A Few words about Isaac Babel

Isaac Babel was a Jewish writer from Odessa, born in 1894, not terribly far from where my mother’s people come from.  My grandparents were five or six years younger than him.   A kind of prodigy who wrote fluently in French as well as in Russian, and a great admirer of Guy de Maupassant, he was told by Maxim Gorky, to whom he submitted his precocious work, that he had talent but nothing to say yet.  Gorky told him to go live and come back when he had something to write about.   

Babel joined a group of Bolshevik Cossacks who rode into my grandparents’ neighborhood of the Ukraine during the second bloody phase of the Russian Revolution. These Red Cossacks battled the White Cossacks for control of the Ukraine and Poland.  Their savage, idealistic battle for human freedom won the hearts and minds of teenagers like my grandmother.  

Babel’s stories of this bloody campaign, and his life as a bookish urban Jew riding with rough horseman who lived by a brutal code, collected as Red Cavalry, are incomparable.   He wrote in an extremely compressed way, telling these merciless, human stories with an amazing, sometimes terrifying economy.   His characters spoke a dialect I immediately recognized, though I didn’t know from where.  It was my grandparents’ language, I realized years after they died.  (see this, if you would like more details)

He became a hero in the Soviet Union after the publication of the Red Cavalry collection — though the brutally honest stories also contained the seeds of his undoing.  Lenin died, Stalin seized power, Trotsky fled.   With Stalin, a paranoid mass murdering maniac in charge, the dream of the Revolution to spread equality and liberate the workers of the world from their oppression melted into a peculiarly Russian form of totalitarianism.

Under Stalin  Socialist Realism, a style flattering to the State, was required.  Babel continued to write but published little, tried not to say anything that might get himself killed, had chances to flee, didn’t get out of the Soviet Union in time.   Was eventually arrested by Stalin, held in an infamous hellhole, given a quick trial in a tiny room with no windows, and no witnesses.  He was expected to sign a confession that he was a spy, a Trotskyist terrorist and a traitor to the revolution.  

He asked to be allowed to finish his work. That was apparently the last thing he said.  He was taken out and shot in a courtyard a few months before Hitler ‘s armies invaded the Soviet Union.   He was one of millions quietly done in by the smiling maniac with the big mustache who many knew as Uncle Joe, America’s ferocious, indispensable ally in the war against Hitler.  

A reviewer of his works offers these bits of grim, colorful detail:

Babel was shot by firing squad in the Lubyanka, in 1940. His immense popularity in Russia did not save him; and besides, it had been most unwise of him to conduct a long-standing affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov.

There was supposed to have been a trunk of Babel’s writings, hidden by his friends, a trove of his writings that were never published.   It’s not clear if any of these pages were ever found.   I know the trunk went the way of my mother’s blue, leather-bound poetry notebook I recall seeing as a child.  A fucking tragedy every way you turn it.

I wrote the following as a footnote to the previous post.  It seemed a waste to leave it as a footnote about a writer I love, an inspirational writer you may never have heard of, so here you go, those of you who may be unfamiliar with this genius’s work.

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.”

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. 

This entry was posted in writing.

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