Listening to an Audio Book

An audiobook of an excellent writer’s work, read by an expressive, intelligent reader is a wonderful thing.   The audiobook of Eichmann in Jerusalem, read by the great Wanda McCaddon, is a fantastic aural read.  I’d say Wanda’s reading is like a great translation of the original  [1].  It is certainly “value added” and I’m sure Hannah Arendt would agree. 

Listening to an audiobook requires a certain concentration, which can be improved with practice.  Listening carefully is not something most people ever practice, we’re in a hurry, yo, get to the fucking point, did you hear… oh, sorry, were you still not getting to the point?  I heard… wait, I thought you were done, were going to say the same thing you always say, are we still talking about that? —  etc.

Wanda McCaddon read a line by Hannah Arendt that caused me to make a note to find the quote in Chapter IX of Eichmann in Jerusalem.  It seemed to explain a lot.   Why did the other countries of the world not help the Jews during the mass murder that went on for several years?   Most of them did little or nothing to help (outside of Denmark) and looking back after most of one’s family has been murdered, like an Armenian after the slaughter by the Turks, it’s natural to feel betrayed, ask ‘what the fuck?’  

Arendt writes (and it turns out to be merely a passing parenthetical), leaving aside the prevalent (though not Nazi level) anti-Semitism in Europe:

(As though those tightly organized European nation-states would have reacted any differently if any other group of foreigners had suddenly descended upon them in hordes– penniless, passportless, unable to speak the language of the country!)

How much light does this short observation shed on the worldwide refugee crisis the world is in the middle of today?

The United States refuels Saudi bombers in the air over Yemen so that our monarchist radical Islamic fundamentalist allies can continue bombing the towns and cities below.  The Saudi planes and the bombs are made in the USA.  We participate directly in creating the humanitarian crisis that has caused untold numbers of Yemeni civilians to flee their war-torn, cholera plagued country.   When they flee the war that we are daily helping Saudi Arabia wage we make a new law: NO YEMENIS!!!  None, no reason needs to be given, the great Oz has spoken.

The Koch brother’s boy, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, releases an official State Department boast on International Refugee Day about how America has always been the world’s greatest supporter of those fleeing war and oppression.  He mentions a dollar amount we’ve given, the rough equivalent of a dime, or maybe three cents, and says no other country has done more since the end of World War Two.

A few days later a highly partisan 5-4 Supreme Court vote comes down, along strict party lines, upholding President Turd’s Muslim Ban, er…”travel ban”.  Under no circumstances (unless perhaps they are rich and doing business with one of the president’s businesses) will anyone from Yemen or several other Muslim countries be allowed to come to the United States.

USA!   USA!!!!!


[1]   I am a great admirer of Isaac Babel’s writing.  I put Babel’s writing in a class with Sam Cooke’s singing, Django’s guitar playing, Meryl Streep’s acting.  I read Babel in English, of course, I know and love the 1955 translation (long out of print) by Walter Morison.    

I was once  told by a Russian poet that Isaac Babel’s Russian is “untranslatable”.   I have always loved the Walter Morison translations, which this Russian poet told me captured Babel’s Russian surprisingly well.   When I see other translations I am often struck by their clumsiness, the way they are nothing like the Babel I love.  

Here is an excellent discussion, leavened by wryness, of the challenges of translating Babel’s Russian into English.   I tip my cap to this writer, well done!   

Here is the first article on the challenge of translating Babel I found, which struck me as great at the time.   I thought it contained a section of Morison’s masterful rendering of Babel’s Guy de Maupassant  (though the notes in the book I love apparently attributed the translation to Raymond Rosenthal and Waclaw Soski)   It appears the author of the article linked above thought he was up to the challenge of improving this flowing translation.   I say no, but, alas, am too lazy to rewrite the whole piece.  To cut straight to the immortal passages in the beautiful translation I first read, skip to the last paragraphs of this post.  Scroll to the double space above Here, sorry about that.”

