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Isaac Babel’s Yiddish-Inflected Russian, and the Challenge of Translating It

Jan. 11 2018

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.”

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Babel, Jewish literature, Soviet Jewry, Yiddish

Being a Critic of Israel Means Never Having to Explain How It Should Defend Itself

April 23 2018

The ever-worsening situation of Jews in Europe, writes Bret Stephens, should serve as a reminder of the need for a Jewish state. Israel’s critics, he suggests, should reflect more deeply on that need:

Israel did not come into existence to serve as another showcase of the victimization of Jews. It exists to end the victimization of Jews.

That’s a point that Israel’s restless critics could stand to learn. On Friday, Palestinians in Gaza returned for the fourth time to the border fence with Israel, in protests promoted by Hamas. The explicit purpose of Hamas leaders is to breach the fence and march on Jerusalem. Israel cannot possibly allow this—doing so would create a precedent that would encourage similar protests, and more death, along all of Israel’s borders—and has repeatedly used deadly force to counter it.

The armchair corporals of Western punditry think this is excessive. It would be helpful if they could suggest alternative military tactics to an Israeli government dealing with an urgent crisis against an adversary sworn to its destruction. They don’t.

It would also be helpful if they could explain how they can insist on Israel’s retreat to the 1967 borders and then scold Israel when it defends those borders. They can’t. If the armchair corporals want to persist in demands for withdrawals that for 25 years have led to more Palestinian violence, not less, the least they can do is be ferocious in defense of Israel’s inarguable sovereignty. Somehow they almost never are. . . .

[T]o the extent that the diaspora’s objections [to Israeli policies] are prompted by the nonchalance of the supposedly nonvulnerable when it comes to Israel’s security choices, then the complaints are worse than feckless. They provide moral sustenance for Hamas in its efforts to win sympathy for its strategy of wanton aggression and reckless endangerment. And they foster the illusion that there’s some easy and morally stainless way by which Jews can exercise the responsibilities of political power.

Read more at New York Times

More about: Anti-Semitism, Gaza Strip, Israel & Zionism