Robert Minto has an appreciative review of Boris Dralyuk’s translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2016); I’m bringing it here because it includes one of those translation comparisons I enjoy so much:
Babel’s Odessa stories have never been presented as colorfully in English as they are here, in Boris Dralyuk’s translation. In his preface, Dralyuk notes that he, like Babel, grew up in Odessa. He claims to know the rhythms of its speech, and this seems borne out by the colloquial energy of his prose and the variety of distinct voices he draws out of Babel’s narrators. He made me realize how astonishing were Babel’s gifts for ventriloquism.
Here, for example, is a passage from one of the Odessa stories as it is translated in the standard English edition of The Complete Works of Isaac Babel:
Becoming an Odessan broker, I sprouted leaves and shoots. Weighed down with leaves and shoots, I felt unhappy. What was the reason? The reason was competition. Otherwise I would not have even wiped my nose on Justice. I never learned a trade. All there is in front of me is air, glittering like the sea beneath the sun, beautiful, empty air. The shoots need to be fed. I have seven of them, and my wife is the eighth shoot. I did not wipe my nose on Justice. No, Justice wiped its nose on me. What was the reason? The reason was competition.
There’s nothing wrong with this translation, but read (and listen) to the same lines, in Dralyuk’s version:
When I became a broker in Odessa, I grew leaves, sprouted shoots. Weighed down with these shoots, I felt miserable. Why? Competition is why. If it weren’t for competition, I wouldn’t even blow my nose on justice. There’s no craft, no skill in my hands. I have nothing but air in front of me. It shines like the sea on a sunny day, this beautiful, empty air. But the shoots want to eat. I’ve got seven of them, and my wife is the eighth. No, I didn’t blow my nose on justice. Justice blew its nose on me. Why? Competition is why.
Here, the lines sizzle with personality. It’s a matter of rhythm and the concision needed to achieve it. Dralyuk goes for a clipped, pacey style. In his preface he notes that Babel was born just a month and a half apart from Dashiell Hammett. By implication, we are to understand that he nudged his translations toward the style of hard-boiled detective fiction: “In general, I’ve tended toward concision, feeling it more important to communicate the tone — the sinewy, snappy punch — of the gangsters’ verbal exchanges than to reproduce them word for word.” While I have no Russian, and therefore cannot comment in light of the original, as a longtime fan of Babel in translation, I was excited by the change Dralyuk’s style wrought in familiar stories. They felt new.
Thanks for the link, Trevor!