Translation Can Be a Peculiar Drug
Isaac Babel’s ‘Guy de Maupassant’ retranslated
The following is a story by Isaac Babel, translated by Val Vinokur and included in his new book of Babel translations, The Essential Fictions. It is published by Northwestern University Press and will be launched at the New School this Friday, December first.
In his Foreword to the book, Vinokur comments on two of the most famous phrases from Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant,” a story itself about translation:
Babel writes: “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 must turn it once, but not twice . . . I started talking of style, of the army of words, an army in which all manner of weapons are in play. Nothing of iron can breach the human heart with the chill of a period placed just in time.” Translation can be a peculiar drug — and, at its heady best, it is indeed as exhilarating, intimate, crafty, and paramilitary as the hero’s steam-punkish metaphor.
Guy de Maupassant
In the winter of 1916 I found myself in Petersburg with a forged passport and not a penny to my name. I found shelter with a teacher of Russian literature — Alexey Kazantsev.
He lived in Peski on a yellow, frozen, foul-smelling street. He supplemented his meager salary by doing translations from the Spanish; at the time, Blasco Ibáñez was just becoming famous.
Kazantsev had never even passed through Spain, but his love for that country filled his whole being — he knew all its castles, gardens, and rivers. Besides me there were many other people huddling around Kazantsev, all of them castaways from a proper life. We lived hand to mouth. From time to time the tabloids would publish our news commentary in small print.
Mornings I would hang around the morgues and police precincts.
Still, Kazantsev was happier than the rest of us. He had a motherland — Spain.
In November I was offered a post as a clerk at the Obukhov factory, not a bad job; it would have exempted me from military service.
I refused to become a clerk.
Even back then when I was twenty years old, I had told myself: better starve, go to jail, or roam the earth than sit ten hours a day behind a desk. There’s nothing especially impressive about this resolution, but I didn’t break it and never will. The wisdom of my grandfathers was fixed in my head: we are born to take pleasure in our work, in our fights, in our love; we are born for that and nothing else.
Kazantsev listened to my sermons, ruffling the short yellow fuzz on top of his head. The horror in his eyes was mixed with admiration.
At Christmastime we had a stroke of luck. Bendersky the barrister, who owned a publishing house called Halcyon, decided to publish a new edition of Maupassant’s works. The barrister’s wife, Raisa, tried her hand at the translation. Nothing came of this noble venture.
Kazantsev, who translated from Spanish, was asked whether he could recommend someone to assist Raisa Mikhaylovna. Kazantsev directed them to me.
The next day, dressed in someone else’s jacket, I made my way to the Benderskys’. They lived at the corner of Nevsky and the Moyka, in a house built of Finland granite and adorned with pink columns, crenellations, coats of arms carved in stone. Bankers without family or tribe, converts who made money selling supplies to the army, had put up many such vulgar, pretentious castles in St. Petersburg before the war.
There was a red carpet on the stairs. On the landings, stuffed bears stood on their hind legs.
Crystal orbs burned in their gaping maws.
The Benderskys lived on the third floor. A high-breasted maid with a white cap on her head opened the door. She led me into a drawing room decorated in the Old Slavonic style. On the walls hung deep-blue paintings by Roerich — prehistoric stones and monsters. Antique icons were perched on stands in the corners. The high-breasted maid moved majestically across the room. She was shapely, nearsighted, and haughty. Her gray, wide-open eyes were hard with depravity. The maid moved slowly. I thought, when she makes love, she must toss and turn with brutal dexterity. The brocade curtain over the doorway stirred. Conveying her ample bosom, a black-haired woman with pink eyes entered the drawing room. I quickly recognized Mrs. Bendersky as one of those charming Jewesses who have come to us from Kiev and Poltava, from the sated towns of the steppes, planted over with chestnut trees and acacias. The money made by their resourceful husbands is transformed by these women into a pink layer of fat on the belly, the nape, and on their rounded shoulders. Their tender sleepy smiles drive the garrison officers mad.
“Maupassant is the single passion in my life,” Raisa said to me.
Trying to control the swaying of her ample hips, she left the room and returned with a translation of “Miss Harriet.” 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, in Kazantsev’s attic, while the others slumbered, I spent all night hacking a path through someone else’s translation. The work wasn’t 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 must turn it once, but not twice.
In the morning I brought back the corrected manuscript. Raisa wasn’t lying when she told me of her passion for Maupassant. She sat motionless, her hands clasped, as I read it to her: those 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 of style, of the army of words, an army in which all manner of weapons are in play. Nothing of iron can breach the human heart with the chill of a period placed just in time. She listened, her head bowed, her painted lips unsealed. 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 rug.
