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Between the Language of the Universe and the Universe of Language

An Interview with Val Vinokur

The true goal of the mind is translating: only when a thing has been translated does it become truly vocal. Only in the Septuagint has revelation come to be at home in the world, and so long as Homer did not speak Latin he was not a fact. The same holds true for translating man to man.  

–Franz Rosenzweig

On December 1st, the New School hosts a “Day of Translation: the Art of Losing and Finding” in Wollman Hall, beginning at noon with the launch of Ahmad Al-Ashqar’s book Advances in Embroidery: Poems, with Translations from at Mahmoud Darwish (Poets & Traitors Press); a 1:15pm Translators’ Reading and Discussion with Tony Anemone, Alex Cigale, David Stromberg, and Jim Fuerst; a 3:30pm Open Forum on Literary Translation, Publishing, and the University, featuring alumni, faculty, students, and guests, such as Tynan Kogane, Kendall Storey, Rose Réjouis, Roman Kostovski, Matvei Yankelevich, Rebekah Smith, Stephanie Leone, Julia Johanne Tolo, José Garcia Escobar, David Larsen, and Jennifer Hayashida; and culminating at 5:30pm with the launch of Val Vinokur’s new translation of Isaac Babel’s Essential Fictions (Northwestern University Press). The program is co-sponsored by the new Minor in Literary Translation at the New School. Public Seminar’s Josh Maserow spoke to Val Vinokur in anticipation of the event.

PS: You have written extensively about several great Russian authors in the recent past. Why translate Babel now? Does Babel’s work speak, in vital and original ways, to the current moment, both in the U.S. and abroad?

VV: I began translating Babel in February 2014, the same month that Russia annexed Crimea; and the book was published on the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution. During the 1920 Soviet-Polish War, at the dawn of a long struggle between global ideologies, Babel found in Ukraine a tapestry of Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish civilizations coming apart at the seams along the borderland between what had been — and is now once again — the Russian imperium and the West. As a socialist Jew from Odessa, who wanted to be a famous Russian writer, Babel himself wrestled with many of these identities, while transcending them at the same time. The roiling dissonance and counter-harmonies that Lionel Trilling and others encountered in Babel’s Red Cavalry rhyme with the noise of our own time — of the fraying of the social order that negotiated between globalization, liberal internationalism, identity politics, capitalism, ethno-nationalism, and the welfare state.

PS: In another interview, on Lithub, you mention encountering Babel’s work for the first time as a 16-year-old working in a windowless office at a law firm in Miami. Can you say more about how Babel came to figure in your life and thought? In other words, why is there no getting away from Babel?

VV: Not for me, it would seem. I write in my introduction that “I had emigrated from Moscow as a child in 1978, and a decade later I was vicariously experiencing my own glasnost and perestroika. Interrupted by the dull and regular crash of corporate minutes arriving on the dumbwaiter, Babel’s words — full of horrified hopefulness, doleful and bespectacled Jewish comedy, sublime initiations into the bloody gyre of Russian history, Odessa gangsters in raspberry wingtips, long-legged Cossacks in their boxy black cloaks, thorns of ‘detached’ prose that lodged in one’s skin — accompanied me into adulthood.” Babel brought all the dissonant strands of my own life together — from the fact that my grandfather was a military commissar, to the rather Odessan flavor of Jewish life in the Miami Beach of Al Pacino’s Scarface. I went to high school with the son of Manuel Noriega’s lawyer — unmasked as an FBI mole who helped put away a cabal of corrupt Dade County judges. When I left South Florida for college in New England, I felt a little like Babel leaving Odessa to make his name in Petersburg. At Amherst College, I immediately took a course on Soviet Literature with Stanley Rabinowitz, where I reread Babel. At Princeton, part of my dissertation — eventually revised for my first book — was on Babel. Whenever I teach Grace Paley or Philip Roth, there’s Babel again. He and I are fellow travelers.

PS: You have translated 72 of Babel’s short stories, collected in The Essential Fictions – did you have a particular reader in mind while completing this immense feat?

