The Power of “THE”

The Seemingly Most Trivial Word Causing Some Nagging Translation Problems.

the power of "the"

the power of theAs mentioned in some earlier posts, there are aspects of the Russian language that leave the translator to her or his own devices in coming up with coherent, true and comfortable equivalents in English. One of these is the fact that the Russian language does not use the definite articles “a”, “an”, or “the” (see post-Banned Articles as Translation Problems). In most cases this a simple matter of judging from the context which, if any, of these needs to be added to the literal translation to make it work in English. In a simple sentence like, for example – “Он уехал в магазин,” which reads literally- “He went to store,” one can safely put a “the” before “store” without compromising the meaning of the original.

But it isn’t always quite so easy. I am currently bugged by the Russian lack of articles in a specific instance in regards my efforts to write a translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. This problem presents itself immediately in the title; the English given above is just as it appears in Russian, but the question remains: should it be, as it is in most translations- The Master and Margarita (my emphasis)? And if yes, why? If this title gets an article, why not others: A War and The Peace? The Crime and The Punishment?

It can be guessed from the above examples that the question mainly turns on context and feel. The Master and Margarita sounds way better than The War and Peace, but Master and Margarita (without the “the”) sounds equally better than Quiet Don. This could be, though, because we have become used to certain accepted translations of titles. The commonly recognized version of the last example, And Quiet Flows The Don, sounds great, but the justifications for how that is derived from the original Russian, Тихий Дон- “Quiet Don,” are convoluted.

For me the main question in this instance is, should the title character of the novel be Master, or The Master? When he is introduced in Chapter 13 he stubbornly refuses to give his name as he chats with the poet Ivan Nikolaevich, whose pen name is “Homeless,” but when asked by Ivan if he is a writer he becomes mysterious:

Гость потемнел лицом и погрозил Ивану кулаком, потом сказал:

Я – мастер, – он сделался суров и вынул из кармана халата совершенно засаленную черную шапочку с вышитой на ней желтым шелком буквой «М». Он надел эту шапочку и показался Ивану в профиль и в фас, чтобы доказать, что он – мастер.

So in the original it is just the one word— мастер, or “master.” So I have translated it without the article:

The guest’s face became dark and he threatened Ivan with a fist, but then said:

“I am—Master,” he became stern and pulled from the pocket of his robe a thoroughly greasy black cap with the letter “M” embroidered on it in yellow silk. He put this cap on and displayed it to Ivan in profile and at the front, to demonstrate that he was—Master.

To me this sounds O.K., But here he is referring to himself, but later, when the narrator uses this title, it seems to beg for a “the.” For example:

Ивану стало известным, что мастер и незнакомка полюбили друг друга так крепко, что стали совершенно неразлучны.

It became known to Ivan that the Master and the unknown woman loved one another so strongly that they became completely inseparable.

Unable, so far, to find any rules or principles of translation theory to guide me in my use of articles in translation, I am left with the approach of simply doing what feels and sounds good to me. In this case, I am tempted to leave “master” without an article when the character with this title refers to himself, and to use “the Master” in all other cases (I won’t get into, here, the problem that in the original this title is mostly not capitalized). For the title of the novel this rule would call for adding the article, making it The Master and Margarita.

the power of the

Master Mikhail Bulgakov

This still leaves me pondering the power of definite articles in English. To me, an English speaker, there is a big difference between, master, a master and the master. How does the Russian language do without these? On the other hand, one might ask why English needs to use them. Is it not better to be more specific than “a” and “the”? There are any number of modifiers that could clearly define the character and importance of any “master,” for example: his master, all-knowing master, master of her domain, master of the universe.

But I come to the conclusion that while it might seem a trivial word, still, I’m not able to find a single Russian word that quite captures the power of the English “the.” Any suggestions?

Praise for Alina Simone’s Views on Russian/American Cultural Differences

On Alina Simone’s New York Times op-ed piece about the cultural disconnect triggered by the seemingly, to an American, polite question, “How are you?”.

