The Transposition of Form
Intro: Form in derivatives and transposition
A derivative describes a work that is related to a previously existing original. We currently have two common types of derivatives: adaptation and translation. Adaptation uses the original as a rough template for a new text. Translation is more or less a direct copy of the original in a different language. Somewhere between these two types is transposition.
Primarily, a transposition traces the structure of the original, including each original sentence, or segment as we will refer to it. Similar to radical adaptations like the movie Clueless, the content and sometimes the form of a transposition differ from the original work. The degree to which the original is retained or modified depends on the coincidence between the respective contents and contexts of the two texts. As a result of the shift in content, it is possible for a transposition to exist within one language or from one language to another.
In order to gain a concrete understanding of these differences, it is helpful to examine a comparison of one passage in a text that has been translated, adapted and transposed. The original text in the first column below was written by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Its translation stems from the critically acclaimed couple Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. With some help from Zamyatin and others in writing the libretto, Dmitry Shostakovich composed an adaptation of the story in the form of an opera. In the last column, we see the transposition which retains the form of the original, while modifying the content.
The translation closely adheres to both the form and content of the original. In his adaptation, Shostokovich makes significant alterations to the form of the original, and in my transposition, the content is overhauled. Shostakovich may have adapted his opera about a century (1928/30) after the original (1835/36) and even inserted passages from other Gogol texts, but the greatest change is due to the transubstantiation of a form with narration and discourse (narrative) to a form that does not permit such extensive narration (opera). By contrast, transposition traces the original, but unveils some shift in the content (either with or without a change in form), replacing the content from Russia in the nineteenth century with content from America in the twenty-first century. “Women with bandaged faces” become “nannies with spoiled children”; the church becomes a bank; the state councillor becomes a senior manager.
A. Form and Content
i. Transposition of form
By form in this context I primarily mean grammar, the composition of the sentence, word order, rhythm, etc. In general, the place of form in a narrative extends to structure, and form may become content, and content – form, but the requirement that sentences of a transposition correspond to commensurate sentences in an original limits the scope of form that I will address here. In general, content is understood as the events in the story. Any circumstance where form is content or content is form will not be addressed here.
In the transposition of The Nose, as I touched on above, the new text follows the segments of the original far more closely than Shostokovich’s adaptation. On account of the change in content and the different context of the transposition, it is, however, possible to exclude segments and accept greater deviation in the case of discourse (due to differences in the representation of speech over 200 years). In narration, wherever possible, a noun included in the original should become a commensurate noun in the new narrative (depending on what the transposition of content requires). The same applies to adjectives, adverbs, verbs, prepositions, etc. Since in practice, it is hard to maintain such consistency, there are many instances of mixture, especially in substantially altered sentences: An adjective in the original may correspond to a noun in a compound noun or even an entirely different part of speech; the word count may also vary slightly, or one sentence may be divided into two. Nonetheless, the correspondence between segments will remain palpable.
ii. Transposition of content
Since the transposition of content is addressed in a separate essay, I will outline just a few general points on this subject. In The Nose, as in any transposition of content across two cultures and vastly different epochs, many phenomena of daily life have changed: e.g. the civil servant protagonist in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, walks the street so often that he is readily recognized. Today, we have professionals who spend a lot of time on the street, but they do not tend to be civil servants like the protagonist in The Nose. In another transposition that I have prepared, the plot of Dead Souls, also by Nikolai Gogol, and Persuasion by Jane Austen are interwoven. The combination of two plots entailed a substantial tweaking of the original. E.g. Dead Souls takes place entirely in one town, whereas Persuasion unravels the skein in three places. Consequently, it is necessary to send Chichikov/Wentworth/Leaddus from Orange County to New York and Florida in accordance with the plot of Persuasion (rather than have them stay at the same location throughout the story as in Dead Souls).
It is similar with the transposing of characters in the two novels. In The Nose, a male barber is transfigured to a female esthetician. With the combination of Dead Souls and Persuasion, not only are the protagonists modernized and Americanized, but they are also merged and transfused into new people (e.g. Manilov from DS & Charles Musgrove from P become Mr. Friendly in DSP; Chichikov from DS and Wentworth from P become Leaddus in DSP; Plushkin from DS and Benwick from P become James Benwick in DSP, etc.).
