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Mikhail Bulgakov
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Which Translation is Best? > Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita

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message 1: by Nate (last edited Jul 30, 2011 09:43AM) (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments I'm reading The Master and Margarita for the second time. Last time, maybe 5 years back, I read the new Penguin Classics edition (Richard Pevear translation) and I enjoyed it but wasn't as bowled over as I expected from this being the favorite novel of many friends. So this time, having totally loved the language in Mirra Ginsberg's fantastic translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's The Dragon: Fifteen Stories, I decided to go with her older 1967 version. Of course, this means going back to a translation based on the censored soviet publication, whereas new translations are based on the uncensored original manuscript. But I have several editions, so I can jump back and forth if I need to catch a deleted scene.

Anyway, there are actually at least six English translations now, and this is a comparison of an early passage, both idiosyncratic and lyrical:

1. Mirra Ginsberg's, 1967:

Oh, yes, we must take note of the first strange thing about that dreadful May evening. Not a soul was to be seen around--not only at the stall, but anywhere along the entire avenue, running parallel to Malaya Bronnaya. At that hour, when it no longer seemed possible to breathe, when the sun was tumbling in a dry haze somewhere behind Sadovoye Circle, leaving Moscow scorched and gasping, nobody came to cool off under the lindens, to sit down on a bench. The avenue was deserted. (Ginsberg, p.3)


"tumbling in a dry haze"? See, it's gorgeous.

2. Richard Pevear's, for Penguin Classics, probably currently the most popular:

Ah, yes, note must be made of the first oddity of this dreadful May evening. There was not a single person to be seen, not only at the stand, but also along the whole walk parallel to Malaya Bronnaya Street. At that hour when it seemed no longer possible to breathe, when the sun, having scorched Moscow, was collapsing in a dry haze somewhere beyond Sadovoye Ring, no one came under the lindens, no one sat on a bench, the walk was empty. (Pevear, p.7)


So here the sun is "collapsing", but it works.

3. Diana Burgin and Katherine O'Connor's. 1995, one of the first translations of the complete text:

And here it is worth noting the first strange thing about that terrible May evening. Absolutely no one was to be seen, not only by the refreshment stand, but all along the tree-lined path that ran parallel to Malaya Bronnaya Street. At a time when no one, it seemed, had the strength to breathe, when the sun had left Moscow scorched to a crisp and was collapsing in a dry haze somewhere behind Sadovoye Ring, no one came to walk out under the lindens, or to sit down on a bench, and the path was deserted. (Burgin and O'Connor, p.3)


Hmmm, they've lost Bulgakov's singular ahem-ing at the start, those little unneccessary bits that makes it feel like he's yanking on my arm and confiding the details as they occur to him. But otherwise similarly solid.

4. And Michael Karpelson's, also newer:

By the way, it is worthwhile to note the first strange thing about that horrible May afternoon. Not a single human was to be found in the vicinity of the booth or, indeed, in the entire alley that ran parallel to Malaya Bronnaya Street. At an hour when it seemed almost impossible to breath, when the sun, scorching Moscow, was plunging into the dry haze somewhere beyond Sadovoye Ring Road, no one sought shelter in the shade of the lindens, no one sat down on the benches. Empty was the alley. (Karpelson, p.3)


"Empty was the alley"? Really? And "By the way"? And now the sun is neither plunging nor collapsing. Hmmm. Well.

5. And then there's Michael Glenny. Glenny, somehow, got the nod from the Translator's Association in that 50 translations list, for his old 1967 version. Oh Michael Glenny:

The was an oddness about that terrible day in May that is worth recording: not only at the kiosk but along the whole avenue running parallel to Malaya Bronnaya Street there was not a person to be seen. It was the hour of the day when people feel too exhausted to breath, when Moscow glows in a dry haze as the sun disappears behind the Sadovaya Boulevard--yet no one had come out for a walk under the limes, no one was sitting on a bench, the avenue was empty. (Glenny, p.3)


Limes? Clumsy sentence structure? And hilariously, the drink stand sign, which both the others translate as "Beer and Soft Drinks", says "Beer and Minerals" in Glenny's version. Let's not read the Glenny.

AND THEN, when they try to order drinks, Ginsberg says they asked for "Narzan", which I found on a mineral water review website:

Most famous water in Russia. It comes from Northern Caucasus mountain spa town Kislovodsk. Very pleasent place. The word (non russian) Narzan means 'sour water' as well as the russia name Kislovodsk. You can go there, it is a peaceful town, and see how 'Narzan' pours out of the earth and drink it, free of charge.

Interesting. And highly specific. (My girlfriend tells me this can be found in Brighton Beach and is pretty gross). Burgin/O'Connor uses "Narzan water". But Pevear just reduces it to "seltzer" and Glenny, despite having some idea that minerals were involved (from his weird translation of the sign), somehow gets "lemonade". Let's not read the Glenny.

6. Hugh Alpin's for Oneworld Classics. This is from 2007, the newest of all. But I've never seen this edition, and I can't seem to find much word on the quality. Anyone?