I just had the pleasure of reading a piece on The New York Times website entitled, The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash, by Alina Simone. In this article, Ms. Simone—born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but raised in the U.S.—speaks to how the common question often asked, even of strangers, by the average American,  “How are you?” can highlight differences in cultural outlook when asked of someone raised in Russia. She brings to this discussion a perspective from both sides of this cultural gap, as someone often faced with the task of smoothing over, as she puts it, “the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry.”

I appreciate her insights for what they say about not only culture, but also about language: how it used, how it is informed by, and informs, the outlook shard by the people who grew up using it, and how it can spotlight differences in outlooks among societies. I am also impressed by Alina Simone’s combining of personal experience with the views of others and with her scholarly research. She compares the inane formality of the knee-jerk American response, “fine,” with the equally disturbing tendency of Russians to give an honest answer, full of intimate details to explain why they are doing how they are doing.

In addition to anecdotes about how and why people raised in Russia take this question the way they do, Alina Simone’s points are very nicely supported by citations from the Oxford English Dictionary, The University of Michigan, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Anya Von Bremzen (whose most recent book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, which brilliantly analyses Soviet Russian culture through the prism of food, I last year wrote a review of here).

While this article says much more about the Russian cultural mindset, and its responses to this American question, there is the nicely put argument that what Russians often miss is the fact that the phrase “How are you?” isn’t really a question, but a form of “Hi!” One point I do not see any support for here, though, is Ms. Simone’s claim, early in the article, that this question is “the back across which Russian-American relations are broken.”

That said, I do like her analysis and insights into the differences in cultural sensibilities, and how that is expressed in the use of language. And I appreciate her recommendation to ignore the guide books that recommend visitors to Russia use the Russian equivalent to “How are you?”—”Kak dela?” and that they avoid responding to such questions with a cheery, “Khorosho!” or “Fine!”


Fagot-Korovyov: Bassoon-Cow?

To Translate, or to Transliterate? That is the Question: The Curious Case of the name, Fagot-Korovyov, in translating ‘Master and Margarita.’

Going further with my translation of Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I have hit on a puzzle regarding how best to put into English the names given to one particular character. In an earlier post I had discussed the varying levels of meanings attached to the names of characters in this novel, and decisions about whether to translate or transliterate. The case of this one figure is complicated in a number of ways: he is actually given, at different points in the story, two names, but single names and without any explanation as to how they relate to each other; and both of these names have clear connections with fairly common nouns in the Russian language. So what shall we call him? Korovyov? Cow? Fagot? Bassoon?


This fellow first appears in chapter one as a hallucination, floating in the air before Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of a literary journal. Soon after this he is encountered by the same Berlioz at the park at Patriarch’s Ponds, and is described as tall, thin, wearing a checkered jacket, a jockey’s cap, broken pince-nez and dirty socks. He is subsequently referred to often as “the checkered one.” In chapter nine, when Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy (whose last name, incidentally, is a Russian word meaning “barefoot”), chairman of the housing association for the apartment building in which Berlioz has an apartment, insists on knowing the checkered one’s surname, gets from him the vague response, “well, let’s say, Korovyov.” Now this name is solidly related to the Russian word for cow—корова, or “korova,” but I don’t see any reason why calling him “Cow” helps define his character. However, a website devoted to this work,, suggests that this name “reminds us of the Golden Calf with which Mephistoteles celebrates the omnipotence of money in the opera Faust of Charles Gounod (1818-1895).” This explanation also works with the events of chapter twelve, when Korovyov produces a rain of money, which sends the audience scrambling for it, in a Moscow theater as Voland’s assistant in their stage appearance there.

It is at the beginning of this performance that Korovyov is given another name, by Voland himself: Fagot. This is exactly the nominative form of the Russian word for bassoon, and it does fit, sort of, as his physical appearance and the descriptions of his changeable voice might be called bassoon-like. Compounding the decision as to whether to render this as “Fagot” or “Bassoon” is the fact that English language readers might easily read “Fagot” as the English word “Faggot,” which would imbue this name with a whole new set of associations. The confusion is not so great if the Russian word is pronounced properly, with the accent on the last syllable, but the average English speaker reading this translation would probably not know this, and default to the pronunciation of the word it reminds them of.

