Making Babel Sizzle.

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!


  1. Thanks for this. I have some idea that the blunt, in-your-face stereotypical character of modern Israelis (like it or not) ultimately traces itself to Odessans. This translation highlights what I imagine is that Odessan bluntness.

  2. I’ve never read Babel, and I love that opening passage. Hold placed at the library.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    I looked for one of my favourite lines, about the Jewish gangster Benya Krik:

    “The King doesn’t talk much, and he talks politely. This puts such a scare in people that they never ask him to explain or repeat himself.”

  4. I’ve never read Babel, and I love that opening passage. Hold placed at the library.
    You’re in for a treat. I can never get enough of his writing; it helps that his topics are interesting (Odessan criminals and the old Jewish Odessa, the Civil War), but the most boring topics would become interesting by the way Babel writes about them.

  5. Yes indeed. I know he’s appreciated these days, but he’s still not appreciated enough.

  6. Bathrobe says

    What does “I wouldn’t even blow my nose on justice” mean?

  7. Great book review – only thing that seems weird to me is why do the translate “Froim Gratch” as “Froim the Rook”? Sure gratch means rook (the bird) in Russian, but it’s also a reasonably common Jewish/Ukrainian/Byelorussian last name. Or did I misunderstand for all these years?

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    The intro goes on to explain that Froim’s actual surname occurs in the story “Justice in Quotes”; it’s Shtern.

  9. @David,

    You’re absolutely right. And while looking into it, I found this article (in Russian) about the real life people whom Babel used as the prototypes for his Odessa stories:

  10. I wouldn’t even blow my nose on X means that whoever says it pretends to regard X so low that it is beneath her to even blow her nose on X.

  11. How did he translate “Цыть, мурло!”?

  12. Dmitry, no translation is perfect, so please have pity on me. Here’s what I did:

    “Shut it, mug,” Lyubka shot back at the old man and climbed down from the saddle.

    And LH, thanks very much indeed for posting this!

  13. For Цыть I would have thought “Shush” was an obvious candidate.

  14. Except no one in that milieu would have used the prissy-sounding “Shush” — that’s something your aged aunt would say.

  15. OK. You should know. Only by now Lyubka Shneiweis is well past the age of even the most aged of my aunts…

  16. >“Shut it, mug,” Lyubka shot back at the old man and climbed down from the saddle.

    I would go with something like “Shut your ugly mug”. To me, in English calling somebody a “mug” directly sounds awkward… YMMV

  17. please have pity on me
    I realy do like your translation. I just was musing to myself, as I I re-read Odessa tales in Russian, if his language already turned incomprehensible for the L1 speakers. It’s thick on Ukrainisms and Jewish realities, and the trick of Babel’s narration is that he imitates a story retold to a confidant who is already, partly, in the know. So missing bits of contexts, and the storylines hopping over gaps, recreate the feeling of live speech. But if one can’t grasp the words themselves without a help of the context, and the context is purposefully fragmentary, then – what do the readers still get?
    And even when the context is meticulously spelled out, does it still ring? Who knows the name of Shem-Tov, for example?

  18. Very well said, Dmitry! The Odessan argot still rings for me, and I worked like a drayman to make the English ring for Anglophone ears. It’s good to know that the results have resonated with non-Russian readers of a particular bent. After all, Anglophone literature has more than its fair share of linguistically lush gangster tales and Yiddish-inflected stories of life’s other side.

  19. Michael Hendry says

    Boris D.:
    Since you’re here, I thought you should know that I can’t find your Odessa Stories on Amazon (US or UK) except in the Kindle version – and I tried searching Babel+Odessa, Babel+Pushkin, Babel+Dralyuk, and a couple of other likely combinations. The paperback is listed on ABE books, so I know it exists, and I can get it. But you’ll sell more copies if you can convince Amazon to list the paperback.

  20. Michael, thank you very much! The publisher is aware of the issue and is working to resolve it as quickly as possible. Fingers crossed!

  21. _The Collected Stories of_ came in at the library, Peter Constantine’s translation. I have been laughing out loud (“The Public Library”, “The Sin of Jesus”), but I do come up with questions about the translation.

    Rimma Stepanovna writes lines in her head for a letter to her father: “May the allegation that Stanny dozed on my breast lie heavy on Mama’s conscience! It was an embroidered cushion that he was dozing on, but the center of gravity lies elsewhere. As Mama is your wife, you will doubtless side with her, but I can’t stay here any longer, she is a difficult person!”

