Boris Dralyuk talks about translating Babel’s Red Cavalry:
[…] The dialect also lends the text tremendous flavour. One rather profane example occurs in the story ‘The Italian Sun’, in which the narrator sneaks a look at a psychopathic Cossack’s letter to a woman who holds an important position in the Party. The Cossack asks to be sent to Italy, so that he can assassinate the king. The letter begins on the second page: ‘…lung’s shot through and I’m a little cracked or, as Sergei says, flew off my nut. You don’t just step off that nut, you fly. At any rate, jokes aside and tail out of the way… Let’s get down to business, my friend Victoria…’
What is this tail? Earlier translators have rendered the phrase (khvost nabok) as ‘tail to the side’, ‘tails sideways’, and ‘horsetail to one side’; this doesn’t clarify the situation. Babel makes use of a common Cossack saying, which also pops up in Sholokhov: ‘Jokes are jokes, but get the tail out of the way’. In other words, get the filly’s tail out of the way so we can get down to business. This may appear to be a small and distasteful detail, but it sets the tone. A bowdlerized Babel isn’t worth his salt.
Another example. In ‘The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych,’ the titular character, commander of the Cavalry Army’s Sixth Division, traces his rise from peasant herdsman to heroic general, employing colourful turns of phrase that subtly contribute to the narrative’s growing tension. In the second paragraph, Pavlichenko describes his idyllic but frustratingly idle youth: ‘And so I’m herding this cattle of mine, cows on every side. I’m shot through with milk, stink like a sliced udder, and I’ve got bull calves walking around me for propriety’s sake, mousy-grey bull calves.’ The key image here is ‘shot through’ (na vylet prokhvatilo); previous translators have rendered the phrase as ‘soaked in milk’, ‘steeped all through with milk’, and ‘doused in milk’, but this isn’t quite adequate. The suggestion of a bullet wound is very important, and it will become even more important in Pavlichenko’s comment to his bride Nastya: ‘My head’s not a rifle – it’s got no foresight, and no back-sight either. And you know my heart, Nastya – it’s all empty, it must be shot through with milk. It’s an awful thing, how I stink of milk….’ Pavlichenko’s metaphorical repertoire is strictly military, from the stripes on his shoulder-pads to the foresight in (or on) his head. The Cossack is a weapon, and he’s bound to go off. […]
I love that kind of pickiness.