French-English Literary Translation Aided by Frequency Comparisons from ARTFL and Other Corpora

  1. 1. Joel Goldfield

    Modern Languages and Literature - Fairfield University

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This presentation proposes a procedure for using frequency comparisons to help resolve challenging word choices in French-to-English literary translations. It explores a computer-assisted approach for enhancing the human translation of literary texts by two principal and complementary means: 1) through the comparison of existing translations, when available, as metatranslational,
cognitive choices; 2) through the interlinguistic
comparison by word frequency of cognitively admissible word choices ostensibly available to the source-language
(SL) author and the chronologically distanced target-
language (TL) translator. The methodology explored here does not purport to innovate in regards to machine translation but rather attempts to show how techniques in part developed by researchers in that field can assist human translators working with literature, an area where machine translation would not normally be used.
In translating “L’Illustre Magicien” (The Illustrious
Magician) and “L’Histoire de Gambèr-Aly” (The Story of
Gamber Aly), of Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), the presenter compares word frequencies in both languages—French and English—to help determine the most suitable
choice where several reasonable ones exist. This procedure consists of what he calls interlingual and intralingual
frequency comparisons which expand on the concept of componential analysis (CA) proposed by Newmark
(Approaches to Translation, 1981) which the latter proposed
as an improvement on the matrix method, also addressed by Hervey and Higgins (Thinking French Translation, 2nd ed., 2002).
In one example of his CA, Newmark develops an “...‘open’ series of words...and the use and choice of such words is determined as often by appropriate collocation as by intrinsic meaning (i.e. componential analysis): this particularly applies to generic terms or head-words such as ‘big’ and ‘large’, which are difficult to analyze” (29). Newmark also notes that the word-series he chooses
(bawdy, ribald, smutty, lewd, coarse, etc.) creates a
problem in that it is particularly “...closely linked to any SL and TL culture in period of time and social class....”
While the approach proposed here does not distinguish
social class, the interlingual frequency comparisons can usually rely on corpora and subsets established from
literature written in the same time period as the works being
analyzed and as early translations. In this case,
several different corpora are used. For French: ARTFL
(American and French Research on a Treasury of the French Language) and other tools made available by Etienne Brunet and the University of Nice. For English:
Bartleby; the British National Corpus (BNC), the British Women Writers Project and Chadwyk-Healy’s LION
(Literature Online).
Besides the two translations, the overall project includes
critical essays which treat the tales’ major themes of love,
death, and intellectual or emotional obsession. Honoré de Balzac’s La recherche de l’Absolu (1834) floats tempingly in the background of “The Illustrious Magician” since the latter’s author even published an essay on Balzac in 1844. While several different examples will be used for applying the frequency approach, one example of using
interlinguistic frequencies occurs when translating the following French from “The Illustrious Magician”, a
several pages before its conclusion: “En effet, en entrant
dans une des grottes, après en avoir visité deux ou trois, il aperçut son maître assis sur une pierre, et traçant avec le bout de son bâton des lignes, dont les combinaisons savantes annonçaient un travail divinatoire” (Nouvelles
asiatiques, 1876, p. 150). Focusing for the purposes
of this abstract on the clause containing the word
“divinatoire,” we can initially compare the two existing translations. Both were published in New York, the first by Appleton Press in 1878, the second by Helen Morganthau Fox with Harcourt Brace in 1926:
1) Appleton (259): “...the profound combination of which announced a work of divination.”
2) Fox (268): “...the learned combinations of which showed that it was a work of divination.”
3) Draft of presenter’s translation: “ whose learned
combinations revealed a divinatory work.”
One might wonder whether the word “divinatoire” for a French writer in the 1870’s is as recherché as the
word “divinatory” in English. Would it be reasonable to substitute the collocation “divinatory work” for the
earlier one, “work of divination”?
The BNC reveals two (2) occurrences of «divinatory» in 100,000,000 words: 1) A6C Seeing in the dark. ed. Breakwell, Ian and Hammond, Paul. London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990 (32,621 words); 2) CS0 Social anthropology
