Having taken another course from Professor Sashura, I’m going to pass on some more information that may be of general interest but will certainly help anyone trying to make their way through Life and Fate in the original (the Amazon link is to the Chandler translation my wife gave me for Christmas). In chapter 38, the pilots about to leave the northern village where they have been held in reserve to return to the front are discussing the relative merits of German and Soviet fighters, and one of them says that the German pilot “doesn’t like horizontal fighting, he tries to get vertical.” Someone else agrees, saying “Who doesn’t know that? Even the village girls know he breaks away from tight turns.” Then comes the line I needed help with: “Эх, «чаечек» надо было тогда получше прикрыть, там люди хорошие” [‘Well, then, the chaechki should have been covered better, those are good people there’]. I figured out that chaechki was a diminutive of chaiki ‘seagulls,’ even though it wasn’t in any of my dictionaries (even the ones that have a lot of obscure diminutives), but the only definition for chaika I could find was the literal ‘seagull,’ which obviously (from both context and scare quotes) wasn’t intended here. So I wrote Sashura, who provided his usual full explanation:
Chayka was the nickname of the Red Army’s И-153 fighter plane (И – for истребитель, same as F designation in USAF), a biplane that was the mainstay in the Soviet air force throughout the later 1930s and early 1940s. The nickname is because of the gull-like shape of its wings. While it was superior to Japanese aircraft in 1939, shooting them down at a rate of 3 to 1, it wasn’t an even match for the German Messerschmitt 109. They talk about their engagement near Rzhev, the bloody continuation of the Moscow counteroffensive. By the time of the battle of Stalingrad the Polikarpov-designed Chaykas were mostly replaced by monoplane Yaks and American Airacobras, but many pilots had warm feelings towards the older planes, as the phrase shows (прикрыть – to give cover, covering fire).
This is brilliant, how the scene is built! The pilots are discussing fighting manoeuvres and saying that German pilots don’t like dog-fights involving tight curves (виражи), for which the Chaykas were famous. Then one pilot says, even girls in the village know that ‘he’ (the enemy, Germans) avoids tight turns. Chayka is of course feminine. The gender of the word prompts the next comment about giving better support to Chayka planes. Then they all stay quiet thinking about their girlfriends in the village whom they will leave in the morning.
He’s absolutely right about the brilliance of the scene, and the deeper I get into the book the more I feel its greatness—I’m deeply grateful to Sashura for urging me to read it in the original. (For one thing, I would have missed this line entirely, since Chandler leaves it out, as he tends to do with difficult lines; I don’t want to be overly harsh, since it’s a common practice among translators, it’s a huge and difficult book that presumably, like most such jobs, had a too-tight deadline, and readers won’t notice unless they’re familiar with the original, but it’s a nuisance when you’re reading the original and checking the translation mainly to help resolve just such difficulties. Also, leaving out the line makes the sudden silence in the next line unintelligible.)