Can I write like John le Carré?

  1. 1. Jan Rybicki

    Institute of Modern Languages - Pedagogical University of Krakow

  2. 2. Paweł Stokłosa

    Institute of Modern Languages - Pedagogical University of Krakow

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In a presentation at a previous ALLC/ACH
conference, later developed in a paper for Literary and Linguistic Computing (Rybicki 2005), one of the authors has begun to investigate the relationship between a literary original and its various translations, basing
on Burrows’s well-established method first used in
his study of Jane Austen (1987) and later developed,
evaluated and applied by a number of scholars, including
Hoover (2002). Although the results obtained with
Delta (Burrows 2002) seem equally promising for
computer-assisted translation studies, the first author of this paper (himself a translator of British, American, and Canadian literature) feels that the potential of the older method has not been exhausted in this particular domain – and that it is especially well-suited for case studies such as the one presented here.
The above-mentioned first study investigated character
idiolects in a classic Polish trilogy of 19th - century
historical romances and its two English translations (made
a century apart) and found that many relationships
(“distances”) between characters in the original were preserved in both, or at least one, of the translations. This time, the works chosen were two “most literary spy
novels” by John le Carré, A Perfect Spy (1986) and
Absolute Friends (2003). Written 17 years apart, they were translated by Rybicki into Polish less ten months one from the other in 2003 and 2004.
From the very start, it was evident for the translator that the two novels will be an interesting subject of study due to their being built according to a very similar model,
especially where characterization is concerned. Both
feature a slightly foolish British agent (le Carré’s famous
trademark), his highly intellectual yet physically
handicapped East German nemesis, the British agent’s boss/friend, etc. Since these two very similar works
shared their Polish translator – who continued to
experience a very strong feeling of déjà vu while working on the two novels, this case seemed perfect for a study of stylistic relationships between original and translation.
The following observations have been made: (1) In the narrative, the styles of the originals are more unique than those of the translation. This may be a consequence of the 17 years’ distance between the English versions as opposed
to the 10 months that separate the translations. (2) Of
the three above-mentioned couples of corresponding
characters, two are very expectedly similar, while one
(the two East-German double agents) are not. Their
similarity is “regained” in the translation – an interesting
corroboration of the translator’s “intuitive” suspicion
during his work on the Polish version.
These results show that, at least in this – very special – case, the accuracy of studies performed by Multidimensional
Scaling of correlation matrices of relative frequencies of the most frequent words is quite considerable when
applied to translation. This is true despite the
disquieting fact, to quote Hoover’s statement given in a somewhat different context, that “like previous
statistical authorship attribution techniques, (this
correspondence) lacks any compelling theoretical
justification” (2004). The tentative explanations proposed so far by Opas and Kujamaki (using the van-Leuven-Zwart postulate of microstructural changes influencing
the text’s macrostructure, 1995) or McKenna, Burrows and Antonia (“common words influence syntactic
structures and translations of them can influence the
meanings we read in a text”, 1999), are certainly not
enough. Even more telling is the silence that Burrows maintains on the subject in his most translation-oriented study (2002), already quoted above. Since overlapping
semantic fields of the most frequent words of texts
and divergent linguistic systems make one-on-one
correspondences impossible, a more general underlying mechanism must be found. At the same time, empirical
studies that have hinted at the existence of such a
mechanism have still been very few. This is why more are needed to explain the compelling yet somewhat mystical
successes of Burrows’s “old” method, and Delta and its
various clones. The results presented in this paper are
at least a good incentive to study this phenomenon in
translations by the same translator; they are, in fact, part of a greater project to investigate the stylometry of all Polish
versions by Rybicki, covering a wide range of modern
English-language literature. References
Burrows, J.F. (1987). Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels and an Experiment in Method. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Burrows, J.F. (2002). The Englishing of Juvenal:
computational stylistics and translated texts. Style 36.
Hoover, D.L. (2002). New Directions in Statistical
Stylistics and Authorship Attribution. Proc. ALLC/ACH.
Hoover, D.L. (2004) Delta, Delta Prime, and Modern American Poetry: Authorship Attribution Theory and Method. Proc. ALLC/ACH.
McKenna, W., Burrows, J.F. and Antonia, A. (1999). Beckett’s Trilogy: Computational Stylistics and the Nature of Translation, Revue informatique et
statistique dans les sciences humaines 35.
Opas, L.L. and Kujamaki, P. (1995). A Cross-linguistic Study of Stream-of-consciousness Techniques, LLC 10/4.
Rybicki, J. (2006). Burrowing into Translation: Character Idiolects in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy and its Two English Translations. LLC.

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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
  • Topics: None