TRANSLATING BABEL’S “SIN OF JESUS” INTO ENGLISH
When I was living in Russia for a year (1999-2000), teaching on a Fulbright Scholar Grant in the city of Great Novgorod, I traveled all around the country, giving lectures, in Russian, on the writer Ivan Bunin, whose stories I had translated into English. Once, while appearing at St. Petersburg University, I was asked what it was like lecturing in a language that was not one’s native language. I said that when I lectured in English, it was like swimming in broad, smooth strokes through the water. In Russian it was the same, except that it was like swimming with a brick in one hand.
Translators of literary works, when translating fiction heavily imbued with illiterate language, face a no-win situation. You can (1) try to get the underclass language by using underclass locutions in the target language. Which doesn’t work, or works only imperfectly, because if, say, you use the illiterate language of the American South your Russian peasants or workers sound, incongruously, like American underclass Southerners. Or you can (2) translate the illiteracies into something that more resembles literary speech in the target language. Which doesn’t work, or works only imperfectly, because any reader knows that Russian peasants or workers do not speak in a literate way.
I know of at least five translators of Isaac Babel’s “Sin of Jesus” into English. All of them do a commendable job, and reading the story in their variants is still worth your while. But all of them, nonetheless, are swimming with that brick in one hand. Now I have found a way to put down the brick and swim without it. As far as I know, no one has ever done this before, at least not with Babel’s “Sin of Jesus.”
I have translated the tale into Southern American English, but in so doing I have also translated the locales and the characters. The story is the same, but everybody is in Georgia, and, consequently, everybody speaks like people in Waycross or Bainbridge. What do I gain by doing this? I gain reams and reams of literary effect. The brick is gone, and we now have the full-throated expression of the illiterate language of the original.
Furthermore—in response to Babel’s use of Old Church Slavonic, high-style words—I have used King James English in my translation. Certain changes have been made. For example, when Babel gives us a nature description, describing fir trees in the North of Russia, I write a similar description, but using pine trees and palmettos in Georgia. When Babel has his main character buying her angel fancy duds from the milieu of 1922 Russia, I have my (still his, though, actually) main character shopping at the Magnolia Mall.
The story remains essentially the same. The same orchestration of voices, the same underclass, half-crazed narrator, the same shocking blasphemy and obscenity, the same typically Babelian irony. But the brick is gone. Other translators may wish to try the same thing. Say, you live in Brooklyn: translate the action of the story and the characters to Brooklyn; tell the thing in Brooklyneez. Say, you live in the North of England: translate, by goom, the thing into some-utt like what coomes out of the mouths, luv, of the skels of the moors and dales. Following the same logic, we could take Babel’s story all over the English-speaking world (Australia, New Zealand, etc.). We could publish a whole book full of translations into English. Titled Sins of Jesus.
“Иисусов грех” (“The Sin of Jesus”) written in 1922
(translated into Southern American English, with Southern American Characters and Locales, by U.R. Bowie)
The Sin of Jesus
Juanita Blitch, she was a chambermaid, working in the Nathan Bedford Forrest Hotel, Waycross, Georgia. Yet one more associate at that there establishment was the handyman, Herschel Jones. And between them two there was shame. On Palm Sunday Juanita didst bear Herschel a pair of twins. Water floweth, stars shineth, man ruts. Juanita, then, she once more come to be in the family way, her sixth month was rolling on—them months of a woman, they sure do roll. Now, Herschel, just then he gets hisself drafted. What a sorry rigamarole.
Juanita, she ups and declares, “Waiting for you, Herschel Jones, don’t make no sense. We’ll be apart, like, four years, and in them four years I’ll bring, like, three more into this world. Making up rooms, why, that’s like going around with no drawers on. Whoever passes by, he’s got to have him some, be he a nobody, be he even a Jew. You get back from the army and my innards, they’ll be plumb wore out; I’ll be a wasted woman, no match for such as you.”
“Ain’t it the truth,” opined Herschel, nodding.
“Now, there is them such as would take me for wife. The contractor Lyman Fesmire, say, but he’s a lowlife piece of work. Or, say, old man Melvin Blackwelder, deacon at the First Baptist, a grungy little twerp, not got much juice in him—but then, your strong juices, Herschel, they done sapped my soul clean dry. I tell you the God’s truth, I’m beat down and bushed. Some three months on from now I’ll spill my load, I’ll put up the spawn for adoption, and then I’ll bestow my hand upon Melvin.”