It seems like this is a matter of much debate. As I said, Glenny and Ginsberg both worked from a censored 1967 Russian version, while the others used the "complete", post-communist manuscript. Poking through the editions, certain amazon user reviews denounce Glenny in favor of Ginsberg, or Ginsberg in favor or Burgin/O'Connor. One detailed list, from someone who has read four different translations, rates Ginsberg's the most readable and best at getting the nuances of the tone and humor, which seems important, then Burgin/O'Connor. She also notes that Pevear, though maybe most technically accurate doesn't get the humor at all -- which would explain why I didn't find this all that funny upon first reading. Of course, she also hates Glenny. Poor Glenny. Though still, let's not read the Glenny.


message 2: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 140 comments Mod
Thank you Nate! This is really great info. I like Ginsbergs most, based on this sample, but some of the others also seem competent.


message 3: by Nate (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments Yeah, I get the impression that you'd be fine with any of the first three, at least, but subtleties do shade the experience, too. What this really makes me think, actually, is that in the cases of so many books that only have one translation, you're really at the mercy of the translators judgement and natural tendencies. Which is obvious, but I hadn't really seen it illustrated so clearly until I started typing these out. More passages here soon!


message 4: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 140 comments Mod
Do you know what/how much was excised in the censored versions?

I also think that it's really important to get the humor of a writer, so I'm probably not gonna read the Pevear translation.


message 5: by Nate (last edited Jul 31, 2011 01:41PM) (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments Well, that's just one reader's impression, but I am definitely liking Ginsberg's version more all around. I wonder if there's a list of the omissions somewhere as I'd like to jump to them in Burgin/O'Connor when needed, too.

In any event, here's another set of comparisons: culminating in a particularly ridiculous Glennification.

1. Ginsberg: "At this moment the fiery air before him condensed and spun itself into a transparent citizen of the strangest appearance. A jockey's cap on a tiny head, a checked jacket, much too short for him and also woven of air... The citizen was seven feet tall, but narrow in the shoulders, incredibly lean, and, if you please, with a jeering expression on his physiognomy."

2. Pevear: "And here the sweltering air thickened before him, and a transparent citizen of the strangest appearance wove himself out of it. A jockey's cap on his little head, a short checkered jacket also made of air... A citizen seven feet tall, but narrow in the shoulders, unbelievably thin, and, kindly note, with a jeering physiognomy."

3. Burgin/O'Connor: "And then the hot air congealed in front of him, and out of it materialized a transparent man of most bizarre appearance. A small head with a jockey cap, a skimpy little checkered jacket that was also made out of air. The man was seven feet tall, but very narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin, and his face, please note, had a jeering look about it."

4. Karpelson: "And then the muggy air thickened before him and wove itself into a transparent gentleman of the strangest appearance. A tiny jockey cap on his tiny head, a short, checkered, equally ethereal jacket on his shoulders... The citizen was seven feet tall but narrow-chested and incredibly thin. And with an insolent mug, may I add."

Notice how Karpelson repeats "tiny" unnecessarily. I can be sure it's unnecessary because Burgin and O'Connor specifically state that they avoided synonyms in favor of repeating any word that Bulgakov did. And they didn't have to repeat there. Making the repetition more glaring, Karpelson tries to avoid a repetition of "shoulders" one sentence later by subbing in "chest", not even a synonym, and only because he added "shoulders" in earlier for no reason. This is iffy. BUT THEN:

5. Glenny: "Just then the sultry air coagulated and wove itself into the shape of a man--a transparent man of the strangest appearance. On his head was a jockey-cap and he wore a short check bum-freezer made of air. The man was seven feet tall but narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin and with a face made for derision."

My italics. Is "bum-freezer" some kind of British slang for a short coat? If so, why should it be used here? To be fair, this is the version of Glenny on Amazon's "look inside the book" whereas my hardcopy says "short check jacket". Do I have some kind of later-corrected Glenny, perhaps? This is the only difference I've seen yet from the online text so far, though.

I also like how differently everyone here tried to handle Bulgakov's last interjection. It must be some kind of Russian colloquialism without direct translation, as it's the most variation I've seen yet.


message 6: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 140 comments Mod
Thanks Nate! My bum froze over upon reading that.


message 7: by Nate (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments Here's a bit from one of the first Pontius Pilate section, which has a bit of a different tone:

1. Ginsberg: "Instead of all of this, an opaque purple wave swam before him; strange water weeds swayed within it, floating away somewhere, and carrying Pilate with them. He was now swept away, burning and suffocating with the most terrible of wraths, the wrath of impotence."

2. Pevear: "In place of it all there floated some purple mass, water weeds swayed in it and began moving off somewhere, and Pilate himself began moving with them. He was carried along now, smothered and burned, by the most terrible wrath -- the wrath of impotence."

3. Burgin/O'Connor: "In place of all this floated a crimson sediment in which seaweed began to sway and move somewhere, and Pilate moved along with it. Now he was engulfed by the most terrible rage of all, rage that choked and burned him--the rage of powerlessness."

4. Karpelson: "A marroon haze swam around him, a awaying mass of seaweed hat floated somewhere and carried Pilate with it. Suffocated and scalded, he was borne aloft by the worst kind of rage -- impotent rage."

5. Glenny: "In their place came a kind of dense purple mass, in which seaweed waved and swayed, and Pilate himself was swaying with it. He was seized, suffocating and burning, by the most terrible rage of all rage--the rage of impotence.

Raging rage of rages!


message 8: by Nate (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments And here's a bit from a comedic passage, in which an entire government office finds itself unable to stop singing parts of a choral work (I suspect it is an arrangement of 19th-century poet Dimitri Pavlovich Davydov's “Thoughts of a fugitive on Baikal.”). Anyway, I find Ginsberg's ways of wording the musical intrusions hilarious:

1. Ginsberg: "It was obvious that the secretary himself would give anything to stop singing, but he could not stop and, together with the chorus, he brought to the attention of passers-by in the lane the information that "in the woods, he was untouched by ravening beasts, unharmed by the soldiers' bullets." "

It is good.

