deeper Delta Across Genres and Languages: Do We Really Need the Most Frequent Words?, ” Literary and Linguistic Computing, 26 (forthcoming)

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2011
"Big Tent Digital Humanities"

Hosted at Stanford University

Stanford, California, United States

June 19, 2011 - June 22, 2011

151 works by 361 authors indexed

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Series: ADHO (6)

Organizers: ADHO

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  • Language: English
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