When Herschel heard that he took his belt off and went at Juanita, popping her about the midsection real hero-like.
“Hold on, now, you,” says the woman. “Go easy on that belly there; it’s your stuffings inside, not nobody else’s.”
And so didst come the thing of the beating and thrashing, and so didst flow the tears of man, and didst flow the blood of woman, but, in the end, it all don’t amount to nocount of nothing. That’s when the woman, she cometh unto the Lord Jesus Christ and she doth saith, “This and that and the other, Lord Jesus. I am the woman Juanita Blitch, chambermaid at the Nathan Bedford. You know? Down on Martin Luther King Boulevard? Well, making up rooms, that’s like going around with no drawers on. Whoever passes by, he’s got to have him some, be he a nobody, be he even a Jew. Now, trekking this God’s green earth of yours is the handyman, thy servant Herschel Jones. Just this past year, on Palm Sunday, I gave birth to twins of his.”
And Juanita proceeded to lay it all out for the Lord.
“So what if it was to be that Herschel don’t go in the army after all?” saith the Savior, putting on airs.
“Naw. They’ll come drag him away, the draft board.”
The Savior hung his head. “Oh, yeah, the draft board. I done forgot about them folks . . . but listen: maybe thou couldst live not in sin for a spell. Like, chaste.”
“For four years?” answered the woman. “To hear You tell it folks has all got to de-animalise theirselves; that’s the same old way-back-when story from you. But where is, then, the go ye out forth and multiply to come from? Try talking some sense, Lord.”
At this point a blush did burgeoneth upon the cheeks of the Lord, for the woman had touched a right sore spot, but the Savior held his peace. Ain’t no way you kiss your own ear, and even God knew that.
“Tell you what, now, God’s faithful servant, illustrious sinner, the maiden Juanita,” proclaimeth then the Lord in all His glory. “There’s this here little angel, a-twiddling his pinkies up in my Heaven, name of Alfred. He’s done got out of hand, whining and weeping all the time: ‘How come, Lord, thou taketh me, and I ain’t but nineteen, and made a angel out of me, and me still full of piss and vinegar, how come?’ So what I reckon we’ll do is we’ll give unto thee, God’s servitor, this here angel Alfred to be your husband for four years. He shalt be thy prayer, he shalt be thy succor, and he shalt be thy pretty-boy love. And won’t be no giving birth to young’uns out of him, not even a duckling, cause he’s got spunk aplenty in him, but not one drop of earnest.”
“That’s just what I need,” implored the maiden Juanita. “On account of that menfolks’es earnest, me, I nearabout croak three times every two years.”
“Thou willst have sweet solace, child of God Juanita; thou willst have the lightest of prayers, soft as a song. Amen.”
So it was decided. They brought in Alfred. A scrawny fellow he was, delicate; behind his sky-blue shoulders he’s got two wings all a-quaver, lambent with a rosy glow, like doves aflutter on high. Juanita grabbed him in her big bear’s paws; she’s sobbing with tenderness, womanly gush.
“Sweet wittle Alfie, my consolation, betrothéd unto me art thou.”
The Lord then, however, admonisheth her, that prior, like, to going to bed, you gots to take the angel wings off. Which, them wings, is on hinges, sort of like on a door, so you gots to take them off and like wrap them up in a clean sheet for the, like, night. On account of any sort of turns and tosses, and a wing can get broke, for them wings is made of pure sighs of babes, and not nothing else.
The Lord had one last go at blessing this sacred union. For the occasion He summons up a mixed choir of Holy Rollers, Primitive Baptists and Pentecostals, and, them folks, I mean they didst fulminate out their song. Weren’t no refreshments, of course, not a drop or morsel, that ain’t allowed up here, and then Juanita and Alfred, all wrapped up in each other’s arms, they run down a, like, silken ladder to the earth down below.
They strolled MLK Boulevard, then dropped in at the Magnolia Mall; that there was the woman’s bright idea. For you see Alfred, not only was he lacking in britches, but he was in a total buck nekkid state. So she bought him designer jeans from Gap, all checks and polka dots, and a neato new blue sweater from Tommy Hilfilinger, and even a Nike Air max prime running shoe, white as heavenly respiration, costing woo-ey God knows how much!
“As for the rest, little buddy of mine,” she says, “we can find what we need at home.”
