Some Comments on Babel and “The Sin of Jesus” An introductory site.

One cannot evaluate any compilation of Babel’s work without paying tribute to the ghosts of words lost: those erased by the police as well as those that never made it onto paper, because the Soviet Union, according to Babel’s famous subversive quip, deprived writers of only one thing: “the right to write badly.” The right to write badly – to write free of external and internal censorship – is the prerequisite for good art. Babel cherished this freedom. He wrote to tell the whole truth: about Russia, about revolution, about human motivation; the result was fiction that is no less shocking today than when it first appeared. Babel’s short stories cover a wide range of subjects and vary widely in style (nowhere in this volume will you find that hobgoblin of short story collections: uniformity). Babel’s characters include the meek, the riotous, the arrogant; Cossacks and those who covet the Cossacks’ fearlessness; the tranquil lifelong scholars who grow gnarled along the trellis of the Public Library, while Russia’s war rages in the distant Carpathian Mountains; Jewish gangsters and prostitutes; a dying old man clinging to “the greasy Torah of his forefathers”; the soldier who explains his preferred style of murder; a woman who cuts a deal with Jesus, with disastrous results; a pregnant girl desperate for an abortion, and Russia itself. Babel’s characters are, for the most part, harsh realists in a brutal world. In fact, Russia is the only character Babel allows the full flourish of sentiment.

            -Rachel Kadish


On translating this story:

It must be said that Constantine gets a good number of things right –

both stylistically and semantically – that none of his predecessors did,

and seems to have been rather better advised about certain idioms

and ‘Odessanisms’ (but by no means all) in Babel’s Russian. In ‘The

Sin of Jesus’, for instance, Constantine hit on an excellent equivalent

for khakhal, the snide pejorative for suitor (boyfriend, lover): ‘He’ll

be your prayer, your salvation, and your pretty-boy, too’ (p. 105). Mirra

Ginsburg had certainly missed, with ‘your solace’ (in Morison,

p. 247); MacAndrew came up with only a generic ‘sweetheart’ (p. 82).

Constantine’s rendering of this whole difficult story, with its folksy,

Odessan narrative voice, must be recognized as a stylistic improvement,

if not necessarily over MacAndrew, whose colloquialism can be effective

and convincing, then certainly over Ginsburg, whose Arina had told

Jesus in language worthy of a translation from Freud, ‘To hear you talk,

all people should deny their animal nature’ (in Morison, p. 246).

Constantine has ‘Do you mean to say that everyone should stop living a

life?’ (p. 105).

            Timothy D. Sergay