Isaac Babel deserves his own post (and now, a few hours later, he has it), but here is Babel’s wonderful, laconic description of translating, of writing.   This is possibly the best short description ever written about what we do when wrestling our thoughts into the best possible language  (it comes after the other translator’s introduction of the story for context) (emphasis mine):   

Babel himself was a translator from French and Yiddish. One of his best-known stories, “Guy de Maupassant,” is ostensibly about translation. Its narrator, a fictional Babel, has been hired by Raisa Berndersky, a rich Jewish Petersburg society wife, to help her with her attempts at translating Maupassant:

In her translation there was no trace of Maupassant’s free-flowing phrases with their drawn-out breath of passion. Mrs. Bendersky’s writing was tediously correct, lifeless and loud, the way Jews used to write Russian back in the day. I took the manuscript home with me…and spent all night hacking a path through someone else’s translation (*). The work was not as bad as it sounds. A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a barely discernible twist. The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm. You need to turn it once, but not twice. In the morning, I brought back the corrected manuscript. Raïsa wasn’t lying when she told me of her passion for Maupassant. She sat motionless, her hands clasped as I read it to her: these satin hands melted to the floor, her forehead went pale, and the lace between her bound breasts strained and trembled. “How did you do that?” So then I started talking about style, about an army of words, an army in which all manner of weapons come into play. No steel can pierce the human heart as cold as a period placed just right. She listened, her head bowed, her painted lips parted. A black light glowed in her lacquered hair, smoothly pressed and parted. Her legs, with their strong tender calves, were bathed in stockings and splayed wide on the carpet.

No, wait just a minute.  This is not Morison’s translation, (or Raymond Rosenthal and Waclaw Soski’s) you treacherous fellow you.  I get it now, you think you have improved on the “Morison” translation, made it more faithful to Babel’s writing, to the actual Russian words he chose.  You haven’t, and I know this even though I don’t know a word of Russian.  It is in the flow, the music of the language, the rhythm.  Morison, the year before I was born, translated the phrase you style “hacking a path through somebody else’s translation” as “hacking my way through the tangled undergrowth of her prose” as far as I recall, I don’t have the tattered out-of-print paperback with me here at the farm.  But compare those two phrases.  Why would Babel have written the dry first phrase when the second is so full of flavor? 

Now I see many small brutalities, inflicted no doubt, and without a sense of irony (especially considering the story itself, the passage about the subtle art of translation!) in the interest of making the translation more accurate, more tediously correct, if I may borrow your phrase for Raisa  Bendersky’s stilted, painstaking, tuneless translation.   I know that translation is a fine art, a very difficult art, no doubt, a kind of intoxicating dance (when working with something like Babel’s uniquely delicious prose).  But sometimes you simply need to leave a fine translation alone.

“How did you do that?” with only the tiniest, almost imperceptible, turn of the warm lever, is inferior, and far less immediate, than Morison’s/Rosenthal’s & Soski’s breathless “How did you do it?”.

And fuck, the last line of the story, which made my young spine tingle and filled me with a longing to some day write a line like that, has been changed too!  And not for the better, it ends the transcendent story rather flatly.  It is rendered:

My heart felt tight.  I was brushed by a premonition of the truth.

Nothing like the icy fingers grasping his heart as he has a premonition .. wait, I have found the original line, on-line:

My heart contracted as the foreboding of some essential truth touched me with light fingers.

Another great line, butchered also, damn it, made clumsy and clunky, along with the bit about needing to turn the lever once, not twice.  The proof, if it was needed, that some phrases don’t need the lever turned at all.  You took this:

No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.

and believe you’ve improved it, with only one turn of the lever, to this:  

No steel can pierce the human heart as cold as a period placed just right.


Goddamn it, you fucker.  Might be more accurate as a strict translation from the Russian, maybe the Russian word for “cold” is in there, “pierce” may be closer to the Russian than its close synonym “stab”, but for god’s sake, read the two lines in English.


Here, sorry about that.  I mentioned I don’t have my moth-eaten copy of Babel with me.  Read this, from the original translation, I found it in an old email I sent a friend in 2014. Observe the way it flows, without a word wasted:

I took the manuscript with me, and in Kazantsev’s attic, among my sleeping friends, spent the night cutting my way through the tangled undergrowth of her prose.  It was not such dull work as it might seem.  A phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time. The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist.  The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice.

Next morning I took back the corrected manuscript.  Raisa wasn’t lying when she told me that Maupassant was her sole passion.  She sat motionless, her hands clasped, as I read it to her. Her satin hands drooped to the floor, her forehead paled, and the lace between her constricted breasts danced and heaved.

“How did you do it?”

I began to speak of style, of the army of words, of the army in which all kinds of weapons may come into play.  No iron can stab the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.   She listened with her head down and her painted lips half open.  In her hair, pressed smooth, divided by a parting and looking like patent leather, shone a dark gleam.  Her legs in tight-fitting stockings, with their strong, soft calves, were planted wide apart on the carpet.

The maid, glancing to the side with her petrified wanton eyes, brought in breakfast on a tray. 

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