    The stilted formality, oddity, bathos — was this the tone of the original? I could see that in Rimma’s character, okay, but laid on quite this thick?

  22. The biographical note says that Babel was charged with the crime of silence. I just keep shaking my head at that.

  23. He was charged with participation in “anti-Soviet terrorist conspiracy” in addition to being a Trotskyite and French spy.

    Real reason was even more bizarre.

    Babel had an affair with wife of Nikolay Yezhov, powerful chief of Soviet secret police (responsible for Great Purges of 1937). Yezhov being a homosexual (and man of very wide sexual tastes) apparently didn’t mind his wife’s affairs with other men, but unfortunately in 1938 Yezhov was himself arrested and executed and everyone in his circle came under suspicion. Either Yezhov or his wife, having admitted earlier under torture that they were spies, named Isaac Babel as their co-conspirator.

  24. It’s so mindbogglingly stupid to have an affair with the wife of the chief of the secret police you have to wonder if Babel had a death wish.

  25. You didn’t need a “real reason” to be shot then, especially if you were someone of importance.

    It’s actually a disgrace to the innocent millions IMVHO, to speculate about florid “real reasons”

  26. Oh, come on, that’s ridiculous. Not everyone who lived in the USSR got shot. Not even everyone who happened to catch the eye of the organs got shot. Relatively few people got shot. I know the situation of the times as well as you do, thank you, and it’s kind of insulting that you’re explaining the basics to me. Are you seriously claiming it didn’t make any difference that he had an affair with Yezhov’s wife, that he would have been exactly as likely to be shot if he hadn’t? Are you saying it was a good idea to have an affair with Yezhov’s wife? Go on, spell it out. (And before you pretend outrage at “Relatively few people got shot,” go divide the number who were shot by the population of the USSR and check out the percentage. I’m not trying to minimize the toll, I’m pointing out the odds.)

  27. Quote from Babel’s sentence:

    “Being organizationally linked for anti-Soviet activities with the wife of people’s enemy Yezhova-Gladun-Khayutina-Feigenberg, Babel was involved by her into anti-Soviet activity, sharing goals and tasks of that anti-Soviet organization, including terrorist actions… against leaders of the Communist Party and Soviet Government”

    I wonder how Sholokhov was spared (he had affair with Yevgenia Yezhova too)

  28. Yeah, it wasn’t automatic — nothing was — but it certainly didn’t help. (I guess Stalin liked Sholokhov’s writing better than Babel’s…)

  29. David Marjanović says

    You didn’t need a “real reason” to be shot then

    Convict arrives in the gulag.
    Ward: “How much did you get?”
    Convict: “Five years.”
    Ward: “And for what?”
    Convict: “For nothing.”
    Ward, outraged: “LIAR! For nothing the punishment is TEN years!”

    …compare from the other side:

    The laws are to be simplified. There are going to be only three laws:
    1) Whoever does anything or fails to do anything is punished.
    2) The punishment follows the Sentiment of the People.
    3) The Sentiment of the People is set by the governor.
    (1. Wer etwas unternimmt oder unterlässt, wird bestraft.
    2. Die Strafe richtet sich nach dem Volksempfinden.
    3. Das Volksempfinden wird durch den Gauleiter festgelegt.)

  30. Convict arrives in the gulag.

    I heard this joke the other way around — “For nothing the punishment is FIVE years!” — which makes more sense, but then of course the Gulag didn’t make sense in the first place.

    The Sentiment of the People is set by the governor.

    Or, as Trotsky put it, “the Party organization substituting itself for the Party, the Central Committee substituting itself for the Party organization, and finally the dictator substituting himself for the Central Committee.”

  31. That reminds me of the discussion of the voting rules in We, and how puzzled and upset people are when a vote is, contrary to all the rules, not unanimous.

  32. Yes, Yezhov denounced him under the usual circumstances, Wikipedia says from Jansen and Petrov. He hadn’t had Babel offed while he was driving the Yezhovshchina, so he clearly didn’t care about the affair as such, but the fact that Babel came into his orbit at all was a huge risk. How much would Babel have known about the killings at the time? (For that matter the affair apparently predated her marriage to Yezhov.)

