Towering Babel

Towering Babel

Towering Babel

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Oct. 29 2001 2:50 PM

Towering Babel

A new translation makes the mighty author stoop.


Translating one of Isaac Babel's stories is no easy task. Translating all of them is less a task than a calling. So while neat, two-volume editions of Babel's collected works have circulated in Russia since the waning days of Perestroika, English speakers have had to stitch together more than a dozen translations, some out of print since the 1930s, to get a full sense of his range. The discrepancy between Babel's influence and the availability of his work has always been striking.


Small wonder, then, that the upcoming publication of Norton's single-volume The Complete Works of Isaac Babel should be greeted as a major literary event. Magazine editors assigned their reviews over a year ago. A black market in advance reader's copies sprang up early this summer. A few months later, Norton editor Robert Weil boasted to Publishers Weekly that the book would "sell for a lifetime and make the house a lot of money." This, he said, was "'not a case of charity publishing."

Perhaps not, but it did seem that Norton had done us all a great kindness. No Soviet writer has meant so much to so many Americans: Ernest Hemingway read the first translation of Babel's stories and turned green over his sentences. Raymond Carver cited Babel as a formative influence. Philip Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, called himself a "New World cousin in the Babel clan"—a sentiment shared by Cynthia Ozick and Saul Bellow. Francine Prose recalls learning the "extraordinary importance of compression, simplicity, bravery, and never underestimating the intelligence of the reader" at Babel's feet. Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, and John Berryman wrote brilliant essays about him.

The son of assimilated Odessa Jews, Babel rose like a rocket and fell almost as fast. Born in 1894, he published his first story in 1913. Ten years later, Red Cavalry—which grew out of Babel's experiences with a Cossack regiment during the Polish-Soviet war—made him a national celebrity. The book was a bombshell, both there and abroad. Trilling recalled reading it in 1929 and recoiling from its threat to his faith in the "Russian Experiment." "It was obviously the most remarkable work of fiction that had yet come out of revolutionary Russia," Trilling wrote. "Yet it was all too heavily charged with the intensity, irony, and ambiguousness from which I wanted to escape." (Babel, who was forced through most of the 1930s to practice what he called the "genre of silence" and died with a desk full of unpublished and unpublishable manuscripts, would later stand as an example to chastened American Stalinists.)

The Russian establishment had a similar reaction, and Babel's survival through the 1930s was something of a miracle. Eager to penetrate to the core of his society, Babel leveraged his fame and courted the monsters of his time, from local NKVD butchers to the heads of the secret police. The widow of doomed poet Osip Mandelstam recalled her husband asking Babel "why he was so drawn to 'militiamen': was it a desire to see what it was like in the exclusive store where the merchandise was death? Did he just want to touch it with his fingers? 'No,' Babel replied. 'I don't want to touch it with my fingers—I just want to have a sniff and see what it smells like.' " 

The bloodier his circumstances were (and his stint with the Cossacks was bloody beyond belief), the more unflinching Babel's sentences became. He had an easy way with murderous ambiguities, and extremes of violence only strengthened his grip. Babel revised his stories 20 or 30 times, stripping each one down to its bare essentials. What remains retains its power to shock, and if recent translations of his work have improved upon those made in the 1950s and '60s, it's because the more direct and unaffected our language becomes, the more it approximates Babel's Russian.

And while Peter Constantine's translation for Norton lacks the wit and fluency of Mirra Ginsburg's best work or the authority of Max Hayward's, it is in some ways an improvement over the Penguin Classics anthology stocked by most bookstores. The Edinburgh-educated David McDuff, who also translated Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Leskov, and Bely for Penguin, is eminently competent but a bit too dry for Babel and a bit too British (American readers familiar with Babel's maxim that "no steel can pierce the human heart as icily as a well-placed period" will be amused to learn that a "full stop" also works).

Constantine, who grew up in Athens and worked as a dancer and concierge before trying his hand at translation, is neither too dry nor too British (his first book was a glossary of Japan's sexual idioms). But he, too, is eminently competent—his translation of Thomas Mann's short stories won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize, and the attention given his collection of Chekhov's obscure, absurdist sketches was something of a dry run for the hoopla surrounding the Complete Babel—and astonishingly prolific. According to the New York Times, Constantine takes three months on a 300-page book and is figuring out a way to double his output; his publications already include translations from the Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish, as well as a few from languages I'd never heard of.

It's strange, then, given the importance of his latest work—the first one-volume edition of Babel's collected writings available in any language, and the only opportunity most of us will have to read his stage works, screenplays, sketches, and reportage—that Constantine falls far short of the mark. For one thing, he takes undue liberties with the text: Take a single line from the (remarkable, and remarkably anti-Soviet) story "Froim Grach," which describes the fate of an Odessa gangster who comes up against the greater gangsterism of the Soviet secret police: "Know who you're killing off, boss?" Grach demands of the Cheka officer who's been arresting and shooting his men. "You're killing off the eagles. Know what you'll be left with? You'll be left with shit!"

Now, Babel doesn't actually say "shit" or even its slang equivalent (Russians have more words for shit than Eskimos have for snow). What he has in mind is more akin to "filth of the lowest common denominator," for which English happens to have a pretty good equivalent—"dreg." The word Babel uses, smit'o, appears elsewhere in his Odessa Tales. It also appears in the Russian translation of Ecclesiastes. It is not a curse. You could argue that the richness of the Russian idiom works very much in Babel's favor here and against the translator's, as do the sharp distinctions between "good" Russian, street Russian, provincial Russian, and the Russian spoken by criminals, which is almost a language unto itself. But if translating smit'o as "shit" when "dregs" will do is simply careless (smit'o is too obscure a word to appear in most Russian dictionaries), another of Constantine's decisions—changing Babel's "eagles" to "lions"—is inexplicable. The words happen to have the same resonance in English and Russian and are interchangeable, in this context, in much the same way. So why the change? These are minor sins, but their cumulative effect is more than negligible