Does the world need another translation of Isaac Babel?
The Russian short story writer, executed in 1940 during one of Stalin’s purges, is correctly regarded as one of the masters of the form, but English versions of his writing are not hard to find. As translator and editor Vinokur points out in his introduction to this new collection, Babel’s Red Cavalry was available in the United States as early as 1929, in a translation by Nadia Helstein—which, in turn, formed the basis of perhaps the best-known English-language edition of his fiction: Walter Morison’s Collected Stories, published in 1955. Nearly half a century later, Peter Constantine updated and expanded on Morison’s efforts in The Complete Works, edited by Nathalie Babel Brown, one of Babel’s daughters. And yet, as Vinokur also argues, to read all these translations in isolation is to miss the point. “Translations, according to one school of thought,” he writes, “are supposed to be mortal, because immortal originals deserve frequent and thus provisional retranslations.” Language, in other words, is living, which makes translation, first and foremost, not only a matter of engagement, but also an act of animation. Vinokur illustrates this by his selections and his renderings. Gathering 73 of Babel’s stories, his book essentially mirrors Morison’s with some exceptions, making the lineage explicit in content and design. As for the work itself, it’s deft and pointed: funny, dark, and often caustic, unsentimental at the core. In “Shabbos Nahamu,” a poor Jew tricks first a wife and then her innkeeper husband to provide for his own family. The narrator of “Guy de Maupassant”—one of Babel’s best-known stories—regards language as seduction: “A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time,” he tells us. “The secret lies in a barely discernible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm. You must turn it once, but not twice.” And yet, as ever in Babel's writing, fable yields to something sharper, the indifference or unattainability of everything. “From his window,” Babel closes “Dante Street,” one of his later stories, “he could see the Conciergerie, the bridges cast lightly across the Seine, an assortment of blind hovels pressed close against the river, the same breath wafting up to him. Rusted rafters and tavern signed, creaking in the wind.”
Readers familiar with Babel won't find anything radically different here, but Vinokur's new translation reminds us that when it comes to Babel, too much is never enough.