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The Right Supper

In response to:

The Horror, the Horror from the February 8, 2018 issue

To the Editors:

An old-time reader of The New York Review and a Russianist, I am heartened by your continued interest in Russian history, politics, and culture, as in the review of the most recent translations of Isaac Babel [Gary Saul Morson, “The Horror, the Horror,” NYR, February 8].

The reviewer’s general thesis is spot on. Babel’s prose (for that matter, any modernist prose) loses its éclat when translators substitute their interpretive elaborations for the master’s condensed staccato phrasing. But one begins to question the reviewer’s judgment when he refers to Babel’s protagonist-narrator in Red Cavalry as Vasily (he is Kiril) Lyutov and then proceeds to quote from a new translation of “Crossing the Zbruch,” ignoring a real howler: “shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.” Babel’s Russian: “Черепки сокровенной посуды, употребляемой у евреев раз в году—на Пасху [cherepki sokrovennoi posudy, upotrebliaemoi u evreev raz v godu—na Paskhu].” Babel’s narrator, the crypto-Jew Lyutov, does many awkward things in Red Cavalry but he would never confuse Easter and Passover. Nor would any Russian, Jewish or otherwise.

The howler goes back to Walter Morison’s translation: “fragments of the occult crockery Jews use once a year at Eastertime.” Sanctified by Lionel Trilling’s introduction and usable, if full of errors, it served for decades as the standard rendering of Babel into English. I do wonder what an earnest reader has been making out of this “occult crockery” or “hidden dishware” that “Jews use at Easter.” An allusion to blood libel?

Yes, in Russian, the word Paskha may refer to either the Christian Easter or the Jewish Passover. But the context in the story—a Jewish hovel in a shtetl that had just suffered a pogrom at the hands of the retreating Polish army—points only to Passover. It is at Passover that traditional Jews bring out their best tableware (sokrovennaia posuda—literally, set-aside dishes) for the Seder meal (my grandmother did). The award-winning translator Peter Constantine could not help inventing the Seder plate, but he got the Jewish holiday right: “fragments of a holy Seder plate that the Jews use once a year for Passover.”

Translating Babel is a herculean task despite or, perhaps, because his deceptively simple stories “pierce the heart” with such chilling immediacy. Translation mistakes are unavoidable. But why err unnecessarily when the answer to the riddle, at least in this case, lies in plain view?

And one last thing. In the review, the photo of Isaac Babel with a child in his arms is of Babel holding his son—not grandson—Mikhail, taken in January 1927.

Gregory Freidin
Emeritus Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature
Stanford University
Stanford, California

To the Editors:

As Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik says to a grieving mother after his gang has accidentally bumped off her son, “Everyone makes mistakes, even God.” Translators certainly make their share, as do reviewers. I want to point out a couple of mistakes made by Gary Saul Morson in his survey of several recent Babel translations, including my own. In the first place, the word Babel uses to describe the ruins of Novograd-Volynsk is skryuchennykh, not skruchennykh. The two are similar in sound and meaning, and can easily be confused. I translate the word that occurs, skryuchennykh, as “gnarled,” which is one of the meanings it carries when associated with old fingers or claws, and sometimes trees. In the very next story, “The Italian Sun,” Babel describes another scene of ruin: “the hooks of wicked old women’s fingers sticking from the earth.” The gnarled ruins and the hooked old fingers might resonate for a careful, imaginative anglophone reader. (Another minor mistake: the English nursery rhyme to which Morson refers was translated by Kornei Chukovsky, not Samuil Marshak.) But the important point is that individual words do not occur in a vacuum or in a decontextualized pattern of repetitions. Morson takes issue with my contextual translation of the word istlevshikh and quotes the relevant explanation from my introduction, but not in full. I write:

Other translators have rendered the word used to describe the state of the letters—“istlevshikh”—more or less literally, as “mouldering” or “that had rotted,” but this is a shade too ghoulish, and isn’t true to the lyrical tone. If one takes a moment to imagine what Babel’s narrator imagines—the romance of this decadent “way of life”—one can conjure the fragile letters before one’s eyes, feel their texture; they have been “worn thin” by friction and sweat. Here, Babel has waxed romantic. Throughout the cycle, Babel uses the same adjective to describe things ranging from “decayed wadding” and “rotten hay” to an old rebbe’s “withered fingers.” Context is everything. There’s plenty of brutality in these stories; it derives its effect from the beguiling lyricism that surrounds it.

Boris Dralyuk
Executive Editor
Los Angeles Review of Books
Los Angeles, California

Gary Saul Morson replies:

I thank Gregory Freidin and Boris Dralyuk for their comments. I did make two careless mistakes. First, a typo: the word is indeed (in one common transcription from the Cyrillic) skryuchennykh, not skruchennykh. Although my subsequent discussion, which suggested “crooked,” makes clear which word I meant—that is, the word that also appears in the nursery rhyme—I am glad to be corrected. Both Marshak and Chukovsky translated the nursery rhyme. Second, as I check Babel’s text, I see that the name is Kirill Vasilievich (Kirill, son of Vasily), not Vasily.

Freidin, who is in my opinion a fine critic, thinks it is a “howler” to translate Paskha as “Easter” rather than “Passover.” But as he acknowledges, the word Paskha does mean Easter as well as Passover, so it is hard to see how either choice could be a howler. Vinokur, as well as Morison, chooses “Eastertime”: “I find turned-out wardrobes…human excrement, and shards of the dishware Jews keep hidden and use once a year, at Eastertime.”

The reason I prefer “Easter” is that the narrator makes sure not to tell the Jews that he too is Jewish—he is, as Freidin acknowledges, a “crypto-Jew”—and they treat him accordingly. The story depends on the fact that the Jew acts and speaks as if he is not a Jew, and this is what Babel wants the (“earnest”) reader to understand. Lyutov (the name is chosen because it does not sound Jewish) does not “confuse Easter and Passover”; he pretends to be a non-Jew encountering the strange customs of Jews. He describes Jewishness from outside the culture, anthropologically, as if speaking to readers who are also outsiders, as the very need to explain that Jews use special dishes at that time of year suggests. Indeed, perhaps the best rendition would be: “at their Easter.” Babel’s narrator tries to hide his Jewishness even from himself, to overcome it, to act and speak like the non-Jews he envies.

The real problem here goes to the heart of why translation is so difficult. The original can remain ambiguous, meaning either Passover or Easter, but in English one must make a choice. My central point about Dralyuk is that he (like many other good translators) interprets the original when he does not need to. Indeed, he makes a principle of doing so. Depending on what one is translating, that can be the best way to proceed. But to catch Babel’s prose—prose that can refer to “invisible voices”—one often has to refrain from interpreting. You don’t want to take away the feeling of oddity and surprise. We have good translations of Babel, including Morison’s, Dralyuk’s, and especially Vinokur’s, but we still await one that really captures his prose in all its glorious strangeness.