B. The form of contemporary American literary fiction
As in translation, there are two thorny issues for transposition: a) Why can the form of the original not be copied? b) How is the alteration of form handled?
One of the difficulties translators face is the existence of culture in language. A translator may correctly convey all the words into the target language, but it will be impossible, even with extensive footnotes, to relate the culture, i.e. rituals, experience, understanding, habits, peculiarities, cultural context, association, etc., which are bound up in those original words. As Patricia Chaput writes on aspect (perfect or imperfect verbs), “speakers of English tend... to see events in terms of accomplishment” (409) rather than as a process. And with regard to verbs of motion, she cites Moyle’s comparison of Americans’ positive view of travelling into new space with ethnic Russian culture, which finds one-way travel beyond established boundaries to be negative and even potentially evidence of unquiet dead or demons (411). As opposed to translation with its complete absence of cultural reference in language, a transposition finds that it is both present and absent. Since the target language and context coincide, the transposer can convey e.g. the American attitude toward education not only in content, but also through the selection of words, formulations, associations, etc. Concurrently, however, the cultural component finds itself imbued with uncertainty through the adoption of a foreign structure (irrespective of whether the transposition appears in the same or a different language from the original). Essentially, the culture is transmitted in the transposition’s language and content, but simultaneously questioned or undermined by the structure. Yet even if cultural identity permitted the complete culture reference in transposition or translation, the grammar of the respective languages would not allow for a copying of form.
In the field of translation, critics, readers and translators have engaged in a long debate about the extent to which a translation should adhere to the original. Thomas Steiner describes the erewhile exchange during the baroque in his essay “Precursors to Dryden: English and French Theories of Translation in the Seventeenth Century”. He argues that French translators deviated from the original more than their English counterparts: "...We may propose a French rhetorical or "pragmatic" tradition and an English "poetic" tradition. Important French theorists early and later in the period...spoke much more of the decorum of literary language and the sensibility and requirements of the audience than did English theorists" (76). By contrast, their English counterparts "concentrated on re-creating or replacing the poetic ‘spirit’ of the original" (77). The seventeenth-century distinction between poet-focused and audience-focused translation has morphed into literal translation and adaptation. Today, translators of Russian must address Nabokov’s influential and strongly voiced defense of the literal school, which calls for the closest possible replication of the original text in the target language: “I have sacrificed to completeness of meaning every formal element including the iambic rhythm, whenever its retention hindered fidelity. To my ideal of literalism I sacrificed everything (elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar) that the dainty mimic prizes higher than truth” (quoted from Baer 176). At the other end of the spectrum, we find advocates of a complete alteration of the original in the form of adaptation designed with the contemporary audience in mind. Implicitly or explicitly, such adapters are making assumptions about the target work as compared to the original. In language, these assumptions relate in part to the grammar and conventions of the target language. Before looking at the transposition of form from one literary work to another, we must also consider the English language and its contemporary form.
There are structural differences between the entrails of each language. From the perspective of the English language, the almost endless options for word order in Russian illuminate the greater rigidity of our language. The flexibility of Russian appears to be partially due to the influence of both French and Latin/German grammar. As literary Russian was developing, the position of the verb in “simple” Russian was marked by a duality. In her study of the Russian language at the beginning of the 18th century, Anna Litvina notes: «Припозиция зависимых членов в глагольном словосочетании – самая распространенная схема словорасположения и в письмах других авторов текстов на “простом” языке» (Trans. “The preceding position of dependent parts in verb constructions is the most popular method of arranging words in the letters of other authors of texts in simple Russian, too.”) (130). In contrast to this placing of the verb at the end of the sentence/clause, she notes that some composers of simple Russian letters such as Veshnyakov rejected this template: «Абсолютно преобладающей у него является постпозиция зависимых существительных в глагольных словосочетаниях, то есть такой порядок слов, который характерен для француского языка и является нейтральным в СРЛЯ (современном русским литературном языке)» (Trans. “His texts are dominated by the postposition of the dependent nouns in verb constructions, that is, they have a word order that is characteristic of French and appears to be neutral in contemporary Russian literary language.”)(130). This duality has never disappeared from Russian, giving its writers the broadest possible range for composing a sentence.
