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|22 швата 5768 / 29 января 2008|
TRANSLATION AS INTERPRETATION, two translations of a story from Isaac Babel.s “Red Cavalry”
The sentence that ends the third paragraph of the first story in Isaac Babel.s “Red Cavalry” has been translated by Nadia Helstein and Walter Morison: “In the room I was given I discovered turned-out wardrobes, scraps of women.s fur coats on the floor, human filth, fragments of the occult crockery the Jews use only once a year, at Eastertime.” Peter Constantine has rendered the same sentence: “In my room I find ransacked closets, torn pieces of women.s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and fragments of the holy Seder plate that the Jews use once a year for Passover.” Why such a difference in the versions?
It.s said that any translation is an interpretation, a “reading” that results in a new text. Alberto Manguel has written: “Translating is the ultimate act of comprehending. For Rilke, the reader who reads in order to translate engages on a .purest procedure. of questions and answers by which the most elusive of notions, the literary meaning, is gleaned. Gleaned but never made explicit, because in the particular alchemy of this kind of reading the meaning is immediately transformed into another, equivalent text.”
The story cited above is the first in “Red Cavalry” and among its briefest. It is titled “Crossing into Poland” in the Morison/Helstein translation, and “Crossing the River Zbrucz,” in the Constantine. The Russian title is literally “Crossing the Zbrucz.” Maybe his lengthy introduction allows Constantine to keep closer to the original title than Morison/Helstein, who tuck information about the function of the river into the title. And of course, crossing a river has serious metaphorical implications, from the Jordan to the Styx. Still, the differences in the translations of the title are strategic more than substantive.
After the narrator announces the taking of Novograd-Volynsk, a third of the story.s text is devoted to an atmospheric description of the march that has taken him there. Later, in Novograd and the company of other soldiers, the narrator is billeted with several Jews, among them, a pregnant woman. They are all described in unflattering terms. At the story.s end we learn of the death of the woman.s father and hear her cry of despair. In translating the narrative, their versions exhibit many variations common to translations from Russian—differences in tense, prepositional usage, phrasing, and terms for objects. Nothing, however, is as striking as the sentence I began with. Even in it, there.s no need to pause over “turned-out” for “ransacked,” “human filth,” rather than “human excrement.” The glaring difference is Morison/Helstein.s, “occult crockery the Jews use only once a year, at Eastertime” and Constantine.s: “holy Seder plate that the Jews use once a year for Passover.”
The Russian text reads: «сокровенной посуды, употребляющийся у евреев раз в году — на пасху». It easiest to begin an examination from the end, with the phrase, “на пасху.” A Russian-English dictionary provides the following about .пасха.:
1) Easter; еврейская пасха — Passover
The source of the translation differences then lies with English, one of the few European languages to employ a word unconnected to “Pesakh,” the Hebrew for Passover. Russian uses the same “paskha” for both Passover and Easter. Russian dictionaries indicate that it is possible to talk about “Jewish Easter,” or “Christian Passover.” Context usually makes clear which is referred to. But the context of the Babel story is not usual.
Even “stickier” is the preceding passage. The Russian text reads: ?«сокровенной посуды, употребляющийся у евреев раз в году». Again, the second portion is simpler to deal with than the first. It could be translated as “used by Jews once a year,” which is close to what appears in both versions. In the adjective noun combination that precedes the comma, the second word, посуды, is a noun meaning “dishes” or crockery; it is singular. The adjective, depending on context, means: “secret,” “cherished,” “concealed,” “cryptic, “occult.” A standard Russian dictionary, Ojegov for example, gives: «Свято хранимый и тайный», that is, “piously preserved (or treasured) and mysterious.”
Perhaps now the reason I have separated the phrases is clear. The translator who opts to render «на пасху» as “at Eastertime,” might easily chose to render the first phrase “occult crockery the Jews use.” It would suggest a speaker unfamiliar with Passover, i.e. not Jewish. If he did know, however, he would run into a problem. A special piece of crockery is used on Passover during the ritual meal. That meal is called a “seder,” a foreign word that appears in English Dictionaries, but not in any of my Russian dictionaries or encyclopedias. The English speaker has a word (even if it is not an English word) available for it that the Russian speaker does not. Hence, it would reasonable to add the information by using that term, especially if the translator had chosen to render «на пасху» as “for Passover.” Interestingly, Morison/Helstein furnish supplementary information with respect to the title, whereas it.s Constantine who does so with respect to the dish. Perhaps what.s most interesting is that a Russian reader would not be apt to consider the passage ambiguous at all.