To this point I have decided to transliterate both of these names, rather than translate them. I do this mainly because it sounds better to read it his way. There is no confusion as to whether we are reading about the person in question, some bovine, or a wind instrument. With this, though, there lingers the sense that Bulgakov’s careful choice of names to help define his characters is lost. I think the best solution would be to mention the importance of the meanings of names in the introduction to a translation, and perhaps to include a glossary of characters with the meanings of the Russian words from which their names are derived.

The “Housing Problem” in the Soviet Union

Reflecting on a Recurrent Theme in the Art and Literature of the Soviet Union: The Nature and Importance of the “Housing Problem” for Urban Dwellers in the U.S.S.R.

housing problem
Reflecting on the subjects I have studied and written about for this blog over the past year, there is one topic that comes up so often, and is discussed with such passion, that I am led to conclude that it was an important part of the social consciousness of many Russians during the Soviet period, particularly that of city dwellers. Mikhail Bulgakov, when describing an office in the home of the Moscow’s writers’ union that presumably dealt with this issue for its members, labeled it “Housing Problem.” I will look at three sources that point to the prevalence and importance of the “housing problem,” and argue that while such problems are a common by-product of the rapid urbanization that accompanies modernization and industrialization, the unique path to modernity adopted by the Communist Party, and its responses to the realities thereof, defined the character of this problem for the population in the big cities of the US.S.R.
In the 1927 Russian film, ‘Bed and Sofa’ (see post: Третья Мещанская: “№ 3 Meshchanskaya Street”, or “The Third Philistine”?), crowded living conditions in Moscow play a central role. The story focuses on a young trio—Kolya, his wife Lyudmila and his army buddy Volodya—sharing one room in a basement furnished with a double bed and a sofa for sleeping accommodations. The shuffling of the characters from the bed to the sofa, and back, marks shifts in their inter-relationships. And there are a lot of scenes that nicely depict the day-to-day existence of city folk: Lyudmila doing the chores; Kolya promising to fix things; Volodya unexpectedly arriving for the first time when Lyudmila is dressing; and Kolya taking a shower by standing in a pan barely big enough to fit his feet, while under a samovar with its spigot open as it perches on top of an armoire. None of the characters complains about these conditions, but their lives are shaped by them.housing problem
In addition to Bulgakov’s insistence, in ‘Master and Margarita,’ that one could only see the “Housing Problem” sign on the door to the office in the House of Griboedov by cutting through a line that stretched down the stairs to the very doorman’s station, in chapter nine he details the “worst kind of trouble” visited on Nikanor Ivanovich Bosoy, chairman of a housing association, by tenants desperate to take possession of an apartment vacated at the demise of its resident. The news of this death “spread through the entire house with a supernatural speed,” and in the course of two hours Nikanor Ivanovich had received thirty-two claims to the living space of the deceased; “These included appeals, threats, slander, denunciations, promises to make repairs at their own expense, indications of intolerable overcrowding and the impossibility of living in an apartment with bandits. Among others was a description, terrific for its artistic power, of the abduction of dumplings, laid directly into the pocket of a jacket, in apartment № 31. There were also two promises to commit suicide and one admission of a secret pregnancy.”
The desperation of these denizens of Soviet communal apartments can be well understood reading Anya Von Bremzen’s engaging new memoir, ‘Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.”(see post: Review- Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking). Her story covers the history of the U.S.S.R. and pre- and post-Soviet Russia in the 20th century, outlining the life of the author, her mother and grandmother, through prism of food. Included are numerous anecdotes that illuminate a social fabric woven on the loom of crowded communal living in Moscow. The “abduction of donuts” in Bulgakov is recalled in one of her reminiscences: “scribbled skull-and-bones warnings affixed to pots in my grandmother’s communal apartment kitchen, where comrade residents pilfered one another’s soup meat.” Her assertion that in Russian there is no word for “privacy” is used to explain certain features of the toilet: “I won’t share details about the communal bathroom other than the fact that three toilet cabins were separated by plywood, through which the peeper Vitalik liked to drill holes.” Especially fun is her account of a joint action on the part of residents of one floor of a communal house, upon learning of the death of one tenant. They proceed, in the dead of night and with an effort worthy of any Stakanovite, to expand the ridiculously minuscule kitchen by tearing down the walls to the deceased tenant’s room and incorporating that space into the kitchen. When no one who lived on the floor would even admit that there ever was a room there, the building manager could do nothing.housing problem
But why these housing problems? Why the overcrowding? Historically, as a society goes from an agricultural to an industrial economy, there is a migration from the countryside to the cities. For most Western states, even though this process was gradual, it caused a whole new set of problems for masses of people unused to living in cities, now living in cities for the first time. For the Soviet Union this process was accelerated, and driven from above. The demand for industrial workers in the cities exploded with the forced industrialization of the Five-Year Plans, while simultaneously the pressures of forced collectivization of agriculture, and its attendant chaos, violence and famine, gave those living in the vastness that was rural Russia all to more reason to move to the city. Another difference that informed the character of Soviet urbanization was that in the West these trends accompanied the emergence of capitalist systems; industrial production grew to satisfy the appetite of a growing consumer class, whose expansion was, in large part, driven by industrial production. In the Soviet Union, with its state managed economy, dictated by the Communist Party rather than “the market,” there was no incentive for providing adequate housing or the amenities of life (see post-All According to “The Plan’). In The U.S.S.R. it was all about “building Communism”, not profit. The pay-off for hard work and putting up with cramped accommodations would come to future generations who would live in a Marxist-Leninist utopia on earth. For this to be realized, sacrifices had to be made, one had to live with alcoholics, “peepers” and bandits.