2. Pevear: "There was every indication that the secretary would himself have given anything to stop singing, but stop singing he could not and, and together with the choir he brought to the hearing of passers-by in the lane the news that 'in the wilderness he was not touched by voracious beast, nor brought down by bullet of shooters.' "

Also okay, but the song is really oddly worded here. No musicality, and it sort of jams up the finish. Shooters?

3. Burgin/O'Connor: "It was obvious that the secretary would have given anything in the world to be able to stop singing, but he could not. And together with the chorus, his voice rang out with the news, heard by pedestrians out on the street, that in the wilds he was untouched by voracious beasts and unscathed by marksmen's bullets!"

4. Karpelson: "The secretary gave every indication that he would give anything to stop singing, except that he could not, and, together with the chorus, he informed the pedestrians outside that he was "untouched in the woods by ravenous beast, unscathed by the soldier's bullet!" "

Here, in these last two, it appears that the secretary is singing of himself. But I find the totally ambiguous subject of Ginsberg's wording far more amusing (and probably more accurate to Bulgakov's wit).

5. Glenny: "It was obvious that the secretary would have given anything to stop singing but could not."

Catastrophically, Glenny actually opted to leave out the funny part.

...

Incidentally, I think Ginsberg may actually take some liberties to preserve tone and feel, maybe at the expense of literal accuracy at times. Here, for instance, her translation is smooth and economical, but unlike the others:


1. Ginsberg: "The moon flashed for the last time, already splintered into bits, and went dark."

2. Pevear: "Once more, and for the last time, the moon flashed, but now breaking to pieces, and then it became dark."

3. Burgin/O'Connor: "Once again, and for the last time, the moon flashed, but it was already breaking into splinters, and then it became dark."

4. Karpelson: "Once more and for the last time, the moon flashed above and broke into pieces, and then everything went black."

5. Glenny: "Once more and for the last time the moon flashed before his eyes, but it split into fragments and then went black."


message 9: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 140 comments Mod
hmm... it's hard to know without knowing Russian whether the Ginsberg "smoothing over" is preserving the tone and feel, or just the opposite.

The others all have a different tone and feel... they are clunkier, lumpier, and somehow I suspect that Bulgakov might have intended this sentence to be bumpy.

Just because it's smooth doesn't mean it preserves the tone and feel more... because the original tone and feel could be un-smooth on purpose.

Then again, perhaps it was meant to be smooth and the other translators all messed up and made it bumpy?

Very interesting nonetheless. Thanks for sharing.


message 10: by Nate (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments Yeah, it's hard to say. I included that one precisely because, the over-smoothing was potentially iffy, much as I tend to prefer Ginsberg. Incidentally, I should be able check out the accuracy at some point, as my girlfriend's first language is Russian.


message 11: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy (jimmylorunning) | 140 comments Mod
How convenient!


message 12: by Nate (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments After reading all of Ginsberg's translation, and then going back to the Burgin/O'Connor for their translation notes and to seek out bits omitted from the older editions by censors and different interpretations of which drafts were final (Bulgakov died before he finished re-editing the final text) -- after all this, I'm not entirely convinced that the ideal form of this book exists in English. I certainly think Ginsberg is funnier and more poetic in her descriptions, but some of the omissions and differences will haunt me:

1. Censorship. Of course, Ginsberg was working from the censored 1967 Russian text. This means, that though the Terror of the 30s is certainly alluded to, the more overt and gut-wrenching references have been clipped out. At least one of these is essential to understanding how a significant character comes to be so thoroughly broken.

2. Disagreement. Burgin/O'Connor's translation is a combination of two major versions, and other bits among Bulgakov's incomplete drafts seem to exist. For instance, the in the original publication, Bulgakov's wife completed a phrase that Bulgakov allowed to trail off -- over-explaining the most haunting paragraph of the novel, which Bulgakov re-wrote for the last time in the immediate shadow of his death (about 2 days before). On the other hand, the Burgin/O'Connor version restores a couple omitted passages that they felt belonged, though Bulgakov had crossed them out. It's unclear that this is in any way more correct.

3. Meta-textualness. It seems, with the book-within-the-book, and weird switches in narratorial voice, that The Master & Margarita may actually be an early post-modern work. Which is quite exciting. However, it also hinges on subtle points that do not come through the same in all versions, possibly because various editors were not equally aware of this aspect. Ginsberg, as I've noted, preserves all the chatty ahem-ing of the narrator, which I think is a key part of this aspect, but her version of the text also leaves out a couple lines that seems crucial in delineating the different texts that compose the story. The line would not have been noted by the censors, so it seems that it was either removed as a confusing duplication of a line in the next chapter (it almost is) or it was lost in the confusion of drafts until later. I only have Ginsberg, Glenny, and Burgin/O'Connor physically on hand, but I think I really need to cross-check these discrepant but significant details with Pevear's version. Even if his language is inferior, I remember his scholarship being pretty sound, so it'll be interesting to see how he deals with these things.


message 13: by Mark (last edited Jul 16, 2021 03:55AM) (new)

Mark Davess (markdavess) | 5 comments .


I remember, when I hadn't been long in Russia, in about '97 (I'm still here), and at the time reading the Master & Margarita very slowly and thoroughly and therefore remembering the first few pages very well (and the section posted at the head of this post is from the first page), when killing time waiting for a bus during a visit to the UK, I looked at the first page of 2 different translations in a bookshop. I guess the lesson I took from it was a kind of "what do you actually 'see'?" when reading a text and to ask the question of how closely, kind of 'neatly', maybe 'sharply' and also perhaps with a similar chain of one image or concept to the next, i.e. the progression of it, the translation conveys the same.

