Burrowing into Translation: A Case Study

  1. 1. Jan Rybicki

    Pedagogical University of Krakow

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Burrowing into Translation: A Case Study


Pedagogical University, Krakow, Poland


University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia




Kretzschmar, Jr.



While computational stylistics and text analysis seems to be in constant quest
for the just right set of criteria (see e.g. David Hoover’s presentation at the
2002 ALLC/ACH Conference in Tübingen), this presentation will try to apply what
has already become a standard in statistical stylistic analysis to a
(relatively) novel material. Taking for granted—very unoriginally—the usefulness
of John Burrows’s method that has been around since his 1987 Computation into Criticism, in discerning stylistic differences
between individual characters in works by the same author, I will try to see if
the same or similar patterns of similarity and difference travel across
linguistic boundaries; if differences between characters’ “idiolects” are
preserved in translation.
In a typically Polish approach to the matter, I have chosen as my material the
trilogy of historical romances by Poland’s first literary Nobel Prize winner,
Henryk Sienkiewicz, written between 1882 and 1888, and its two English (or, more
precisely, American) translations by Jeremiah Curtin (completed between 1890 and
1893) and W.S. Kuniczak (1991). The reasons for this choice have been manifold.
First, Sienkiewicz’s three novels, With Fire and Sword,
The Deluge, and Pan
Michael, although set in the turmoil of 17th-century Poland, remain
to this day a major classic of Polish literature and the country’s most popular
reading. Second, a trilogy, the subsequent parts of which share some of their
characters, seems ideal for Burrowsian analysis (a fact confirmed by the
interesting coincidence of John Burrows’s undertaking of a study of Beckett’s
bilingual trilogy in a much later paper). The final reason was the difference
between the two translations, evident both in their being separated by an entire
century and, what follows, in the entirely different approaches and results
obtained by the two translators: the largely word-by-word transcoding by
Sienkiewicz’s contemporary and the highly adaptative and “free” method of the
modern Polish-American writer.
Faithfully maintaining the original Burrows model, the study of distances between
the “idiolects” of the major characters has been based on relative frequencies
of the 30 most frequent words in the dialogue of each version of the trilogy.
The resulting correlation matrices were then used to produce two-dimensional
multidimensional scaling charts of distances between such “idiolects.”
This procedure has yielded, in Sienkiewicz’s original, a very consistent
influence of the personae’s social status and ethnic background, especially in
the first part of the series. It is particularly visible in idiolects of ‘enemy’
(non-Polish) collective characters, usually plotted at some distance one from
the other. Curtin’s translation is notable for ‘de-clustering’ idiolects of
various Polish gentry characters, making their idiolects much less alike. There
is also a visible tendency in Curtin to limit the distances between rival
collective characters and making them markedly similar rather than divergent as
in the original. Idiolects in Kuniczak are even more evenly distributed, with a
general trend towards greater distances and less clustering observable in the
graphs. The very high resemblance between the idiolects of two major characters,
Zagloba and Wolodyjowski, in all three versions of The
Deluge (almost identical in Sienkiewicz) is one of the most
consistent traits of this portion of the analysis—an interesting illustration of
the fact that the two personae’s function of keeping the three volumes together
becomes evident in the second part of the series. Sienkiewicz's social/ethnic
idiosyncrasy has been confirmed in a plot for idiolects of characters involved
in the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in With Fire and
Sword, a feature slightly visible in Kuniczak and almost not at all in
As perhaps the most consistent effect of all, the peripheral situation of female
idiolects is a constant element in almost any configuration. The study of more
detailed and thematic configurations of characters is also the source of
interesting insight. Plots for female characters exhibit a tendency to group
together young (and marriageable) Polish women; Helena's Ukrainian provenience
is highly visible in Sienkiewicz, while the ethnic element is indiscernible in
both translations. Among characters involved in each novel’s eternal triangles,
both of the above aspects are clearly visible in all three versions; differences
between characters in the same triangle are quite considerable.
In an examination of characters that recur throughout the series, a good
consistence has been observed between the three idiolects of the Polish
Falstaff, Zagloba, the most inveterate talker of the series, in each version
separately: best in Sienkiewicz, worst in Curtin. Another character,
Wolodyjowski, is much more of a developing character, which agrees well with the
evolution of the persona in the course of the series, from a humble officer to
the hero and spearhead of Sienkiewicz’s ideology. This has been confirmed in a
separate plotting of idiolects of those two characters.
A number of joint plots for Curtin’s and Kuniczak’s translations (based on
frequent words common in both versions) has been made to investigate if there is
a constant pattern in their respective differences. In agreement with some
“intuitive” assessments as to the decreasing differences between Curtin’s and
Kuniczak’s versions (mainly due to Kuniczak’s gradual abandonment of adaptative
procedures, especially on the microstructural level), the patterns become more
consistent with time: fairly chaotic movement for the first part of the trilogy
has become more ordered in the second and almost uniform in the third. The
“stylistic drift” observed between idiolects in Curtin and in Kuniczak— divided,
apart from their contrasting approaches to translation, by an even more
significant difference of a whole century—is a vindication of Burrows’s
‘tiptoeing towards the infinite:’ that visible and uniform shift in the
configuration of the most frequent words in English texts with time.



New Directions in Statistical Stylistics and Authorship

Proc. ALLC/ACH 2002



Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen’s
Novels and an Experiment in Method

Clarendon Press


Tiptoeing into the Infinite: Testing for Evidence of
National Differences in the Language of English Narrative

Research in Humanities Computing






Beckett’s Trilogy: Computational Stylistics and the
Nature of Translation

Revue informatique et statistique dans les sciences




A Computer Assisted Comparative Analysis of Two English
Translations of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy


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Conference Info

In review

"Web X: A Decade of the World Wide Web"

Hosted at University of Georgia

Athens, Georgia, United States

May 29, 2003 - June 2, 2003

83 works by 132 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website: http://web.archive.org/web/20071113184133/http://www.english.uga.edu/webx/

Series: ACH/ICCH (23), ALLC/EADH (30), ACH/ALLC (15)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

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