I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Edelweiss. The collection was published in the original Russian in 1931 and this English version has been translated by Boris Dralyuk. Boris graciously agreed to an interview which is included after the review. His answers are inspiring and enlightening.
Babel’s band of Jewish gangsters, thieves and smugglers make up the first part of this collection of highly entertaining and lively stories. The setting is the author’s hometown of Odessa, the Russian city on the Black Sea which saw a population boom in the nineteenth century and became a place for Jews to settle and seek out their fortunes. Babel begins his stories by introducing the Godfather of all Jewish gangsters, Benya Krik, also known as “The King” in Odessa. The occasion is the wedding of Benya’s ugly forty-year-old sister and he is delivered some news by an informant that the cops are going to stage a raid on the King’s headquarters. The clipped, rapid fire sentences are reminiscent of a scene from Pulp Fiction or Scarface.
Benya ends up with his own wife by doing a typical mob style “shakedown” of a local farmer. When the farmer, Sender Eichbaum, ignores The King’s increasingly hostile messages, Benya shows up and starts slaughtering the farmer’s herd. The innocent bovines get knifed right through the heart. Finally, negotiations commence:
And then, when the sixth cow fell at the King’s feet with a dying moo, Eichbaum himself ran into the yard in nothing but his long johns and asked, “Benya, what’s this?” “Monsieur Eichbaum, I don’t get my money, you don’t keep your cows. Simple as that.” “Step inside, Benya.” Inside they came to terms.
After the gangster and the farmer come to an agreement, the farmer’s daughter, Celia comes outside in her nightshirt and the King is immediately smitten. The next day he goes back to Eichbaum’s farm, returns the money, presents gifts to Celia and asks for her hand in marriage. Even a tough gangster is not immune to the temptation of a pretty face. Babel’s depiction of these Jewish gangsters is humorous, hard-hitting and full of ridiculous plot twists. The local police station catches on fire, Benya contemplates knocking off his own father, and a local innkeeper ignores her infant in order to conduct her business. We are introduced to characters like Froim the Rook, a one-eyed redhead, Tartakovsky who is also known as “Yid-and-a-half” or “Nine Shakedowns,” and Lyubka the Cossak.
A word must be said of Boris Dralyuk’s translation which is nothing short of brilliant. He captures the essence and spirt of the Jewish culture in the booming city of Odessa where law and order are matters decided by criminals instead of cops. Boris’s introduction to the translation is a must-read as he describes what techniques he uses to bring Babel’s characters to life for an English speaking audience:
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. A longer phrase that rolls of Benya’s tongue in Russian may gum up the works in English. For instance, in the original Russian, Benya refuses to smear kasha “on the clean table.” In English, “on the clean table” felt superfluous. Both the tone and the image were sharper without it. To my ear, the pithy “let’s stop smearing kasha” has the force and appeal of an idiom encountered for the first time.
The final stories in the collection are Babel’s recollections from his own childhood as his family moves from Nikaloyev to Odessa. “The Story of My Dovecote” is both funny and heartbreaking when Babel remembers wanting more than anything else a dovecote as a ten-year-old boy. He makes an agreement with his father that if he gets high marks and is accepted into the preparatory class at the Nikolayev Secondary School then he can have his own dovecote. When, on his second try at the exams, Babel is given a spot at the school his family is overjoyed to the point of throwing a ball for their son’s success. The depiction of his mother and her skepticism that any Babel would achieve greatness is humorous but also foreshadows a dark time that will follow: “Mother was pale; she was interrogating fate in my eyes, gazing at me with bitter pity, as if I were a cripple, because she alone knew just how unlucky our family was.”
Young Isaac finally does get his doves and he is on the way home from picking them out in the market when a terrible and sad tragedy befall him. The boy gets caught up in the confusion of the Russian pogram and his doves are smashed on his own head. The dazed boy returns home bloody with the remains of feathers on him and finds that his family are in a state of utter turmoil because of their persecution. The young Babel suffers an awful case of hiccups and the doctor diagnoses him with a nervous disorder caused by the trauma of the pogram that he and his family were victims of.
Much to my own dismay and sadness, my country yesterday elected a man who has promoted xenophobia, racism, and violence against groups of people based on their religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. We have to remember that Babel’s persecution in Russia could easily happen again if we let hatred and ignorance rule the day. We must do whatever we can to insure that we stand up to bullies, and not allow such bigotry and violence to become acceptable in any way, shape or form. Babel’s lesson on the horrible consequences of bigotry is just as relevant today as it was nearly one-hundred years ago in Russia.
About the Author:
Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel (Russian: Исаак Эммануилович Бабель; 1901 – 1940) was a Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer. He is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, Story of My Dovecote, and Tales of Odessa, all of which are considered masterpieces of Russian literature. Babel has also been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry.” Loyal to, but not uncritical of, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Isaak Babel fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge due to his longterm affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov. Babel was arrested by the NKVD at Peredelkino on the night of May 15, 1939. After “confessing”, under torture, to being a Trotskyist terrorist and foreign spy, Babel was shot on January 27, 1940. The arrest and execution of Isaak Babel has been labeled a catastrophe for world literature.
About the Translator:
Boris Dralyuk is an award-winning translator and the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He holds a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He is a co-editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and has translated Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, both of which are published by Pushkin Press.
