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Boris Dralyuk: Bringing the Cavalry Across - On Translating Babel

Boris Dralyuk reflects on and unpicks some of the key decisions he was faced with when translating Babel’s Red Calvary

I began work on Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry – a cycle of stories based on the author’s stint as a political commissar attached to a Cossack cavalry regiment in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-20 – with all the enthusiasm of a new recruit, eager to do battle with some of the most thrilling, most challenging prose in the Russian literary tradition. Like the cycle’s narrator, a 'Jewish pansy' among Cossack centaurs, I could only vaguely imagine what lay ahead, how deeply I’d have to sink into Babel’s world in order to bring it into English. The cycle, in which Babel intentionally shuffles the campaign’s chronology in order to heighten the narrative’s impact and complicate its effect, begins with a kind of baptism – the crossing of the Zbrucz River:

The scent of yesterday’s blood and dead horses seeps into the evening coolness. The blackened Zbrucz roars, twisting the foamy knots of its rapids. The bridges are destroyed and we are fording the river. A stately moon lies on the waves. The horses sink up to their backs and sonorous streams trickle between hundreds of horses’ legs. Someone is drowning, loudly disparaging the Mother of God. The river is strewn with the black squares of carts, filled with rumbling, whistling and songs that thunder over snakes of moonlight and glistening pits.

Wading slowly through Babel’s snaking, glistening prose, I often felt like disparaging the Mother of God. But the pleasures of the text were far too great; I was pulled to the other shore.

‘Crossing the Zburcz’ strikes a keynote for the Cavalry, combining a number of stylistic and tonal registers that recur throughout the cycle. Babel expertly shifts from lyrical descriptive sentences imbued with tenderness and nostalgia, to brutal, telegraphic journalese narrating the horrors of war, to rhetorical flights worthy of the Hebrew prophets. He keeps us on our toes. Preserving these shifts – so crucial to the overall effect of the cycle – was my primary mission. This called not only for close reading, but for careful listening. Babel’s voice is richly varied, yet immediately recognisable as his own. I hope that my English version of the Cavalry is governed by a similarly flexible voice.

Of course, the Cavalry also contains voices other than the narrator’s – those of Jews, Poles, and, most importantly, Cossacks. The River Don Cossacks, whom Babel got to know as well as any Soviet writer other than Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-84), who was raised among them, speak in a distinctive dialect that had bedeviled previous translators. One of Babel’s masterstrokes is to tap into this dialect’s poetic potential, plundering its store of fixed phrases and metaphors for striking images that resonate with new meaning in the context of his narrative.

The dialect also lends the text tremendous flavour. One rather profane example occurs in the story ‘The Italian Sun’, in which the narrator sneaks a look at a psychopathic Cossack’s letter to a woman who holds an important position in the Party. The Cossack asks to be sent to Italy, so that he can assassinate the king.  The letter begins on the second page: ‘…lung’s shot through and I’m a little cracked or, as Sergei says, flew off my nut. You don’t just step off that nut, you fly. At any rate, jokes aside and tail out of the way… Let’s get down to business, my friend Victoria…’

What is this tail?  Earlier translators have rendered the phrase (khvost nabok) as ‘tail to the side’, ‘tails sideways’, and ‘horsetail to one side’; this doesn’t clarify the situation. Babel makes use of a common Cossack saying, which also pops up in Sholokhov: ‘Jokes are jokes, but get the tail out of the way’. In other words, get the filly’s tail out of the way so we can get down to business.  This may appear to be a small and distasteful detail, but it sets the tone. A bowdlerized Babel isn’t worth his salt.

Another example. In ‘The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych,’ the titular character, commander of the Cavalry Army’s Sixth Division, traces his rise from peasant herdsman to heroic general, employing colourful turns of phrase that subtly contribute to the narrative’s growing tension. In the second paragraph, Pavlichenko describes his idyllic but frustratingly idle youth: ‘And so I’m herding this cattle of mine, cows on every side. I’m shot through with milk, stink like a sliced udder, and I’ve got bull calves walking around me for propriety’s sake, mousy-grey bull calves.’ The key image here is ‘shot through’ (na vylet prokhvatilo); previous translators have rendered the phrase as ‘soaked in milk’, ‘steeped all through with milk’,  and ‘doused in milk’, but this isn’t quite adequate. The suggestion of a bullet wound is very important, and it will become even more important in Pavlichenko’s comment to his bride Nastya: ‘My head’s not a rifle – it’s got no foresight, and no back-sight either. And you know my heart, Nastya – it’s all empty, it must be shot through with milk. It’s an awful thing, how I stink of milk….’ Pavlichenko’s metaphorical repertoire is strictly military, from the stripes on his shoulder-pads to the foresight in (or on) his head. The Cossack is a weapon, and he’s bound to go off.  The story concludes with him returning to his village as a Red Army man and murdering its former owner, the arrogant and lascivious Nikitinsky:

And then I stomped my master Nikitinsky. I stomped him for an hour or more than an hour, and in that time I got to know life to its fullest. With shooting – I’ll put it this way – with shooting, all you do is get rid of a man. Shooting’s a pardon for him, and too damn easy for you. Shooting, it won’t get you to the soul – to where it is in a man, how it shows itself. But, when the time comes, I don’t spare myself – when the time comes, I stomp the enemy for an hour or more than an hour. I want to get to know life, what life’s all about...

The last sentence ought to send a shiver down any spine. The Russian line reads ‘I wish to get to know life, as it is with us’ (mne zhelatel’no zhizn’ uznat’, kakaia ona u nas est’), and earlier translators have rendered it as ‘what life’s like down our way’ and ‘what it’s like with us’. I feel these versions are too limiting; this isn’t simply about life among the Cossacks or in the Stavropol province – this is about life itself, its innards. The latest translator’s ‘to see what it actually is’ strikes me as too wooden.

The innards of life, as Babel saw them, were not pretty – but they cannot be ignored. Red Cavalry captures both the terror of war, as well as its lasting appeal to sadists with scores to settle and naïve young men yearning to prove themselves. Babel’s narrator is both repulsed and mesmerised by what he sees at the front, and he infects his readers with the same conflicting impulses and emotions. Today Ukraine, where much of the cycle is set, is again teetering on the edge of war. Babel’s harrowing vision of the true face of combat could not be more relevant.

About the author

Boris Dralyuk is a Lecturer in Russian at the University of St Andrews and translator of several volumes from Russian and Polish, including, most recently, Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry (Pushkin Press, 2014). He is the co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (February 2015).

Additional information 

Red Cavalry, a collection of stories by Isaac Babel, a writer and journalist with the Soviet First Cavalry Army, has just been published by Pushkin Press in the new translation by Boris Draluyk. The stories depict the brutality and inanity of war on the Polish-Soviet border.

Posted by Emma Cleave, Wednesday 17th December, 2014

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