The maid, looking askance with her hard wanton eyes, brought in breakfast on a tray.
The glassy Petersburg sun lay on the faded and uneven carpet. Twenty-nine volumes of Maupassant stood on a shelf above the desk. The melting fingers of the sun touched the morocco spines of the books — a magnificent grave of the human heart.
Coffee was served in dark-blue cups, and we began translating “An Idyll.” Everyone remembers the story of the hungry young carpenter who suckled on the plump wet nurse to relieve her of the milk that burdened her. It happened on a train going from Nice to Marseille, in the middle of a scorching day, in the land of roses, the birthplace of roses where flowering slopes reach down to the sea . . .
I left the Benderskys’ with a twenty-five-ruble advance. Our crowd at Peski got sloshed that night like a drunken gaggle of geese. We shoveled spoons of unpressed caviar and then ate it with liver sausage. Quite drunk, I started ragging on Tolstoy.
“He got spooked, your count, chickened out . . . His religion — that was just fear. When he got scared of the cold, old age, death, the count sewed himself long undies out of his faith.”
“And then what?” Kazantsev asked, swaying his avian head.
We fell asleep next to our own beds. I dreamed of Katya, a forty-year-old washerwoman who lived below us. We would get hot water from her every morning. I had never even managed to see her face really, but in my dream Katya and I did God knows what. We tormented each other with kisses. I could barely wait to go get my hot water from her the next morning.
When the door opened, I saw a withered woman, shawl across her chest, with loose ash-gray curls and prune hands.
From then on I had breakfast each day at the Benderskys’. In our attic there appeared a new stove, herring, chocolate. Twice Raisa took me out on drives to the islands. I couldn’t resist and told her of my childhood. The story turned out rather grim, to my own surprise. From under her moleskin cap she looked at me with gleaming, frightened eyes. The russet fur of her eyelashes trembled with pity.
I met Raisa’s husband, a yellow-faced Jew with a bald skull and a flat powerful body angled and ready for takeoff. There were rumors that he was close to Rasputin. The profits he made from the war made him look like he was possessed. His eyes would drift, he had been torn from the fabric of normal life. Raisa was embarrassed whenever she had to introduce new people to her husband. Because I was young, I noticed this a week later than I should have. After the New Year, Raisa’s two sisters arrived from Kiev. One day I stopped by with the manuscript of “The Confession” and, not finding Raisa at home, returned again that evening. They were at dinner. From the dining room there issued a sterling whinny of laughter and the din of overexcited male voices. In rich houses without tradition, dinners are noisy. It was a Jewish noise, rolling and rich with melodious finishes. Raisa came out to me in a ball gown with an open back. Her feet stepped awkwardly in their precarious shiny slippers.
“Sweetie, I’m drunk,” she said, reaching out to me with her arms, loaded with chains of platinum and stars of emerald.
Her body swayed like the body of a snake charmed to the ceiling by music. She tossed her curled hair, jangling her rings, and suddenly collapsed into a chair with ancient Russian carvings. Scars glowed on her powdered back.
Behind the wall there was another explosion of feminine laughter. Out of the dining room came Raisa’s sisters, wisps of mustaches on their lips, as tall and full-figured as Raisa herself. Their busts protruded and their black hair flipped back and forth. Both were married to their own Benderskys. The room was filled with disjointed, feminine vivaciousness, the vivaciousness of ripe women. The husbands wrapped the sisters in their sealskins and Orenburg shawls and shod them in black boots; beneath the snowy rims of their shawls, all you could see were rouged, smoldering cheeks, marble noses, and the nearsighted Semitic glint of their eyes. They made a little more noise and then left for the theater, to see Chaliapin in Judith.
“Let’s work,” Raisa lisped, reaching out with her bare arms, “we’ve skipped a whole week . . .”
She brought a bottle and two glasses from the dining room. Her breasts were unfettered inside the silken sack of her gown; the nipples rose, concealed by the silk.
“It’s priceless,” said Raisa, pouring out the wine. “Muscat ’83. My husband will kill me when he finds out . . .”
I had never been introduced to a Muscat ’83 before and so thought nothing of knocking back three glasses one after the other. They carried me swiftly down back alleys where an orange flame flickered and music could be heard.
“I’m drunk, darling . . . What do we have today?”
