This is a translation of an article about our recent Action meeting in Málaga, written by Cristina Fernández and originally published in Málaga Hoy on 18 February 2020. We are grateful for permission to publish this translation of the original article.

The project tries to search through distant reading for a common tradition in the 19th century novel

It would be absolutely impossible for a researcher to read all the novels written in 19th century Europe in an attempt to discover a common literary tradition in them. Not only would they have to live a thousand lives, but they would also have to know dozens of languages and be familiar with the many distant cultures. Now, computer methods can help in the study thanks to what Franco Moretti called distant reading.

Since November 2017, a four-year COST project financed by the European Union within its Horizon 2020 programme has brought together more than 200 people from some thirty countries in this task, providing a large and representative collection of texts in 12 languages to enable them to analyse common elements among themselves. From 17th to 19th February, more than fifty participants from 24 countries are meeting at the University of Malaga.

Literature to understand the world

Rosario Arias, professor of English Philology at UMA, is hosting the group that will share the different advances in the Link by UMA building on the Teatinos campus for three days. Christof Schöch, from the University of Trier in Germany, is the project’s Principal Investgator.

“Normally you read one novel, three or five to write a research paper but you can’t read thousands of texts because it takes time, and what we don’t want is for neglected texts to be forgotten,” Schöch explains. “You can use the computer and distant reading to get to more texts,” he adds.

Our Action members in Málaga

Almost a thousand digitized works written between 1840 and 1920

Project researchers are building a multilingual European literary text collection that already contains nearly a thousand digitized volumes published between 1840 and 1920 and a dozen languages. The aim is to reach 2,500.

“From each national tradition we are trying to select texts that are representative, from authors considered canonical and others less known, from men and women, short or longer novels,” explains Justin Tonra, a project participant from Ireland.

“This project tries to make a transnational comparison, but it is very difficult because each tradition is in itself different. That is why the project is very broad, it has many challenges, because we compare multilingual and multicultural traditions,” adds Tonra.

The Principal Investigator indicates that “we try to look for characteristics, features, that are easily comparable and that are common to different traditions such as names of places, of authors, of philosophers, of cities… it is a matter of tracing those elements”.

A collaborative and integrative work

Also, as Rosario Arias points out, “to find out if there is such a thing as what we suppose to be in the 19th century, which is a transition from the omniscient person to a more introspective narrative”. The description of professions, the importance of social class or religion, whether the novel takes place in rural or urban settings, whether this migration from the countryside to the city can be traced in different traditions and whether the same thing happens in the Slovenian, Greek, Italian or Spanish novel are questions to which they seek answers.

“The most relevant part of the project is not the tools, which are very interesting in themselves, nor the texts, above all it is to seek and propose the foundations of a European cultural identity with the collaboration of many individuals from different traditions, it is a very inclusive project, very integrating, the path is also part of the process, that is why we want to do it in a cooperative way, in a network”, says Schöch.

The answers are not easy, they are not black and white, they are difficult to reach because we are working with many researchers, many texts, many traditions, but the process itself is worth it. Until now, there has been no work at this level or in such a global and complete way on European literary history.