I guess that sounds obvious, but I was struck by how one version clearly came closer than the other. I don't know which translations they were. Also I was struck by how there is a fact of how a foreign language will naturally convey the feel of the text in a different way to perhaps how the target language of the translation would do so itself in 'normal use', and how nevertheless it seems nice, valid, maybe even necessary, to try and bring some of that over, despite temptations to use what might sound a little more usual and smooth in the target language. This book particularly has a real 'feel' that is very specific. What the writer is evoking seems to be paramount to me, and a little 'foreignness' in feel, and maybe even 'clumsiness' in style and structure might not be a bad thing if the translator maintains that.

Some translators seem to go very much for the most native-sounding result they can find, or perhaps the most 'economical', as well as nicely fluid, and this relates to the kind of sentence structure they create as well as words and phrases chosen, and then something of that vibe of the original disappears, which I remember I felt strongly with both of those translations, and also see to varying degrees in all of these translations posted at the beginning of this thread.

And, as to my first point, some translators seem to have not done enough of getting 'beyond' or 'deeper than' the words to what they are pointing at in meaning, and then little things are missed out, some small images or juxtapositions of ideas are missed or trimmed or some things are put in a slightly different light. Of course there's also the danger of getting 'beyond the words' into just the meaning and mood and changing things on the smaller scale to evoke what the translator feels in the bigger context. But then this fails too. At the level of discrete words as well as on larger and larger scales all of it needs to be kept 'tight' as best as possible.

This reminds me, in fact, of a comparison Milan Kundera did (in 'Testaments Betrayed') of translations of 'The Castle' by Franz Kafka and the need to stay very faithful to the original author's language (I'll have to dig that out and read it again; I did in fact make myself translate the text he chose first to see how then I compared with the translations he critiqued).

I have a copy of 'Master & Margarita' in Russian. It's a Soviet, but a 1989 edition and not the censored version, and I've read about the differences and double checked, plus I read it earlier in another, 90s edition, and can see no differences, and anyway I also doubt this actual passage was changed in any way by the censor. Jimmy asked about the censorship: there is information in Russian about what was censored. The first paragraph was altered, chapter 15 was omitted, and a bunch of other stuff, and some other language was altered, like 'lover' was changed to 'beloved' somewhere, though I don't remember all the details but can look more closely if someone asks.

Anyway, I would probably do little things a little differently to any translator here, but maybe not with dissimilar results to one or two of them, and also I can probably find one small part at least in any one of the texts that I feel has been done a little more successfully than the same focused point in the other translations, but to me, having just sat and read the relevant passage in the original Russian text a few times and then having compared it with all of these translations, I would probably choose the Pevear one as the most precise and close to the original 'sharpness' of the orginal, though the Burgin and O'Connor one is the most 'complete' in making things clear to non Russians (exactly what the 'alleya' is, for example, which you can actually see here - http://goo.gl/maps/42k9f , though Pevear does well here to use the word 'walk' to avoid the confusion 'avenue' might cause, not necessarily meaning a pedestrian avenue)(and I've always said that a joint translation by speakers of each language, which I presume this is, is always going to be best). Also I'd respond to the point that they've taken out the 'Oh, yes' or 'Ah, yes' by saying that those two things overdo the simple 'Da,...' that that sentence starts with, and which kind of relates to what was before this paragraph, and make it lighter than it really is and not really having the same function, which is very hard to put your finger on, let alone translate easily, but isn't as blunt as 'ah', etc. I'm concerned that the 'ahems' and stuff you mention might overdo and distort the feel of the original, making it seem a little more clownish, and not so matter of fact and distanced as it often is.

The Karpelson one I suppose is the least successful. It's kind of near to the original, maybe too much at times, though then it adds some little nuances, kind of unnecessarly explanation, to stuff as well (like 'sought out shelter', which isn't in the original, though it's fair that that's what the 'under' means in the original). The Ginsberg one falls into this trap a little too, I would say, though none of this is serious, and deciding which text is better is not at all easy here.

And in defence of Glenny, his version is tightly close to the original in the first part at least, and that may be 'clumsy sentence structures' to some people and to some extent, but close translation is better than the sin of a translator attempting some of his/her own stylising to make it sound smoother in the target language. He also has a reasonable idea to translate what others turn into 'scorch', which the original doesn't really say and evokes a strong, glowing heat, while also not overdoing the verb there that everyone else made into 'tumble' or 'collapse' (I maybe would use the verb 'slump' for the Russian verb here, as the fatigue of the day is a theme here, though 'collapse' is pretty good). Oh yeah, and the sign above the drinks booth (he says 'kiosk' too, maybe that's better, especially as that exists in Russian too, though it's not used in this text; 'stand' and 'stall' give a different idea, but this is very trivial) says, literally translated, 'Beer & Waters', so maybe his choice isn't bad, though I probably would choose 'soft drinks', though some research into what was likely to have been sold at such a booth would be needed for a precise translation. And the trees are lime trees, which in English are often just called 'limes', the context making it clear they're trees, though maybe 'lindens' is fair enough, though I know that as the German name; I'd say 'lime trees', I guess.