“Today we have L’Aveu. ‘The Confession,’ in other words. The sun is the hero of this story, le soleil de France . . .” Molten drops of the sun falling on the red-haired Céleste, turning into freckles. The sun burnished the face of Polyte the coachman with its steep rays, its wine and apple cider. Twice a week Céleste drove into town to sell cream, eggs, and chickens. She paid Polyte ten sous for herself and four for her basket. And on each trip Polyte would wink at the red-haired Céleste and ask, “When are we going to have some fun, ma belle? — “What does that mean, Monsieur Polyte?” Bouncing up and down on the box, the coachman explained, “To have some fun — why, hell, just means to have some fun! A lad with a lass — no music necessary . . .”
“I do not care for such jokes, Monsieur Polyte,” replied Céleste and moved her skirts away from the lad, skirts that covered her mighty calves in their red stockings.
But that devil Polyte kept right on chortling and coughing: “Someday we’ll have our bit of fun, ma belle,” while tears of delight rolled down his face the color of brick-red blood and wine.
I drank up another cup of the priceless muscat. Raisa touched glasses with me. The hard-eyed maid passed through the room and disappeared.
Ce diable de Polyte . . . Over two years Céleste had paid him forty-eight francs. That’s two francs short of fifty. At the end of the second year, when they were alone in the carriage, Polyte, who had had some cider before setting out, asked her his usual question: “And won’t we have some fun today, Mam’selle Céleste?” And she replied, lowering her eyes, “I am at your service, Monsieur Polyte . . .”
Raisa flung herself down on the table, laughing. Ce diable de Polyte . . .
The carriage was pulled by a white nag. The white nag, its lips pink with age, went at a walk. The lively French sun enveloped the ancient coach, screened from the world by a rusty old hood. A lad with a lass, no music necessary . . .
Raisa held out a glass to me. It was the fifth. “To Maupassant, mon vieux.”
“And won’t we have some fun today, ma belle . . .”
I reached over to Raisa and kissed her on the lips. They quivered and swelled.
“Aren’t you fun,” she mumbled through her teeth and recoiled.
She pressed herself against the wall, spreading her bare arms. Spots began to glow on her arms and shoulders. Of all the gods ever nailed to a cross, this one was the most seductive.
“Be so kind as to sit down, Monsieur Polyte . . .”
She pointed to a sloping blue armchair done in Slavonic style. Its back consisted of carved wooden lacework with decorated tailpieces. I fumbled over there, tripping over myself.
Underneath my famished youth the night had slipped a bottle of Muscat ’83 and twenty-nine books, twenty-nine petards stuffed with pity, genius, passion . . . I sprang up, knocked over the chair, banged against the shelf. The twenty-nine volumes crashed to the floor, their pages flew open, they stood on their sides . . . and the white nag of my fate went on at a walk.
“Aren’t you fun,” growled Raisa.
I left the granite house on the Moyka around midnight, before the sisters and the husband returned from the theater. I was sober and could have walked a plank, but it was much better to stagger, and I swayed from side to side, singing in a language I had just invented. Through the tunnels of the streets, lined by a chain of lamps, billowed mists of fog. Monsters roared behind the seething walls. The pavements severed any legs that walked them.
Kazantsev was asleep when I got home. He slept sitting up, his skinny legs stretched out in felt boots. A canary fluff rose over his head. He had fallen asleep by the stove bent over a volume of Don Quixote, the 1624 edition. On the title page of the book was a dedication to the duc de Broglie. I got into bed quietly so as not to wake Kazantsev, moved the lamp closer, and began to read a book by Édouard de Maynial, The Life and Work of Guy de Maupassant.
Kazantsev’s lips stirred, his head kept tipping over.
That night I learned from Édouard de Maynial that Maupassant was born in 1850, the child of a Norman aristocrat and Laure de Poitevan, Flaubert’s cousin. He was twenty-five when he had his first bout of congenital syphilis. His prolific joie de vivre resisted the onset of the disease. At first he suffered from headaches and fits of hypochondria. Then the specter of blindness rose before him. His sight grew weak. He became maniacally paranoid, unsociable, and querulent. He struggled furiously, dashed about the Mediterranean in a yacht, fled to Tunis, Morocco, Central Africa — and wrote constantly. Having achieved fame, in his fortieth year he cut his own throat, lost a lot of blood, but survived. They put him in a madhouse. There he crawled about on all fours and ate his own excrement. The last line on his medical chart read, “Monsieur de Maupassant va s’animaliser” (Mr. Maupassant has turned into an animal). He died when he was forty-two. He was survived by his own mother.
I read the book to the end and got out of bed. The fog came up to the window and concealed the universe. My heart felt tight. I was brushed by a premonition of the truth.
1920–1922 (published 1932)
Essential Fictions is available for purchase online on Amazon.
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.