In his Odessa Tales, the early-20th-century Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel captures life in his hometown in stories that include rich portraits of a Jewish gangster named Benya Krik and his underworld associates. Having read Val Vinokur’s recent translation of Babel’s work, Jake Marmer, who first encountered the writer as a teenager in post-Soviet Ukraine, describes the broken, ungrammatical Russian that he puts in the mouths of these characters:
Both my grandmother and my aunt taught Russian language and literature in high school. Along with my mother, who grew up in their menacingly pedagogic shadow, they were exacting in their demands on my Russian, which was to be grammatically impeccable and spoken with properly modulated Slavic diction at all times, whether I was tagging along to the marketplace or reciting poetry. Babel offered an alternative that was revelatory. I may have intuited that the deliberately broken and Yiddishized Russian spoken by Babel’s characters was, like all such creoles or patois, not a sign of backwardness or a symptom of a lack of education. Instead, this was a way one could carve out a self within a culture that seemed to swallow you whole without ever accepting you. . . .
To translate Babel is to attempt to invent, or reinvent, a language—a Jewish language—particularly given Babel’s predilection for marrying the argot of the underworld with highly sophisticated narration. . . . Vinokur is willing to experiment. There is an iconic scene in [the story] “The King”: a nameless young man . . . gets Benya’s attention with a phrase that betrays a Yiddishism lurking behind it, with two twisted conjugations and a well-misused word. There isn’t a trace of this in Peter Constantine’s fine 2002 translation, but Vinokur takes a chance with “I got a couple things to tell you.” The dropped preposition may not create a sense of an invented language, but it hints at something lurking underneath, as does, for example, “Benya, you know what kind of notion I got? I got a notion our chimney’s on fire.” . . .
Vinokur also pays close attention to names, one of Babel’s specialties: street names, Yiddish names, Slavic names, and especially nicknames. Thus, in Vinokur’s rendition, you get, among others, “Froim the Rook,” “Monya Gunner,” “Lyova Rooski,” and “Ivan Fiverubles.” Vinokur’s impressive work is most challenged, however, in Babel’s complex narration. For instance: “on that dread night when stuck cows bellowed and calves slipped in their mothers’ blood.” This sounds a bit rough around the edges, especially when compared with Constantine’s elegant “that terrible night when the slashed cows skidded in their mothers’ blood.”
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