It is perhaps easiest to gain a rough understanding of the sentence structure of contemporary American literature by what it does not possess. Further comparison to other languages offers some compelling examples. In Spanish and French, adjectives often follow nouns (rather than precede them). In German, the verb regularly appears at the end of a sentence, with information related to the verb preceding it (e.g. she knows that her friend every day email sends). Another fundamental possibility in both German and Russian is to invert sentences (make the object precede the verb and/or have the subject follow the verb). This is possible and particularly common in part because Russian and German decline their nouns (or the definite/indefinite article for the noun) so that the reader knows whether it is the subject, object, indirect object, instrumental, etc. We do not have declination in English, so inversion is more difficult. “The woman told her friend” does not equal “Her friend told the woman.” In Russian and German, you could not only change the word order of these two sentence exactly as above and retain the same meaning (Die Frau erzählte ihrer Freundin = Ihrer Freundin erzählte die Frau / Женщина рассказала подруге = Подруге рассказала женщина), but the two constructions in German are equally common and ordinary, depending on what you want to emphasize, and the sentences in Russian are equally clear, although the latter word order (inverted) would be more likely to impearl a written text. Inversion, however, is only the start.
The German or Russian sentence regularly contains indirectness (usually through adverbs, adverbial phrases or instrumentals between the verb and the object or subject). Both of these languages have a standard sentence structure that repeatedly proffers adverbial phrases (in the park, for a long time, etc.) between the subject and verb or subject/verb and object (am 12 August habe ich in der S-Bahn nach Hause das Erhabene erfahren // On August 12 did I in the subway home the sublime experience, or grammatically correct: On August 12 I experienced the sublime in the subway home). Such indirectness in Russian and German issues from the division of the core information distilled in the subject-verb-object complex. Whereas in English the individual parts of this SVO/SP complex remain adjacent to each other, practice and grammar in Russian and German regularly entail a wait to the end of the sentence for one component of the SVO/SP complex. Here is a look at a basic sentence with an adverbial phrase from Pleschinski’s book Ostsucht:
Vor der Reise hatte ich in einem kleinen Konversationslexikon die kurze Eintragung über Dresden gelesen (61)
Before the trip did I in a small encyclopedia the short entry about Dresden read. (“Literal” translation)
Before the trip, I read the short entry about Dresden in the encyclopedia. (“Normal” translation)
The sentence begins with an adverbial phrase “Vor der Reise,” then we have the assisting verb (hatte) followed by the subject (ich). It is a typical case of inversion. Up to this point, the sentence in German reads with less of a pause than its conventional English counterpart (Before the trip, I read...). However, the material difference appears afterwards. The object does not follow the verb in German, but rather a phrasal adverbial (in einem kleinen Konversationslexikon). This compels an implicit pause or reading at a speed that allows for indirectness (i.e. slower) until we finally reach the key information in the object (die Eintragung) and the main verb (gelesen). Occasionally we have this adverbial phrase placement in English, too: “...I registered, for the first time, the tinge of sadness in Faye’s expression, underlying the more visible cold severity”(Lasdun 165-166). The difference is not only that we already know the subject and main verb, but also that this indirectness (or pause) in the middle of the English sentence is so rare that we often use commas for it. Furthermore, the object (the tinge of sadness) still arrives immediately after the adverbial phrase (in German it could be: “Ich habe zum ersten Mal in Fayes Gesicht ein Hauch von Traurigkeit bemerkt.” For the sake of further comparison, in the first ten pages of Freedom by critically acclaimed writer Jonathan Franzen, we find zero adverbial phrases between the verb and object and only one adverbial phrase between the subject and verb (page 7). There is one instance where two independent clauses provide additional information (12), and two sentences begin with one adverbial phrase followed by another before we reach the subject (6, 9). The reader engorges the stimulus of subject-verb-object and subject-predicate in English.
The indirectness in the Pleschinski sentence cited above then becomes essential in the German apprehension of literature, requiring the reader to wait regularly for key information, be it the verb, subject or object, until (almost) the end of the sentence. It leads to legions of additional independent clauses, other interruptions and thus waits, as the reader slowly and steadily approaches the end.
