A story about Isaac Babel

A story about Isaac Babel

I’m reading a wonderful, smart, funny book called “The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Elif Batuman, a literature professor at Stanford University.

Being one of those “people who read Russian books,” I dove right in to Batuman’s “adventures” – and found something to share with Jewish Standard readers.

The first chapter, “Babel in California,” is an account of a conference about the Russian-Jewish writer murdered, like so many Jewish intellectuals, by the Soviets. At the conference, a translator objects that while his version of the Babel story “Odessa” is on exhibit in a glass case, it is “next to a caption quoting ‘Odessa’ in a different translation.”

“Copyediting,” he is told by the conference organizer. “You would not believe the changes they made.”

The organizer “told the story,” Batuman writes, “of the copy editor who had translated all the italicized Yiddish in such a way that Luftmensch (an impractical visionary) came out as ‘pilot’; shamas (the beadle of a synagogue) turned, via ‘shamus,’ into ‘private detective.'”