Juanita didn’t make up no beds that day; she begged off work. Herschel, he dropped by to stir up a ruckus, but she never even come out. She says from behind the door, “Herschel Hezekiah Jones, I am at present a-bathing my feet, and I’d thank you kindly to go on about your bidness, and not raise no more cain.”
The scoundrel didn’t say a word to that, just made himself scarce. That there was already the power of the angel kicking in.
Juanita, she fixed supper, and she put on a feast for kings, dang, that woman, she had a devilish pride inside her. A fifth of Jack Daniels on the table, Mogen David wine, and then come collards, black-eyed peas, Southern fried chicken, green beans boiled to total limpness, corn bread, mashed taters and rutabagas, Vidalia onions, cheese grits and chitlins, I mean to tell you. Alfred, not no sooner did he partake of them earthly delights than he just plumb conked out. Quick as a flash Juanita unhooked his winglets, packed them away, and bore him off to bed.
So there he lays, that white-as-snow marvel, on her eiderdown quilt, on her crappy much-sinned-upon bed, wafting a celestial glow, and pillars of lunar light, blended in with red, went flicking about the room, swaying on radiant legs. And Juanita didst weep and rejoice, didst sing and pray. Beneficence unheard-of on this battered ole earth hast fallen to thy lot, Juanita; blessed art thou among women!
The two of them had polished off the fifth of Jack. And you could tell they had. No sooner they was asleep then she ups and rolls that belly—lit up red hot and six months gone with Herschel’s seed—she plops that thing on Alfred. No, it ain’t enough for her to have a angel to sleep with, it ain’t enough that nobody laying next to her don’t spit on the wall, don’t snore and drool; all that ain’t enough for this febrile ravening wench. No, she’s got to warm, as well, her gravid guts, all swelled up and burning. And she smothered him, the angel of God, all drunked up she was, joyfully befuddled, she overlaid him like a week-old babe, crushed him under her weight, and demisement come unto Alfred, and from the wings, wrapped up in that sheet, pallid tears didst drip.
Then came the dawn and the trees bowed down to the pastures and palmettos. In the evergreen forests of Georgia each and every pine tree became a parson; each pine bent its knees and knelt.
Once more the woman, hefty, broad in the shoulders stood before the throne of the Messiah, and in her ruddy-red arms lay a young corpse.
That’s when the gentle heart of Jesus could take no more, and He didst most vehemently chastise the woman.
“As it beest on earth, Juanita Blitch, so shall it be with thee.”
“What do you mean, Lord?” replieth the woman in a whisper of a voice. “Was it me made this here heavy body of mine? Was it me brewed Tennessee whiskey? Was it me dreamed up this lonesome, all-on-its-ownsome, stupid womanly soul?”
“I do not wish to have no more truck with you,” exclaimed the Lord Jesus. “You done smothered my angel, you foul slut.”
And in a purulent wind Juanita was blown off back to earth, down to MLK, to the rooms of the Nathan Bedford Forrest and her just deserts. When she got there things was like, whoo, Katy, bar the door. Herschel was kicking up one last drunken spree, before they took him in the army. The contractor Lyman Fesmire, just back from a trip to Bainbridge, he seen Juanita, all spiffy she was and red in the cheeks.
“Oho, you little swellied-up belly,” says he, and more sorts of stuff like that.
Old man Melvin Blackwelder, he heard about that cute swelly-belly, so he comes around wheezing out through his nostrils.
“Being as all that has transpired,” says he, “I cannot enter into holy matrimonial, but, by that there same token, I can sure enough still lay with you.”
Melvin, now, he belonged to be laying in damp mother earth, instead of getting ideas, but then, he, too, must have him a spit into her soul. Then it were as if the whole bunch of them had slipped their chains: dishwasher boys in the kitchen, travelling salesmen, even furriners. A bidnessman, he needs his fun.
And here’s how the parable ends.
Just before giving birth, being as three months of time had done clicked by, Juanita went out behind the hotel, next to the Dempsey dumpsters, raised her hideous abdomen to the silken skies, and blurted out stuff and nonsense.
“Yea, lo, take a gander, Lord; this here is a belly. They pound at it like conk peas falling in a pot. And what’s it all about, no way I’ll ever know. Anyways, again, Lord, it don’t much please me, this here.”
In reply Jesus laved Juanita in His tears; the Savior got down on His knees.
“Forgive me, my precious Juanita, forgive thy sinful God, for what I hast done to thee.”
And Juanita answereth unto Him, saying: “No forgiveness you ain’t getting from me, Lord Jesus Christ. Nope. Not none.”