In the end it's very hard to choose here. Probably every translator here has a sentence or clause or choice of word that they've done noticeably better than anyone else. The Glenny translation is actually pretty good as doing the job a translator is supposed to (not adding his own style, or little elaborations on meaning that are not in the original), at least in the first half of it. Pevear's is best in tightly sticking to the original in the last sentence, not adding those elaborations, but keeping it tight and cold and simple, and maybe in fact in doing that in most of the text. Other people add little stuff, like 'gasping', 'to cool off', 'sought shelter in the shade of', 'to a crisp', 'to walk out', 'must' (which only Glenny and Burgin/O'Connor don't do (the original doesn't quite say that either), etc., etc...; even 'deserted' adds a little that's absent in the original. These things are implied by other words in the original, or almost always at least, but the writer didn't go that far, to say them, and why should the translator do that unless it's really necessary to avoid misunderstanding? The translator is not the author. The Pevear one is terse and sharp and honed to the original, close in meaning, similar in structure and style, but the others aren't so far off, the reasons for their choices seem reasonable. A big thing to say aswell is that I'm just looking at this one paragraph. I can't judge here about how Pevear conveys the humour. There's little humour in this paragraph really. It's more a coldly sharp evocation of mystery. I would have to worry that a translator might try to elaborate with little additions like I've listed here on the humour too, and that's not a translator's job, it's as Kundera puts it 'testaments betrayed'. I can't judge on this, I haven't seen enough. But this though leaves me thinking that the Burgin and O'Connor one might be better, but maybe not. You'd need to read the full text of every translation, paragraph by paragraph, constantly referring to the original, and debating with a whole bunch of people, preferably all highly-literate and bilingual Russian and English speakers.

I'll have to take time to compare the other passages shown here by Nate in messages 3, 5, 8 and 12. If someone seems interested at least, I'll have a go, though probably briefer than here. Though it's going to be harder for me to track those passages down in the book. If someone wants to ask about something specifically, then telling me the chapter and around how many pages into that chapter will speed things along.

For now, here's my attempt at translating this paragraph, deliberately keeping it quite different to the ones shown above, but trying to stay 'tight' and 'clean' to the original; maybe it will give you some more insight into issues with the other translations (not saying mine's better, plus reading all of theirs helped me enormously, just for comparative purposes):

"And here the first peculiarity of this terrible May evening should be noted. Not only next to the booth, but also on the whole avenue running parallel to Malaya Bronnaya, not a single person was to be found. At that hour, when it seemed that there was just no longer the strength to breathe; when the sun, having baked Moscow, was slumping down in a dry haze somewhere beyond the Garden Ring: nobody came under the lindens, nobody sat down on a bench, the avenue was empty."

Here's the actual orginial passage, for anyone who wants and is able to compare:

"Да, следует отметить первую странность этого страшного майского вечера. Не только у будочки, но и во всей аллее, параллельной Малой Бронной улице, не оказалось ни одного человека. В тот час, когда уж, кажется, и сил не было дышать, когда солнце, раскалив Москву, в сухом тумане валилось куда-то за Садовое кольцо, – никто не пришел под липы, никто не сел на скамейку, пуста была аллея."


message 14: by D. T. (new)

D. T. | 2 comments I have the Ginsburg translation, and even though the prose is delightful and wonderfully fluid, the completist in me finds the discovery that this is a translation from the censored version annoying. I'll keep on with this one, but I'd also like to know what I'm missing out on. Is there a list of the omissions (at least the major ones) to which I can refer so that I can supplement the Ginsburg with an unexpurgated version?


message 15: by Mark (new)

Mark Davess (markdavess) | 5 comments Ginsburg's translation was apparently updated in 1994, so if you don't have too old a version of that, it might not be the censored version. The first uncensored version was published in 1973, and a further updated version, based on various later manuscripts, was published in 1989 (probably the one I've got, which is from that year) so it would be pretty bad if modern editions were still based on the 1966 censored version, which means I doubt they are. Probably even they are generally the 1989 version and not the 1973 one. Some translations certainly are. I have no info about how to check for that difference, but reading Russian online sources about it the key way to check that it's not the 1966, censored version, seems to be to look at Chapter 14. If it's called 'The Dream of Nikanor Ivanovich' or 'Nikanor Ivanovich's Dream' and not just 'Nikanor Ivanovich' (or completely absent, meaning it would be the title for chapter 16, 'Kazan') and is not too short (the Russian, uncencored text of that chapter I have is about 11 pages long) then you don't have a censored text. Apparently also the first paragraph was edited with, for example, the first sentence 'At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds', whereas the uncensored version is lengthier, saying (my quick translation, so something like) 'One spring, at the hour of an unprecendentedly hot sunset, in Moscow, two citizens appeared at the Patriarch's Ponds.' Lots of other stuff was edited out or altered, but is harder to seek out and compare in the book.


message 16: by Rob (last edited Apr 04, 2014 02:20PM) (new)

Rob Mcgee | 5 comments @Mark (msg 13): "And the trees are lime trees, which in English are often just called 'limes', the context making it clear they're trees, though maybe 'lindens' is fair enough, though I know that as the German name; I'd say 'lime trees', I guess."

Nowadays, the English word 'lime (tree)' NEARLY ALWAYS refers ONLY to the tree with fruits resembling dark green lemons (Russian "laim", botanical genus Citrus)!

It's true that 'lime' was once a common and correct name for the totally unrelated 'linden' (Russian "lipa" -- genus Tilia, ), but this usage is old-fashioned. So Glenny's translation definitely loses a point for the dated usage.

Glenny's use of "lemonade" is a somewhat similar confusion -- in Russian, limonad can refer generically to fizzy carbonated soft drinks, but usually ones that are sweetened, not to unflavored sparkling mineral water or seltzer. Also, the word limonad does not actually appear in the Russian text -- so minus another point for Glenny.