  33. David Marjanović says

    I heard this joke the other way around — “For nothing the punishment is FIVE years!” — which makes more sense, but then of course the Gulag didn’t make sense in the first place.

    I’ll go with the lectio difficilior, then. 🙂

  34. heard this joke the other way around — “For nothing the punishment is FIVE years!” — which makes more sense, but then of course the Gulag didn’t make sense in the first place.

    I’ll go with the lectio difficilior, then.
    I’ve seen several versions of this joke, always with the political prisoners who didn’t admit to any crimes (= the ones who had done “nothing”) getting harsher sentences than the “simple” criminals (thieves, burglars, etc.) or those who admitted to whatever political crimes they were accused of. One version of the joke is about a вор в законе (an organized criminal) who is questioned about who was his partner at a specific crime. He answers “Benya Shik from Tiraspol”. The miliciya finds several Benya Shiks, brings them to the criminal, but he always answers “No, this is not the one.” In the end, he gets five years, and all the Benya Shiks get ten years as political prisoners, because it’s to embarassing for the miliciya to let them go.
    The biographical note says that Babel was charged with the crime of silence. I just keep shaking my head at that.
    I don’t know about this, but I’m currently reading a collection of recollections about Babel by (mostly) other Soviet writers. Ilya Erenburg remembers that on the 1st Soviet writers’ congress, Babel was criticized for his silence, as he published very little at that time (all recollections I’ve read so far agree that Babel needed a lot of time to finish all of his stories, as he re-wrote and corrected them multiple times). Erenburg writes that he defended Babel against these accusations by saying that an elephant needs more time to bear a young than a rabbit. Babel simply joked that he was just very succesful in a new literary genre, silence.

  35. the crime of silence

    Standing mute, or refusing to plead guilty or not guilty, was not a crime in English law, but those who did so were subjected to the peine forte et dure, which originally meant imprisonment with harsh treatment, but later came to mean pressing with heavy weights. Technically this was not a punishment (it descended from earlier days when defendants had to voluntarily accept the court’s jurisdiction), so it did not work corruption of blood: some people “stood mute” to their deaths so that their estates would pass to their heirs rather than being confiscated by the Crown. St. Margaret Clitherow did just that in 1586 when charged with the crime of concealing Catholic priests in her house, in order to avoid a trial in which her children could be tortured to give evidence against her. Almost 700 pounds were used in her case; she died within 15 minutes.

    The peine was abolished in 1772, just in time to abolish it in America too. Giles Corey, one of the accused in the infamous 1692 Salem witch trials, had refused to plead and was killed in this way. Standing mute is now treated as pleading not guilty in all common-law jurisdictions. Judicial torture in all other forms had been declared “contrary to the laws of England” in 1628 by the judges in the case of John Felton, who killed the Duke of Buckingham. It was never part of the ordinary law, and was used only in political cases like Clitherow’s and in ecclesiastical crimes such as heresy and witchcraft.

  36. Technically this was not a punishment (it descended from earlier days when defendants had to voluntarily accept the court’s jurisdiction)

    Could you expand on this? The “not a punishment” part doesn’t seem to follow from the parenthesis, and since it’s so flagrantly contrary to common sense one would like to understand it.

  37. @Hat: I think he means it was “merely” a way of coercing the defendant to plead.

  38. Just so. Such defendants had not been convicted of anything, so could not be sentenced.

  39. Ah, gotcha.

  40. The idea was first that you have submit voluntarily to the court, and then that if you don’t submit voluntarily we will mess you up until you do. If you died, that was just collateral damage.

  41. The law, in its majestic equality…

  42. It just occurred to me that we keep doing something similar (in much much lighter form) up to this day. The judge can imprison a witness for an undetermined duration for the refusal to give testimony or produce a document. Judith Miller spent about 3 months in prison just for that. Here’s how Wikipedia explains the relevant law:

    “Sanctions for contempt may be criminal or civil. If a person is to be punished criminally, then the contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, but once the charge is proven, then punishment (such as a fine or, in more serious cases, imprisonment) is imposed unconditionally. The civil sanction for contempt (which is typically incarceration in the custody of the sheriff or similar court officer) is limited in its imposition for so long as the disobedience to the court’s order continues: once the party complies with the court’s order, the sanction is lifted. The imposed party is said to “hold the keys” to his or her own cell, thus conventional due process is not required.”

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