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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

 

Putting Aside the Pious Lies about the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

Jan. 23 2018

In light of recent developments, including Mahmoud Abbas’s unusually frank speech to the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s leadership, Moshe Arens advocates jettisoning some frequently mouthed but clearly false assumptions about Israel’s situation, beginning with the idea that the U.S. should act as a neutral party in negotiations between Jerusalem and Ramallah. (Free registration may be required.)

The United States cannot be, and has never been, neutral in mediating the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It is the leader of the world’s democratic community of nations and cannot assume a neutral position between democratic Israel and the Palestinians, whether represented by an autocratic leadership that glorifies acts of terror or by Islamic fundamentalists who carry out acts of terror. . . .

In recent years the tectonic shifts in the Arab world, the lower price of oil, and the decreased importance attached to the Palestinian issue in much of the region, have essentially removed the main incentive the United States had in past years to stay involved in the conflict. . . .

Despite the conventional wisdom that the core issues—such as Jerusalem or the fate of Israeli settlements beyond the 1949 armistice lines—are the major stumbling blocks to an agreement, the issue for which there seems to be no solution in sight at the moment is making sure that any Israeli military withdrawal will not result in rockets being launched against Israel’s population centers from areas that are turned over to the Palestinians. . . .

Does that mean that Israel is left with a choice between a state with a Palestinian majority or an apartheid state, as claimed by Israel’s left? This imaginary dilemma is based on a deterministic theory of history, which disregards all other possible alternatives in the years to come, and on questionable demographic predictions. What the left is really saying is this: better rockets on Tel Aviv than a continuation of Israeli military control over Judea and Samaria. There is little support in Israel for that view.

Read more at Haaretz

More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Mahmoud Abbas, Peace Process, US-Israel relations