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It’s Got Flavour: Translating the Odessan Language

“Odessa is a nasty place,” wrote Isaac Babel. “But it seems to me this significant and most charming of cities in the Russian Empire has a lot going for it.”

One of the things Odessa has going for it is a cultural tradition like no other, established by Babel and his boisterous landsmen. Some of these Odessans — like the poet Eduard Bagritsky, the singer Leonid Utyosov, and the prose writers Yury Olesha, Ilya Ilf, and Evgeny Petrov — are still famous today; others have been forgotten. In the 1920s, their writings and popular songs infused Soviet culture with a new “Southern” flavor, a spicy blend of Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish unique to their hometown. For a translator of Odessan texts, the question of whether this blend was a language all its own or a dialect is beside the point. What matters is what one does with it.

Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk, will serve up savory examples of Odessan prose, poems, and songs, along with English versions that aim for the same taste buds.

Boris Dralyuk is the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, the co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (2015), and the editor of 1917: Stories and poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016) and Ten Poems from Russian (Candlestick Press with Pushkin Press, 2018). His book-length translations include Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press, 2014 and 2016), Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales (Columbia University Press, 2018), Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories (with Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson; NYRB Classics, 2019), and Leo Tolstoy’s Lives and Deaths: Essential Stories (Pushkin Press, 2019).

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