Edited to add: Apparently, the use of "lime" in reference to linden trees is still current in the UK, but not in US English.


message 17: by Rob (last edited Apr 04, 2014 02:31PM) (new)

Rob Mcgee | 5 comments On the other hand, the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (despite its many merits) deserves to lose about a billion points for the hilarious misjudgment in translating the title of Chapter 14 (note to Mark: "Nikanor Ivanovich's Dream", whatever the exact wording, is the title of Chapter 15!).

ANYWAY, Chapter 14 describes how a man is saved from an attack by two vampires when a rooster crows just in the nick of time. The Russian chapter title is Slava petuxu! -- and being a US English speaker, I would render this as "Thank goodness for roosters!", which conveys pretty well the idiomatic feel of the Russian.

One could also make a strong argument in favor of "Glory be unto the rooster!", since Bulgakov is playing on the phrase Slava Bogu!, literally "Glory be to God!" (But note that this churchy-sounding phrase is often used by completely secular Russians to express relief and gladness that things have turned out okay -- though not, perhaps, by militant atheists like Berlioz! Which is why I think that the non-religious construction "thank goodness for..." works quite well here as a translation of the Slava... part.)

Yet, unbelievably, the P/V translation renders Slava petuxu! as Glory to the Cock!!!!!!!!!!! :-O

Of course, I can understand that Larissa Volokhonsky is not a native English speaker and may have been innocently unaware that "Glory to the Cock" sounds like a porn title, or possibly the name of a gay bar in NYC, London, or Amsterdam.

But what the freakin' hell was Richard Pevear's excuse? Any native speaker of contemporary English, including 80-year-old Catholic nuns who've never actually seen an actual penis, knows how unintentionally funny "glory to the cock" sounds in any and all regional dialects.

I can only diagnose in Richard Pevear a really severe case of Hyper-Conservative Linguistic Prescriptivism ("Ahem, when the Bible talks about 'cocks', the reference is to males of the domesticated species Gallus gallus," etc.) -- which is not something that a translator should strive for.


message 18: by Rob (new)

Rob Mcgee | 5 comments Also, by the way, for other students of Russian: here's the complete Russian text of Мастер и Маргарита free and online, to save you the expense of buying a paper book. (I'm not sure whether this particular version of the text is optimized for Kindles and whatnot, but I'm sure you can find other electronic versions somewhere.)


message 19: by D. T. (new)

D. T. | 2 comments Well, my Ginsburg translation (which I think I picked up yeeeaaars ago from a remainders table at a bookstore) is copyright renewed 1995. The cover is green with an illustration of a black cat with a forked snake tongue. (Chapter 14 is titled 'Hail to the Rooster'.) Chapter 15 is just simply titled 'Nikanor Ivanovich' and runs about three pages long. From that I assume that it's the censored version.

I suppose my question then becomes should I keep reading and supplement that chapter 15 from somewhere else (if that's the most heavily edited bit)? If the differences between the versions lie mainly in the trimming of a line, a paragraph here or there—aside from the obviously gutted chapter on Nikanor Ivanovich—am I missing that much? Am I getting most of it despite missing a nuance here and there, or should I put this one aside and seek out another translation? As I stated before, I rather enjoy Ginsburg's translation because it's so lively and flows so well, but if I'm missing too much, then I'll feel it's not worth my time.


message 20: by Mark (last edited Apr 06, 2014 12:58PM) (new)

Mark Davess (markdavess) | 5 comments Yeah, sorry, my mistake. I meant chapter 15, not 14. If it's called just 'Nikanor Ivanovich' and is only 3 pages long, as in D.T.'s copy, then it's a censored version for sure. As I said, in the original, uncensored version it's 'The Dream of Nikanor Ivanovich' and a bit over 11 pages in my copy.

Apparently in the censored version 12% of the text is missing. That includes a range of things from occasional changed words, through elision of sentences or paragraphs, to omissions of whole passages. I'd say that's quite a lot. I looked at a few Russian webpages about this, and none could give a conclusive list of what's missing, let alone link to what was missed to supplement reading, and especially in English, but they all listed a good few things. And seeing as a lot of it is parts of sentences, paragraphs and passages (as far as I understand), it would probably be a massive headache. What translation you choose is up to you, maybe you can find the updated Ginsburg one that appararently exists, but I myself would get an uncensored, modern translation and not bother with a censored one.

As I say, there was even an uncensored one published in 1973, but in 1989 a more 'definitive version', using Bulgakov's later documents, was created. I've little doubt the later translations are this version, but I don't know how to check. Though the differences are probably not so significant. Checking chapter 15 seems to be the key to whether it's censored or not, though.

The 'lindens'/'lime tree' point is fair enough. I wasn't stating that disputing that translation was wrong, just that it was arguably acceptable, especially in context. It was an exceedingly minor point among much else which I said just to try and show the various ways a translator might be looking at things and might not deserve so much criticism. In retrospect I'd see 'limes' as better than 'lime trees', because that makes it clearer that it's a name of a tree, not a fruit, and then would concede that 'Lindens' is better for total clarity, and for the international context. I'm British, I speak German too, so to me 'Lindens' is German for 'Limes' (the trees, not the fruit) and the context here makes it clear it can't be 'under the fruits' and also anyone reading this should be unlikely to imagine dark green fruits growing from trees in the centre of Moscow. But, of course, that's easy for me to say. 'Lindens' is best I guess.

Basically I was just saying Glenny arguably doesn't deserve such an unequivocal slagging off.