How it should it be translated depends on one.s view of the narrator. The narrators of “Red Cavalry” are, according to Patricia Carden: “the .I. of Isaac Babel and the .I. of Kiril Lyutov, the very Russian war correspondent (who might go as far as admitting that his mother is Jewish). .Lyutov. was also the identity that Babel assumed in real life as a way of surviving among the fiercely anti-Semitic Cossacks of the Red Cavalry. There are also other narrators.” But according to Carol Luplow: “The fact that in many respects the author and narrator bear a close resemblance further complicates their relationship. There is both external and internal evidence of this resemblance. Red Cavalry, first of all, has a deeply autobiographical origin. In many external characteristics Lyutov does seem to be a persona for Babel. Both are Jewish intellectuals who participated in Budyonny.s campaign, and Babel himself used the name Lyutov on the campaign.” And according Carden: “Traveling under the name Kiril Vassilevich Liutov to conceal his Jewish identity, Babel was assigned to Budenny.s First Cavalry, where he worked for the Division newspaper, The Red Cavalryman.” But can the name “Lyutov,” as Luplow says, identify a “Jewish intellectual” while, as Carden maintains, being used to conceal Jewish identity? If Lyutov is a Jewish intellectual, trying to hide his background, are we to understand that he has failed?
A Jewish speaker recognizes what he sees, just as he knows how to behave in a synagogue or a house of study as the narrator does in other stories, in some of which he speaks Yiddish. But a speaker attempting to put on the mantle of "Cossack-ness," to view the world through Cossack eyes or express himself as if he were non-Jewish and unsympathetic to Jews, as his harshness in describing them indicates? Might he not distance himself by referring to “occult crockery”? Unfortunately, the narrator is not identified. Taking him to be Lyutov, does not resolve the question. Even as an intellectual, Lyutov is out of place among the Cossacks. A Cossack, traditionally a physical and violent symbol of state power, is almost the antonym of the bespectacled Jew, that traditional figure of the outsider.
Lyutov (and Babel too?) has shifting loyalties and identifications. He.d love to be able to ride well enough to escape the notice of the Cossacks, something he eventually does in another story, just as in yet another, through an act of cruelty, he gets himself invited to share their supper. Though he gains admittance, he is unable to escape his own judgment on the act he commits to do this and on himself. At times the narrator admits to his Jewishness among the shtetel Jews he observes. At times he does not. The persona varies from story to story. The translator is forced to ask about tone in each the story — not what is said, but how.
It might be objected that the narrator knows who he is: he.s a Cossack or a Russian Jew, or maybe something else. Whatever or whoever he is, he sees as such a person does. A Jew must see a Seder plate, not a piece of religious crockery for Jewish Easter, no matter how he expresses himself. His knowledge of the plate is not a question of choice. But the speaker expresses not only what he sees, he also expresses how he wishes to be seen. If he wants to be seen as a non-Jew, regardless of outward appearance or inner experience, then his way of acting and talking must be non-Jewish. If he wants to be taken up by, if not taken for a Cossack horseman, among accomplished horsemen, then he must become an accomplished horseman. And he must swagger and strut they do. If they talk about “religious crockery” because they don.t know or care to distinguish a Seder plate from a toilet seat, then he must not use his knowledge in describing or naming the object. To be like others, he must not privilege his descriptions.
Though I agree with the objection of the sophisticated reader, that although he can talk as he wishes, but he can.t see as he wishes, all the same, in the story, the first in the series, I maintain that the speaker is a character and to that extent, what he writes, what we read, might be called indirect monologue. It reflects how he sees or wishes to see himself. And because he is the self-conscious, created narrator of the author, he always sees himself addressing or projecting an audience. Maybe that fact adds to the drama and tension in the story.
Cynthia Ozick has written, “The issues that seize...translation are not matters of language in the sense of word-for-word. Nor is translation to be equated with interpretation; the translator has no business sneaking in what amounts to commentary. Ideally, translation is a transparent membrane that will vibrate with the faintest shudder of the original...” At times, the translator, even one with no desire to “sneaking in” anything, has no choice but to interpret. Carol J. Avins writes: “The many nights Babel spent lodged in Jewish households are distilled in that first story, as are all the times he hid his Jewishness and felt the difficulty of doing so. That the narrator is a Jew pretending to be a non-Jew is hinted but not stated: by purposely withholding this fact Babel puts the reader in the position of those he encountered who were uninitiated into his secret.” Even this view, one that addresses the question of speaker, stops short of taking a stance that would indicate how the passage should be translated.
I once thought that the best way to read a work written in a language I didn.t know was by rereading it in multiple translations; I hoped that by doing so I could surround the work. Now, as a translator myself, one sympathetic to Ozick.s injunction, I see the prescience in that early view at the same time that I am frustrated by it.