C. Considerations in the transposition of form
In the transposition of form, we find three factors have a significant impact on the new text. First of all, the original work’s form is the basis and starting point similar to translation. Second, the contemporary audience and current practice or use of language informs stylistic decisions. Third, in some instances, the shift in content entails an alteration of form. Below you will find one passage from Jane Austen’s Persuasion and one passage from Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, which are discussed in more detail and occasionally against the backdrop of the only published transposition The Nose.
Formal decisions influenced by the original
The form of each segment in transposition is shaped first and foremost by the original author. We observe this repeatedly in Austen. Five of six sentences in the Austen passage commence with the subject: “The father and mother were in the old English style...”; “Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people...”; “Their children had more modern minds...” Four of six sentences proffer the package of subject-verb-object or subject-predicate at the beginning, and the other two sentences (no. 1 and 6) only interrupt this pattern with a simile (“like their houses” in no. 1) and an adverb (“always” in no. 6). With this sentence structure in the original text, there is no waiting for key information. The packages of SVO and SP ensure gratification of the reader’s immediate need for primary facts, and a change in form from the original to the transposition is not necessary since Austen’s composition of sentences resembles that of contemporary fiction such as Franzen. Consequently, the form of the original is transfused into the transposition.
In comparison to Austen, the substantially more convoluted syntax in Gogol also shows up in transposition. The first sentence of Dead Souls, which is fairly straightforward relative to the subsequent sentences, nonetheless sets a formal tone that sharply differs from Austen. Even the fluidized transposition (e.g. the sentence begins with the subject in English rather than an adverbial phrase) contains a gerund and a dependent clause along with a colon. The five pauses in the sentence (after бричка/britzka, холостяки/bachelors, помещики/landowners, крестьян/peasant souls, словом/in short) capture the clausal character of the original’s form.
In these cases, the transposition of content does not have a significant impact on the decisions related to form. An example in the Austen passage is the description of the family. We learn that the Musgroves are e.g. “not educated, not at all elegant,” yet their status as mayor and first lady in transposition makes these epithets inconceivable in the new context. Although this entails modifications to the new physical manifestation of the Friendly’s identity, it does not affect the form.
Here is a summary of some transpositions of the passage cited from Persuasion where the form of the original and transposition closely resemble each other:
As we can see, the form remains nigh to the original, even as the physical details shift. The first example sees only a replacement of one adjective; the second has negated adjectives replaced by affirmative ones, and the third is identical in the original and transposition. As such, the form of Austen’s narrator directs the apprehension of the contemporary text in much the same manner as 200 years ago, while Gogol’s form, although shaping our current apprehension, must be modified to a greater extent.
Formal decisions influenced by consideration of the reader
Relative to Austen, Gogol deviates substantially from contemporary American form. His writing appears odd today: Complexity, expansiveness, tangents, commentary and irony subduct the reader. No further do we need to look than the first sentence of Dead Souls (passage 2 above) where the subject and verb are inverted (verb precedes subject); it contains narration and commentary; there are multiple clauses. As compared to Jonathan Franzen, even if we take the less streamlined novel The Corrections where the first 7 pages contain 14 instances of inversion, adverbial phrases and independent clauses between the subject and verb or verb and object, we find 14 instances of such constructions in the first 16-18 sentences of Dead Souls (depending on how you count), primarily due to the various forms of inversion on account of the previously discussed flexible word order.
Whereas in Austen, it is often possible merely to replace words so they sound contemporary or fit the new plot of DSP, the transposition of form in Gogol requires the reworking of sentences. The Russian original coupled with its early nineteenth-century form compels greater reliance on the adoption of the rules for transposing form as outlined at the beginning of this essay. Fundamentally, that means retention of the same number of words, length of sentence, number of clauses, commensurate quantity of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs (only in narration and exempting (in)definite articles, prepositions, conjunctions).