The 'lemonade' point is fair enough too. To me 'Narzan' is 'Narzan'. I might just leave it and let people Google it or ask a Russian or be mystified by it but figure out from context that it's some drink and find out somehow years later. In the end these squabbles about names of little things seem the most trivial part of it. Maybe 'mineral water'. I guess 'seltzer' is maybe best, or some clearly international equivalent. But apparently 'limonad' was used in the past for any fizzy drink, not just sweet ones (I'm sure it's pretty specific these days), but then of course he's messing it up by translating it into something that's uneqivocally sweet in English. Probably he didn't know what Narzan was and found out it listed as a 'limonad' in a Russian monolingual dictionary of the Soviet era, or something. By the way, what happened to Narzan? You used to get given it all the time in Moscow restaurants. Probably a decade since I last saw it.

Anyway, I'm not trying to promote the Glenny translation, or to say there isn't cause for criticism, just trying to add some objectivity (plus I don't know when and in what context he translated it, information to make sense of foreign language and life is so much more available now). He's criticised for translating the sign as 'Beer and Minerals' (which I would take to mean 'Beer and Mineral Waters') and in Russian it does actually say 'Beer & Waters'. Not such a terrible thing, though I'd do it differently.

'Glory to the Cock' - too right, dodgy. Though there is some room for the argument that old-fashioned English also has words used commonly that sound 'saucy' now and which readers should be above sniggering about or being shocked by. Plus we do know that a 'cock' can be a cockerel or rooster, i.e. a male chicken, just like 'Dick can be someone's quite acceptable name and 'pussy' can be an affective name for a cat. But yeah, best trying to dodge those things, and the sense also is definitely more 'Thank Goodness for ....'. I don't disagree. I might find another variant, but I'd spend a while thinking about it and certainly wouldn't be happy with 'Glory to the Cock'.

Whatever, my comments were about the one paragraph we were given translations of at the top of this thread. That gave me more to go on than one chapter title, but admittedly less than comparing all full translations with the original text, which, of course, I'm highly unlikely to ever do. Plus, really, what I was talking about was something that felt deeper and more significant to me than the simple choice of names for everyday objects. More about how translators can slip into addign elaboration and mood that might be more their own interpretation than a good loyalty to the original text (and, no, I in no way am suggesting something so crude as literal translations of idioms or necessarily anything).


message 21: by Igor (new)

Igor Zlatkin | 2 comments As far as Slava petuxu! as Glory to the Cock!
Sometime a cigar is just a cigar. Petux in Russian is sometime used as a derogative for a homosexual.
But, I think, it is safe to assume that Bulgakov never implied it. So, Glory to the Cock! sounds just right.


message 22: by Rob (new)

Rob Mcgee | 5 comments Igor wrote: "Petux in Russian is sometime used as a derogative for a homosexual.
But, I think, it is safe to assume that Bulgakov never implied it. So, Glory to the Cock! sounds just right. "


Well -- it doesn't sound "just right" to native English speakers like me; it creates the appearance of a double entendre where Bulgakov didn't intend one.

So, going back to Mark's point that readers "should be above sniggering" at an expression like Glory to the Cock -- yes, they shouldn't be childish about unfortunate translations like that, but good translators should also be careful not to accidentally put in a "double entendre" where the author didn't mean to put one.

For Igor, here's an example: "The homosexual man was wearing a light-blue shirt." When translating that sentence to Russian, it's probably a good idea to use some expression like лазурная рубашка (lazurnaja rubashka) or светло-синяя рубашка (svetlo-sinjaja rubashka), because if you said that the homosexual man had a голубая (golubaja) shirt, it would create a pun THAT DOESN'T EXIST IN THE ORIGINAL ENGLISH.

So, translating Слава петуху! (Slava petuxu!) as "Glory to the Cock!" creates the same kind of rude pun that doesn't exist in the original -- in English slang, it sounds like Слава х*ю!.


message 23: by Igor (new)

Igor Zlatkin | 2 comments But that's exactly my point. Слава петуху! does carry the "double entendre" (which, IMHO, the writer did not intend to use, but it is still there). So should or shouldn't it carry into English? I think that a translator should stick as much as he/she can to the literal meaning of the text, while trying not to sacrifice the style.


message 24: by Robert (new)

Robert Wechsler | 9 comments Let me toss in a different opinion. Literary translators do not translate words or expressions; they translate poems, stories, and novels. With humor, it is often impossible to translate each expression, so one makes up for losses one place by adding humor another place, that is appropriate to the author and the work. I don't know if that's what happened here, but my point is that it is wrong to assume, from looking at one expression, that the translators did what they did by accident. It would greatly surprise me if they did not mean to do what they did, and for a good reason.


message 25: by [deleted user] (new)

Robert's point is well made, although I would alter the tone at one point: "making up for losses by adding humour in another place" is what is known as compensation, and the nature of compensation means a second-hand text, a "commentary", almost, on the source text being translation. All translators are different, but my way of working is to look towards the writing of the "climates and atmospheres" of the text into an English-language translation, and to allow the particular expressions of humour or whatever else emerge as an effect of that climate.

Perhaps this note will be of interest to some.


message 26: by Rob (new)

Rob Mcgee | 5 comments
With humor, it is often impossible to translate each expression, so one makes up for losses one place by adding humor another place, that is appropriate to the author and the work.


Sometimes, yes -- on the other hand, the Russian version of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Nina Demurova is utterly astonishing in how ingeniously it renders Carroll's "untranslatable" puns into Russian, rather than simply omitting the puns. (The Demurova edition is aimed at college-educated adults, and also translates most of Martin Gardner's scholarly commentary from The Annotated Alice -- so while in some ways Demurova's translation is the gold-star standard, there are other versions that are more accessible to Russian kids.)

