On Translating Babel.

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.


  1. More likely “khvost nabok” means an abrupt turn.

  2. Absolutely not. Compare Pantelei Prokovyevich’s words to the wanton widow Aksinya in ch. 10 of Тихий Дон: “Не остыл мужьин след, а ты уж хвост набок!”

  3. I see. But in what sense did Sidorov use it? “Enough of flirting, I am ready for sex?”

    I still don’t get it

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    David McDuff’s translation, especially of the Odessa Tales, made me wish I’d paid more attention when I did Russian in school by making me continually wonder what the original must have said. Probably this is to praise the translation rather than to criticise it.

    Apropos(-ish), I have only ever read Carl Hiaasen when on holiday in France. I did once try one of his works in English but it seemed pretty flat without the lively French argot …

  5. I still don’t get it

    Well, it’s a metaphor: sex = business. “Come on, let’s get on with it, you’re givin’ me blue balls here!” I don’t think it’s that obscure.

  6. I don’t think Sholokhov’s character means a filly, it’s almost definitely a workaround for a b*-word. A Cosack just won’t admonish a wife whose man is far away by comparing her with, of all things, a horse. If so, then rge expression of Babel’s Sidorov must also be about the dogs.

  7. Boris Dralyuk says

    I’ll chime in briefly to say that, dogs or horses, the expression is often used to mean sexual arousal or activity. Take a look at p. 666 of the following article:


    Можно выделить несколько тематических групп метафорических выражений, характеризующих человека по различным признакам: […] хвост набок – заглядываться на мужчин/женщин […].

    The saying occurs frequently in Cossack-related texts, and the meanings of animal’s tail/woman’s braid overlap. I imagine that, in many instances, the speaker is unaware of the phrase’s implications; it’s simply a fixed phrase that means ‘you’re getting too frisky’ (as an admonishment in Shololkhov) or ‘let’s get down to brass tacks’ (in Babel). My point is simple: let’s think about what this can mean and try to produce an adequate translation, which brings across the color of this dialect without unduly obscuring the semantics. The more visually suggestive and semantically rich the translation, the better.

    Thanks, LH, for the opportunity to speak my mind!

  8. Here’s a good example of the phrase being used with an unambiguously equine referent, in Nikolay Kuzmin’s novella (with an Altai setting) DVOR NA KRAIU (1957):

    “Ишь ты… Выкормили кобылицу, она и хвост набок… С кавалерами бегать!”


    As I noted in my previous post, there are clearly other uses, which often bleed into one another — but, in this case, the point is clear.

  9. Thanks! True it shouldn’t matter that much what kind of an animal is there, it just struck me that in the Cossack tradition horses have almost universally good connotations in the metaphors. The usual admonition for a flirtatious girl across Russia has a different tail action in any case: вертихвостка “tail-spinner”, вертит хвостом “spins/rotates a tail”… And I don’t think anyone visualizes any specific animal species when they say it.

  10. I couldn’t agree more, Dmitry! What fun this stuff is. . .

  11. As I understand it, when a horse lifts its tail to the side, it has one thing in mind and that thing is not sex. Why can’t the author just mean, scatologically, “the essential preparations have been completed”?

  12. While we’re being picky . . .

    > […] this cattle of mine […]

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard “cattle” with singular agreement; and Google does not find many examples. Does it denote one animal, or many?

  13. The oddity and lack of clarity is taken over straight from the Russian: “И вот пасу я рогатую мою скотину,” where скотина is normally a collective like English cattle.

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