An Interview with Boris Dralyuk:
- How did you become interested in a career as a translator? Can you trace the progression of your career from the beginning to this impressive achievement of translating two works of Babel for Pushkin Press?
My family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1991, when I was eight years old, turning nine. I had two words of English at my disposal – “hello,” a good start, and “poppy,” California’s state flower. Those weren’t going to get me very far. So I plunged into the language, soaking up as much as I could, at first by way of I Love Lucy, which I would watch with my grandmother, and then through the local public library. Then, at 13, I realized I had been neglecting my Russian. I could still speak and read, but… If I didn’t apply myself, I’d soon be back to “hello” and “poppy,” as it were. So I began reading poetry. At 14 I came across a poem by Boris Pasternak, dedicated to Anna Akhmatova. It lifted me off the ground. And I had the urge to share it — to share that experience with a friend who didn’t speak Russian. The first line popped into my head in English, all on its own: “I feel I’ll pick words comparable…” I did about as well as you’d expect, for a 14-year-old. And I still remember the last two lines of that first stanza: “I’ll make mistakes, but I don’t give a damn — / No matter what, I’ll never part with error.” I try to live by those words.
So it was something of a calling. I applied to UCLA to work with Michael Henry Heim, a legend in the field. He was a true mentor, as he was to so many. When he passed away in 2012, I wrote about our first meeting, about his generosity — which was a uniquely pure and powerful example of a quality common to translators. And in 2010 I met Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, from whom I continue to learn every day. They invited me to join them in editing The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015). So that’s how I got here: my luck and the generosity of others.
- Translation is obviously not an exact, one-to-one science. What do you think are the pieces of Babel that get lost in the English translation, that don’t quite carry over to the English version?
You put it perfectly: “not an exact, one-to-one science.” In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s no kind of science. Translation draws on specialized knowledge — of languages, of cultures, of literary traditions, etc. — but so does any art. And that’s exactly what translation is: an art. Korney Chukovsky, one of the great Soviet-era translators (and, incidentally, Mike Heim’s hero), titled his wonderful book on the subject A High Art. It was a bold gesture, a plea for the redheaded stepchild of literary creation to get a seat at the table. Regarding translation as a purely technical endeavor leads to bad translations — and to bad criticism. We should judge literary translations as literature first, not as exam papers. Does it touch you? Does it make you laugh? Does it make you feel as if the top of your head were taken off?
And yes, of course, accuracy matters, but words don’t just denote — they connote, they link up, they build to a cumulative effect. A good translation remains faithful to those cumulative effects, not to any individual word. I don’t like to think in terms of losses; for me, translation is a net gain. The trick with Babel — my Babel, at least — was to find native idioms that would allow me to communicate the effects of his stories. With the Odessa Stories, I didn’t have to look far… Jewish-American fiction, hardboiled detective stories — it was all there, on my nightstand, ripe for the picking.
- Babel’s cast of gangster characters are very entertaining. Do you have a favorite character from Odessa Stories?
What a great question! That would be the Odessan broker Tsudechkis, a little shyster with ten tons worth of personality. He’s the narrator of one of the earliest Odessa stories, which I translated as “Justice in Quotes.” Babel gives Tsudechkis the run of the place, linguistically and otherwise. He never included the story in any of his book-length collections — it didn’t quite fit — but I love it precisely for its looseness, its square-peg-in-a-round-hole incongruities, which mirror the narrator’s spirit. Babel brought the broker back in “Lyubka the Cossack.” He couldn’t keep the little fellow out!
- What did you learn about Babel and his writing that surprised you the most as you were working on this translation?
I knew these stories so well… I first read them cover-to-cover at 13 or 14, but I had heard them all throughout my childhood. My family quoted them in conversation — and they sounded as if they were quoting them even when they weren’t. My ears were full of Babelian cadences and turns of phrase, both in Odessa and in the Russian-Jewish community in Los Angeles. I listened for — hungered for — those same cadences in English, and I found in the likes of Bernard Malamud. I suppose what I learned while working on Babel’s stories is the degree to which they are a part of me.
- You also have a volume of translated poems and prose from the Russian Revolution forthcoming from Pushkin Press. What other projects and translations are you working on at the moment?
I’m very proud of 1917, and I hope it touches all readers, no matter how they feel about the Russian revolution. It was a time of great promise and of great tragedy. I worked hard to reflect the period’s contradictions, and was aided by a team of brilliant translators — Josh Billings, Maria Bloshteyn, Michael Casper, Robert Chandler, Peter France, Rose France, Lisa Hayden, Bryan Karetnyk, Martha Kelly, Donald Rayfield, Margo Shohl Rosen, and James Womack. My next project is a collection by the great Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, called Sentimental Tales, for Columbia University Press. Their new Russian Library is doing wonderful things. Robert Chandler, Maria Bloshteyn, Irina Mashinski, and I have also translated a volume of poems by the Soviet-era poet Lev Ozerov, called Portraits Without Frames — a nuanced and deeply moving sequence of verse portraits, a kind of mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture. NYRB Classics will bring that out in 2018
Thanks again to Boris for answering my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully. You can also read an interview that Boris did for Pushkin Press here: http://pushkinpress.com/behind-the-book-boris-dralyuk/ and a review of Odessa Stories from The Guardian here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/nov/01/odessa-stories-by-isaac-babel-review. Boris also has an impressive resume of translations and writings, the full list of which can be viewed on his website: https://bdralyuk.wordpress.com/