VV: I’ve twice taught an entire undergraduate course on Isaac Babel, and the first readers I had in mind were my students. So, I had to ask myself: Which stories would I definitely assign? How familiar and how “foreignizing” should this text be? How much critical annotation would sustain their interest and curiosity, without overdetermining their own interpretations of the text? I actually had them read the stories in my translations as they became available, and I acknowledge their feedback. But I realize that a lot of American readers — myself included — came to love Babel through translations that have been long out-of-print (Walter Morison, Max Hayward, Andrew McAndrew, Mirra Ginsburg, others), and often these versions imprint themselves on us. After I sent a copy of Essential Fictions to Paul Auster (who recently wrote how he, too, discovered Babel as a teenager), he initially resisted reading it out of loyalty to McAndrew’s slim 1963 volume of translations. But when he finally read one of the Odessa stories, my translation of “The King,” he wrote to me again: “Found it good, very good, terrific, in fact. Did not check the other translations to compare, since it held its own on its own terms.” My goal is to inherit a reader like that and to imprint my book on others who’ve never even heard of Isaac Babel. Of course, Babel himself once said that he wanted to overwhelm his ideal reader, which he imagined as a “woman born with perfect taste, like some people are born with perfect pitch.” A student of mine connected Babel’s idea of “perfect pitch” to a very contemporary moment in our own cultural climate: “If you are not a woman, you cannot fully know the struggles of women. If you are not a Jew, you cannot fully know the struggles of Jews. If you are not black, you cannot fully know the struggles of blacks. But this does not mean that literature is exclusive, you can still sympathize and empathize as a human.” Which is to say that, whatever readers a writer or a translator might imagine, any of us can — in a certain sense and for a certain moment — become that intended interlocutor.

PS: Other than Babel, is there one text, passage and/or writer that has fundamentally shaped you as a translator, critic and thinker?

VV: Most of my work is on Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose gloomy visions of Petersburg are mocked by Babel in an early manifesto. In particular, I have been obsessed with one sentence from The Brothers Karamazov — the same sentence that took hold of another of my heroes, Emmanuel Levinas: “Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I more than the others.” In slightly different ways, Levinas and I focus on the latter part of Markel’s credo — the “I more than the others,” which I understand as a superlatively literary and anti-philosophical coda.

PS: You recently established a publishing press, the Poets & Traitors Press. Can you tell us about its inception and purpose?

VV: We publish books combining poetry and translations by a single author/translator. After releasing Ahmad Al-Ashqar’s Advances in Embroidery: Poems, with Translations from Mahmoud Darwish, we hope to publish two books per year for the next five years. I was always inspired by the fact that, before the rise of nation-states and national literatures, most writers were also translators — any lettered person was generally literate in more than one tongue. So, starting in 2013, I curated seven readings for the Poet/Translator Series, which gathered writer-translators who travel between creative writing and translation, people for whom one language is not enough, and whose own utterances carry, shape, and are shaped by another’s. Such readers as Matvei Yankelevich, Liz Wessel Clark, Eugene Ostashevsky, Johnny Lorenz, Ian Dreiblatt, Ainslie Morse, Bela Shayevich, and Margarita Shalina read their translations alongside their original work — to very striking effect. Since 2014, the series has also hosted the final readings of three New School Literary Translation Workshops. These workshops have been comprised of both Creative Writing-MFA students and Lang/Bachelor’s Program for Adults and Transfers (BPATS) undergraduates, working from Arabic, Modern Hebrew, Chinese, Spanish, French, Albanian, Odia, Norwegian, Swedish, Turkish, and Ukrainian. This was the context for Poets & Traitors Press. The workshop participants and the guests from the reading series viewed translation as forming part of a continuum with their work as creative writers, and became acutely aware of a lack of publishing platforms that recognize such a continuum. Most poetry presses and contests explicitly forbid the inclusion of any translated work, while the handful of independent presses that publish translations are not usually interested in translators as writers. Poets & Traitors Press wants to demolish this wall between writing and translation by publishing beautiful books that cultivate a dialogue between the two. The name of the press comes from that old chestnut that translators love to hate: Traduttore, traditore (Translator, traitor) — an accusation made by Italians against French translators of Dante. But we take our inspiration from the poet/translator Octavio Paz, who wrote: “Baudelaire said poetry is essentially analogy… Between the language of the universe and the universe of language, there is a bridge, a link: poetry. The poet, says Baudelaire, is the translator.”

Val Vinokur teaches literature and translation at The New School, where he serves as Chair of Liberal Arts in the Adult Bachelor’s Program. He was a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow in translation.

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