in perspective. Lewis, I M. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1992, pp. 5-130, (35,946 words). In the British Women Writers Project (http://www.lib.ucdavis.
edu/English/BWRP/) we find no occurrences for eighty (80) texts, 1789-1832. We should conclude that the word “divinatory” is a rare word in English. However, within
the ARTFL database of French works for the years
1850-1874 alone, out of 11,214,324 words, there are four (4) occurrences. Out of the 9,548,198 words in the
database for the period 1875-1899 there are ten (10)
occurrences or a total of 14 in 20,762,522 words or about
67 occurrences per 100,000,000 words, about 30 times more than in the BNC. In the period 1875-1899, its rate of occurrence was about once per million words, the
highest of the four quarters in the century (see http://www. We must conclude that the French use of “divinatoire” at the time when Gobineau was using it was significantly more common than is its English
counterpart though both uses are nonetheless relatively rare. And the bibliography for the fourteen occurrences covering the period in which the Nouvelles asiatiques was published includes works by well-known authors such as Amiel, Bourget, Flaubert, Garnier, the Goncourts,
Mallarmé and others, as well as Gobineau himself. The one occurrence of «divinatoire» from this last author’s work should of course be subtracted from the total before any comparison with the same publication.
Intralinguistically for French, there are forty-two (42) occurrences of the word “divination,” which is exactly
three times more frequent than “divinatoire” in the
period 1850-1899, out of almost 21 million words.
Forty-two versus fourteen in that number is almost a third of an order of magnitude and worthy of notice. We can preserve the rarer use of divinatoire from French in the translation although the usage appears to be even
rarer in English. However, we should note that there are seven (7) occurrences of “divinatory” in the 20th-century poetry on Chadwyk Healy’s LION site, so the word
can be well represented in the poetic genre. And in
comparisons that will be made in the presentation in both vocabulary and themes between Gobineau and Balzac, the interest of both authors in divination will be highlighted.
Brunet’s database shows seven occurrences of divination/divinations in the Comédie Humaine (CH) and four of divinatoire, a typical total of the two words (11) for the 4,242,038 words in that corpus (CH) and for his time,
1825-1849: 35 occurrences in the 12,352,370 words
contained in the ARTFL database. However, these words are only about one-half as common in French literature for the last quarter of the nineteenth century as in the second quarter. There are 18 occurrences in 9,548,198
words for the ARTFL database during the period 1875-1899 when the Nouvelles asiatiques were published.
Besides the few sample words above where the
computer-assisted techniques have been applied by a human translator of French literature, the presentation
will suggest how such frequency-based comparisons can assist in the translation of thematic groups of words
representing the literary authors’ symbolic universes. Often
such clusters of associated words can be determined from methodically searching the secondary literature: the
thematic areas where critics have focused their interest over the centuries. Furthermore, a complementary technique
for using advanced search engines on the Internet to aid in solving translation problems will be illustrated or
As long as French and English databases remain available with tools that allow for the appropriate date-stamping,
so to speak, of word usage, a methodology can be
developed using frequencies and simple statistical tests such as z-scores for comparing the ranking of words across chronological gaps. Such resources offer new
and useful tools to the translator both in aiding the
development of metatranslations and justifying both them and final translations. Additionally, this process can facilitate greater detail and support for literary criticism that makes use of intertextual and intratextual linguistic materials.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Université Paris-Sorbonne, Paris IV (Paris-Sorbonne University)

Paris, France

July 5, 2006 - July 9, 2006

151 works by 245 authors indexed

The effort to establish ADHO began in Tuebingen, at the ALLC/ACH conference in 2002: a Steering Committee was appointed at the ALLC/ACH meeting in 2004, in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the 2005 meeting in Victoria, the executive committees of the ACH and ALLC approved the governance and conference protocols and nominated their first representatives to the ‘official’ ADHO Steering Committee and various ADHO standing committees. The 2006 conference was the first Digital Humanities conference.

Conference website:

Series: ACH/ICCH (26), ACH/ALLC (18), ALLC/EADH (33), ADHO (1)

Organizers: ACH, ADHO, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
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