For example, the first two clauses of the Gogol passage (Original: В ворота гостиницы губернского города NN въехала довольно красивая рессорная небольшая бричка, в какой ездят холостяки... // Transposition: “A quite nice sports utility vehicle drove through the sprawl of a small coastal town in OC, carrying the usual...) have a total of 13 words in the original and transposition (only counting nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs). Wherever possible, adjectives remain adjectives, nouns remain nouns, etc.: The adjective красивая becomes “nice,” the noun бричка becomes vehicle; however, the transposition of content often results in mixtures like “sports utility vehicle” where a compound noun emerges from what were adjectives. Furthermore, the sentence begins with the subject rather than the adverbial phrase, and the independent clause is replaced by a gerund.
That is not to say that Austen’s work did not require any shift in form due to audience considerations. In the Austen passage, the narrator serves up the indirectness that we saw in the German passage and discussed in the context of Russian: “but the only two grownups, excepting Charles, were Henrietta and Louisa, young ladies of nineteen and twenty, who had brought from a school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments” and “but still, saved as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority...” These are cases of delay and indirectness that have been jettisoned from the transposition. This smoothing of narration also shows up in the less substantial changes like removing “of” before “improvement/evolution” and replacing “of consequence” with “require attention.”
Some of these audience-related alterations strongly resemble those in translation. Others are merely due to grammar. Wherever adjectives or pronouns follow nouns, or verbs appear in an unconventional place for the English language, a commensurate shift to the common position occurs in transposition. For example, in the third sentence of Dead Souls, a possessive pronoun follows a noun (Въезд его не произвел в городе совершенно никакого шума // literally: Arrival his did not produce in the city at all any noise // reworded in grammatically correct-conventional English: His arrival in the city did not produce any noise at all). With regard solely to form, the possessive pronoun in such instances appears before the noun in transposition, as is common in translation and all grammatically correct original writing in English. In ordinary cases like the one above, the same applies to general word order, so that a verb such as “produce” is followed by the object.
A more nuanced approach is required for interlaced, complicated sentences with multiple independent clauses where it might be possible for contemporary English to accommodate the structure, but such a construction would result in undue difficulty for the suborned reader. These considerations ordain the rearrangement of many sentences and the removal of some Russian “indirectness” such as reflexives (себе), colloquial emphasis (еще), turns of phrase (словом, в некоторых случаях), deixis (дотоле, вот). Otherwise, and in general, narration remains narration and discourse stays discourse, only in some cases with the tense altered.
Plot influencing form
Irrespective of the original work’s language, the transformation of the plot as a result of transposition may lead to alterations in form. An example of this unfolds in the transposition of The Nose where a single civil servant in the original turns into two characters in the transposition: a doorman, with whom the protagonists briefly converses downstairs in his building, and a neighbor with whom he subsequently speaks upstairs. In the original, the structure of some sentences assumes the continual presence of a single person in one place close to the protagonist. Below we see this assumption as Kovalev/Bill is thinking to himself when a candle is lit in the original:
Размышления его прерваны были светом, блеснувшим сквозь все скважины дверей, который дал знать, что свеча в передней уже зажжена Иваном. / His thoughts were interrupted by a light shining through the cracks in the doors, which let him know that the candles in the hallway had been lit by Ivan.
The sentence takes for granted that the reader has already been introduced to Ivan, (which has indeed occurred) and it is possible to know what is happening on the other side of the door (due to the cracks). In transposition, however, the former Ivan is a doorman, and doormen do not enter apartments unexpectedly in the twenty-first century (they call from downstairs). Furthermore, a single man without any other people in his place cannot know (from afar) what is happening on the other side of a solid door (we do not have cracks in doors). His thoughts must be interrupted by some external event not discernible from a sedentary position. This change in plot also prompts a change in form because whatever action is taken by a third person of whom Bill/Kovalev becomes aware, it must involve a new or different third person, and uncertainty in the clause after the inquit phrase (“which let him know”):
But his thoughts were interrupted by the bell that rang at the front door, likely indicating that a neighbor needed to borrow something.
