Research Retrospective #3 : The (not so) Constant Garnett

In which the author wades headlong into a centuries-old battle for the soul of Russian literature and realises that puns based on a certain John Le Carré novel are starting to wear thin and probably not helping with SEO….

Traduttore, traditore
Translator, traitor
Italian proverb

La original no es fiel do traduccíon
The original is unfaithful to the translation
José Luis Borges (1899-1986)

During the summer of 2014 when packing to travel to the ACL conference in Baltimore, MD , I happened upon a 2005 article in the New Yorker by David Remnick entitled
The Translation Wars, which I promptly downloaded to my Kindle to read on the trans-Atlantic flight.

In this long and fascinating treatise on translation, obsession and literature, the author investigates the work and lives of several English-language translators of Russian literature by greats such as Fyodor Dosteyevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov during the nineteenth and twentieth century.

The aspect of the article which piqued my curiosity was the rather harsh treatment of one of the first English-language translators of Russian literature, Mrs. Constance Garnett.

The unfortunate Mrs. Garnett was a Victorian-era librarian by training, whose love affair with the Russian masters was likely sparked by a flesh-and-blood love affair with a dashing Russian revolutionary exile who she met in London at the turn of the 20th century. She translated over 70 works of Russian literature into English during her lifetime, working mostly alone in a stone cottage in Kent, translating the giants of Russian literature by candlelight, her solitary work punctuated by the occasional trip to Russia for inspiration.

I had encountered Garnett’s work in a previous study on source-language influence in translation, but had not investigated her canon in any in-depth way prior to then.
In The Translation Wars, Remnick describes the reaction of prominent Russian authorities of the day to the translations of Garnett. Vladimir Nabokov of Lolita fame quarrelled with Joseph Conrad over the quality of her work, as described by Remnick (2005)

On the blank left-hand page, Nabokov has written a quotation from Conrad, who told Garnett’s husband, Edward, “Remember me affectionately to your wife, whose translation of Karenina is splendid. Of the thing itself I think but little, so that her merit shines with greater lustre.” Angrily, Nabokov scrawls, “I shall never forgive Conrad this crack”—he ranks Tolstoy at the top of all Russian prose writers and “Anna” as his masterpiece—and pronounces Garnett’s translation “a complete disaster.”

Fellow Russian emigré academic, author and Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky was perhaps less cruel, but was heard to remark:

“The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”

In her defence, Remnick mentions that Garnett worked almost at breakneck speed, with little time for fine-tuning and revisions, simply skipping sections which she didn’t not understand, almost going blind in the long process of translating War and Peace.

Despite the shortcomings raised by Nabokov and others, it remained clear that Garnett’s contribution to the awareness of Russian literature in the Anglosphere was a tremendous one, and with this I decided to attempt to venerate the lady who had given body and soul to this cause.

Research question

Focusing in particular on the quotation from Brodsky, I imagined a means in which computational stylometry could be leveraged to prove that interpretations aside, Garnett rendered the text of each author she translated in a unique manner, preserving a distinctive style for each, within her own parameters.

As Garnett’s translations were indeed the first and some of the oldest translations of certain Russian authors, it was no surprise that many could be found on Project Gutenberg and other online sources. I managed to assemble a list of works from three authors, Chekhov,Turgenev and Dosteyevsky.

Stories by Anton Chekhov
The Bishop & O. Stories
The Cook’s Wedding
The Chorus Girl
The Darling
The Duel
The Horse-Stealers
The School Master
The Party
The Wife
The Witch
Love & O. Stories

Stories by Fyodor Dosteyevsky
A Raw Youth
Brothers Karamasov
Crime & Punishment
The Insulted and The Injured
The Possessed
White Nights
Five Stories

Stories by Ivan Turgenev
A House of Gentlefolk
Fathers & Children
On The Eve
Rudin Turgenev Smoke
The Torrents of Spring
The Jew

Once these texts had been assembled, they were split in equally-sized chunks of 10 kilobytes each, resulting in 942 for the whole corpus. The features calculated here were word and POS ngrams and eighteen document-level features, which were descriptive statistics for a passage of text, including average sentence length, type-token ratio and other such measures.


Taking each author as a category, the question was:

Do the textual segments pertaining to each author cluster together?

Using ten-fold cross validation and a SVM classifier with only the document-level features, there was already a strong clustering of authors, with 87% accuracy reported for the cross-validation results. Adding word features and POS features into the mix, the final classifier reported 94% accuracy for authorial category.

To prevent proper nouns facilitating classification, such as character names and locations from each novel or author which could feasibly cluster together, all noun features were removed from the words feature set.

Examining the feature sets ranked by Information Gain, the most distinctive features proved to be common verbs, adverbs and adjectives, ratios of certain POS types (pronouns, nouns) and average word and sentence length ratios.

Common verbs had been examined in several previous studies in translation stylometry and found to be distinctive among parallel translations of the same text, but in this study, they were found to discriminate between translations of different authors by the same translator.

Reaction and analysis

On presenting this work at the 25th International Conference in Computational Linguistics (Coling) in Dublin later on the same year, the first question was generally the following:

Interesting work, but have you considered the source text?

Indeed, a parallel clustering of the original Russian sources of the translations would no doubt throw up some interesting questions as to whether the translator preserved source-text trends in translation or created a parallel stylistic projection of their own making. Unfortunately, due to my own lack of linguistic proficiency in Russian and the vagaries of the World Wide Web, I found it rather difficult to locate digital copies of the source texts of the works examined in my study, however would be very happy to collaborate on a further study with a Russian-speaker who wished to assist in this manner.

Another very valid point was that this work was only carried out on one translator and a handful of authors, and this is indeed crucial. Unfortunately, it is also rather difficult to obtain parallel translations of the same source online, let alone find translators who have translated multiple authors and also from multiple languages, but future studies will seek to investigate such norms across authors, source languages and perhaps even target languages.

Further work would also seek to leverage more interesting features such as syntactic parses, used by Lucic and Blake (2011) in their work on translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. Other interesting studies on the topic of translatorial vs. authorial style include work by Forsyth et. al. (2013) who investigate parallel translations of the Van Gogh brothers’ correspondence for authorial and translatorial style (evidence of both are found, authorial being more prominent) and Rybicki (2012) who fails to find consistent stylometric markers of translators across translations of different authors in various languages, however finding elements of stylistic variation when a translator changes mid-translation in Rybicki (2013).


Lynch, G. (2014). A supervised learning approach towards profiling the preservation of authorial style in literary translations. Proceedings 25th COLING, 376-386.

Remnick, D. (2005). The translation wars. The New Yorker, 7, 98-109.

Jan Rybicki and Magda Heydel. (2013). The stylistics and stylometry of collaborative translation: Woolf’ s Night and Day in Polish. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 28(4):708–717.

J. Rybicki. (2012). The great mystery of the (almost) invisible translator. Quantitative Methods in Corpus-Based Translation Studies: A Practical Guide to Descriptive Translation Research, page 231.

Ana Lucic and Catherine Blake. (2011). Comparing the similarities and differences between two translations. In
Digital Humanities 2011, page 174. ALLC.

Richard S. Forsyth and Phoenix W. Y. Lam. (2013). Found in translation: To what extent is authorial discriminability preserved by translators? Literary and Linguistic Computing.

Article about Constance Garnett’s life and work:

Charles A Moser. (1988). Translation: The Achievement of Constance Garnett. The American Scholar, pages 431–438.


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