But the point about humor brings up what, to me, really is the most important criterion in comparing translations of Master and Margarita -- how funny-sounding are all the quips by Behemoth and other characters? Again, though I haven't read all the translations, I believe Glenny has a very good ear for drollery (you get the sense that he was familiar with writers like Wilde and Wodehouse).


message 27: by Nate (new)

Nate (rockhyrax) | 17 comments Just to duck back into this conversation again after years away -- the flat ear for humor is my main complaint with Richard Pevear's otherwise seemingly precise translation. It's a key loss for the book, and explains why I liked it much more on my second (Ginsberg) reading. As for Glenny, I'm willing to concede that he probably had his local British audience foremost in mind, so his slang decisions sound far weirder to my (American) ear than they necessarily should. I even understand what a "bum freezer" is now, these several years further on. At the time that I wrote the first post here, I had no idea, but now I'd grant him a bit more leeway.


message 28: by Thomas (new)

Thomas Nerton | 1 comments I read the P/V translation. Nothing wrong with Glory To The Cock! That's just a dirty mind that cares. I extinquished (?) that thought right away.


message 29: by Giles (new)

Giles Stogdon | 1 comments Mark wrote: ".


I remember, when I hadn't been long in Russia, in about '97 (I'm still here), and at the time reading the Master & Margarita very slowly and thoroughly and therefore remembering the first few p..."

Cor, I read this novel when I was handed the Glenny translation in 1984 by my Belgian stepmother (she also gave me a copy of the New Testament in French!). Thank goodness someone is willing to stand up for Glenny's translation. I can see now from this thread that there are some concerns about the veracity of his translation but I found it an incredibly funny, intellectually stimulating, and exciting book, one of those life changing reading experiences, that for me included Camus' Etranger, and maybe one or two other novels.

I wish I could read Russian and enjoy this in its original version.

And oh yes, Beer and minerals (rather than "soft drinks" -very 1970s) works for me, as do limes rather than the German/American lindens.


message 30: by Vadim (new)

Vadim Fstein | 3 comments so previously, i was under the impression that Karpelson's translation is the best. i went back to the russian text for the parts you were questioning, and verified that indeed, his translation is the best one. (at least for me). yes, 'by the way' is the right translation there. yes, the sun 'plunged'. :) just re-affirmed what i already thought. great examples though.
karpelson for the win.


message 31: by Vadim (last edited Feb 22, 2019 10:31AM) (new)

Vadim Fstein | 3 comments ..also he repeats 'tiny' because in russian there's the dimunitive suffixes. so the hat is actually a 'tiny hat'. he is preserving the vibe of the original. he is also translating the meaning of words, not the words themselves, which is EXACTLY the right thing to do. like in russian "narrow-shouldered" has the same connotations as "narrow chested" in english. sometimes karpelson makes trade-offs, but to me, they make sense. if i was translating this book, karpelson's translation would be the standard to beat.


message 32: by Viacheslav (new)

Viacheslav Khanin | 1 comments I'm Russian and before I took English translations I had read "The Master and Margarita" for many times starting from the age of 12 in Russian. To improve my English and have practice in it I found the audio-book translated by Burgin/O'Connor and read by George Guidall. I think it is great. First time I listened to it was about 4 years ago and now I am re-listening to it. Before listening for the first time I tried to compare Burgin/O'Connor's with Glenny's translation and I had an impression that they are of the same quality from the point of view of the translation, however, it is difficult for me to evaluate the quality of the English text as I am not a native speaker. Now I've found the audio-book translated by Karpelson and read by Julian Rhind-Tutt. I have not started it yet, but I hope to do it very soon. If anybody is interested in these audio-books, let me know (vkhanin@mail.ru).


message 33: by Barbara (last edited Feb 07, 2021 01:01PM) (new)

Barbara B | 1 comments thanks to all of you for the great and intellectually stimulating remarks over the years. (I noticed this thread was started in 2011. how wonderful, that the discussion is still ‚alive’)

by the way, is there a bilingual annotated version you know of? might be in french or german or english...


message 34: by Mark (new)

Mark Davess (markdavess) | 5 comments And just out of trivia, interest, and maybe potentially some food for thought, comparison, etc. Here's what DeepL translator comes up with:

"Yes, the first oddity of that dreadful May evening should be noted. Not only in front of the booth, but in the entire alley parallel to Malaya Bronnaya Street, not a single person was to be found. At an hour when there seemed to be no strength to breathe, when the sun, burning Moscow, was rolling somewhere beyond the Garden Ring in a dry mist, no one came under the lime trees, no one sat on the benches, the alley was empty."

Again, here's the original:

"Да, следует отметить первую странность этого страшного майского вечера. Не только у будочки, но и во всей аллее, параллельной Малой Бронной улице, не оказалось ни одного человека. В тот час, когда уж, кажется, и сил не было дышать, когда солнце, раскалив Москву, в сухом тумане валилось куда-то за Садовое кольцо, – никто не пришел под липы, никто не сел на скамейку, пуста была аллея."


message 35: by Vadim (new)

Vadim Fstein | 3 comments It's a great translation for someone who wants to get the meaning! It looses a bit of the vibe: "lime" should probably be changed to "linden", "burning" should be changed to "after scalding" or "after smoldering" or "after heating" (tense change there too), "rolling" should be changed to "dropping" or "falling away". But it doesn't sound like it was translated by a machine, and that in itself is a great achievement.


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