The insertion of the conjunction “but” does not trace the form of the original, yet it is useful in introducing the unexpected discontinuity which results from the awareness that someone unforeseen is near. Even more significant is the formal transposition of “который дал знать”. Beyond banal platitudes, it is impossible to know what the bell ringing means in the same way as Kovalev can authoritatively say that the light in the other room is due to Ivan who has lit the candle. The closest formal parallel would be “which suggested” or “which let him know” (as in the translation), but these options involve problems of register (too formal in tone), perspective (greater omniscience) and the need to avoid redundancy (how much can you know from a bell ringing unexpectedly?). The alteration of the form through “but” and “likely indicating” demonstrates that consideration of the reader also shapes the decision. The first facilitates a smooth reading and the second implies respect for the intelligence and time of the reader by excluding a platitude. Accordingly, a change in plot precipitates the aforementioned formal decisions influenced by the author and audience. Particularly when the plot requires formal changes, the author and audience confront each other in the formulation of the segment, while the segment itself becomes the embodiment of further uncertainty in the text.
Conclusion: Transposition, form and contemporary apprehension
A misguided work of fiction will contain a form not in harmony with its content and/or time; in contrast, a work of fiction attempting to become a sublime will have a form commensurate with the content and the given time. An example of a misguided work would be a novel written in a single form with diverse content during a diverse age; on the other hand, such a monotone form for a first-person novel told from the perspective of one character (i.e. with less diverse content) in a uniform epoch might be in league with the spirit of the age. If we are living in the transition to a diverse age, and literary fiction is defined by a singularity of form and/or content, then such literature cannot become a sublime because its form fails to align with the present time. At the moment, due to audience expectations and practice, it is difficult to escape the constraints of uniformity in English, as we saw in the assessment of the contemporary form of American literary fiction. Transposition, however, lets the collager subvert the prevailing singularity of form for readers by integrating different voices and thereby fomenting a transition to greater diversity in form.
Since transposition consistently identifies with a diverse era, the austenization of the divide betwixt the consistent or uniform (Austen) and the unstable or diverse (Gogol) is swayed from its concessions to the security-obsessed contemporary uniformity of stimulus back toward the uncertainty of diversity ensuing from neutrality. Transposition itself is letting the transposer combat the indoctrination of the reader just as Gogol and Austen’s forms tangle with each other’s representation. At no point does one orientation entirely vanquish the other. They engage in a tenacious struggle typical of the middle ages, baroque, romanticism and diverse strains of early modernism like the cubists, symbolists or Der Blaue Reiter, now wrapped in a golden veil.
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Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. Print.
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Gogol, Nikolai. Мертвые души. Москва: Издательство «ПРАВДА», 1984. Print.
---. Dead Souls. Trans. Volokhonsky and Pevear. New York: Vintage, 2003. Print.
---. Нос. http://ilibrary.ru/text/76/index.html. Online.
--- The Nose. Transposed by Henry Whittlesey. http://intranslation.brooklynrail.org/russian/the-nose. Online.
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Литвина, Анна Феликсовна. «К вопросу о синтаксисе текстов на “простом” языке начала XVIII века» Russian Linguistics. Vol. 23, No. 2 (May 1999), pp. 123-136. Online. Accessed: Jul. 13, 2012.
Pleschinski, Hans. Ostsucht. München: DTV Verlag, 2004.
Шостакович, Дмитрий. Нос. (Опера). 1928-1930. Маринский театр 2008.
 If only the form is changed, it will be an adaptation.
 I am quoting the libretto from the 2004 St-Petersburg production.
 We see this prominently in transpositions from Gogol where the cultural references that are contained in the language and content capture the stimulative, pragmatic, materialist mentality while the long, multi clause sentences with excessive detail counteract the stimulus, pragmatism and materialism by slowing the reading process and drawing the reader into the spirituality of stagnation or neutrality.
 “Simple” is juxtaposed to what was considered “literary” at that time and was heavily influenced by Old Church Slavonic (see Litvina 123-124).
 The Russian sentence could also be formulated as: i) Женщина подруге рассказала; ii) Подруге женщина рассказала; iii) Расскзала женщина подруге; iv) Рассказала подруге женщина
 In my commercial translations, the sentence structure of Pleschinski’s passage appears multiple times on each page of a given original. See, for example, academic papers or financial statements.
 On July 13, 2012, the Dover edition of Persuasion ranked 8,791 in Books at Amazon, while the critically acclaimed translation of Dead Souls had a ranking of 221,996.
 Although this approach was also applied to Austen passages that I deemed too far removed from present-day English, a mere substitution of nouns or adjectives or verbs often sufficed, as discussed above.
Published - September 2012