Translation and Literature 15.2 (2006) 238-253
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Isaac Babel's Life in English:
The Norton Complete Babel Reconsidered
Timothy D. Sergay
The hard fate of the writings of Isaac Babel in their various English translations was reviewed at length in 1983, in an article by the Dutch writer, translator, and Slavist Charles B. Timmer. Editorial 'slovenliness', he found, 'mistakes, misreadings, absurdities, distortions', censorship of sexual content and 'sloppy translation' abounded in the English-language collections published to date. Timmer concluded: 'A complete, unabridged, reliable and scholarly edition of Babel's works in English does not yet exist';
What is needed is a sophisticated editor, competent, with a perfect knowledge not only of both languages, but also of Babel's literary heritage spread over many obscure, long since disappeared little magazines before and shortly after the revolution. This editor's task then would be to bring the Complete Works of Babel in English, which would include the two plays Sunset and Maria, the screenplay Old Square No. 4 … all the letters known from various sources, and certainly also the stories and sketches recently published in the United States in the Russian language by Nikolas Stroud under the title Forgotten Works of Babel (Zabytye proizvedeniia Babelia), to which should be added some more stories, 'forgotten' even by Professor Stroud.1
In 2002 Norton brought out its lavishly produced Complete Works of Isaac Babel, a boxed, single-volume English-language edition of 1,072 pages, edited by Babel's daughter, Nathalie Babel-Brown, and translated in [End Page 238] its entirety by Peter Constantine. The Babel scholar and biographer Gregory Freidin advised the translator, contributed a chronology,and declared on the back jacket, 'The Complete Works of Isaac Babel is the most comprehensive edition of his writings in any language and the one that does the most justice to his genius' (emphasis mine). The bookwas widely reviewed and extravagantly, almost universally, praised. 'A triumph of translation, editing, and publishing', James Wood wrote in The New Republic (21 February 2002); 'beautiful to hold, scholarly and also popularly accessible'. The volume includes Sunset and Maria;it includes Old Square No. 4 (titled Number 4 Staraya Square) and the material assembled by Stroud in Forgotten Works. It includes the 1920 diary, which had appeared in an excellent translation by Harry Willetts only three years before Constantine began work on the Norton project.2 But is it the book Timmer hoped to see in print?
He would not have been encouraged to see an English edition of Babel once again under the editorship of Nathalie Babel-Brown, whom he had faulted for her 'poor work' editing Babel's private letters presented in The Lonely Years (1964). He would certainly have been disappointed that the Norton volume contains no section for Babel's correspondence at all, making it significantly less 'complete' than even the problematic two-volume collected works in Russian edited by Babel's second wife, Antonina Pirozhkova (1990-1). There is no 'note on sources', no statement anywhere of the textological principles by which variants of Babel's stories were selected for translation. The English versions of various stories reenact editorial lapses of the Russian two-volume set that have long been under discussion in Babel criticism.3 These points were handled far more exactingly (and quite concisely) in Efraim Sicher's unobtrusive apparatus for the 1994 Penguin Collected Stories, translated by David McDuff (revised 1998).
Perhaps most galling of all, Timmer would have found that no one involved in the Norton project had bothered to read his article, which [End Page 239] would have warned the Norton team of a particularly absurd mistranslation committed by all of Babel's anglophone translators to date. Timmer pointed out a passage in 'The Road to Brody' ('Put' v Brody') that reads 'The light bay stallion … belonged to a subaltern whodrank himself tipsy with vodka the day his head was chopped off.' But Babel's text reads 'Solovyi zherebchik … prinadlezhal pod"esaulu, upivshemusia vodkoi v den' useknoveniia glavy', which Timmer in his essay (pp...