Russian Service Industry: Better? Or Just (Better) Paid?

russian service industryAeroflot highlights efforts of the Russian service industry to improve customer service. Is paying people to smile, speak softly and kneel a good thing?

An article appeared yesterday (Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013) in the The New York Times reporting on Aeroflot’s successful efforts to improve service on its flights—‘Russian Service, and With Please and Thank You.’ Reporter Andrew E. Kramer sees the extensive training now given to flight attendants for the Russian airline as part of a “broad and transformative trend in the Russian service industry brought about by the rising demands of middle-class consumers.” On its way out, apparently, is the stereotypical gruff and taciturn response of the Russian service worker who has to actually provide a service. Is this a good thing? I wonder. Continue reading

Maria Petrovykh’s ‘Muse’

As it turns out, I did not win this year’s Compass Award for outstanding English language translation of Russian poetry, awarded through the Cardinal Points journal. I did not even make the short list.

Not too disappointed, though, as it was my first entry to any such competition, and now that I am no longer in the running I can present my work to anybody out there with any interest in the Russian poetry of the Soviet period.

This year the contest asked for translations of poems by Maria Petrovykh, a poet who was a friend of some of the greatest luminaries of the early Soviet period, notably Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam; Mandelstam’s poem, Masteritsa vinovatykh vzorov, that Akhmatova called “the greatest love poem of the 20th century,” was dedicated to Petrovykh.

Maria Petrovykh's Muse

Maria Petrovykh

The poem of hers I chose to translate for this contest is Муза—‘Muse.’ As I had not been familiar with ther work until I learned of this competition, I decided this poem would be a good place to start as it might give a clue to what inspired her to write. It turns out that “night” was one of her muses at this time. This is not that surprising for someone who had just survived WWI, the Russian Revolution, The Russian Civil War, the “Red Terror,” unprecedented poltical, economic and social experimentation and the beginnings of Stalinist totalitarianism.

But aside from historical context, I found this to be a beautiful poem, and my humble translation a pale ghost of the real thing. As always I struggled in my efforts to balance meaning, meter, tone and rhyme. I feel convinced that sacrifices must always be made of one for another; a strict observance of the exact meaning of each word makes it impossible to convey the meter and rhyme, but departing too much from meaning for these feels like an abomination.

But sacrificies must me made.

That said, below is my translation, followed by the original:



When by mistake I let the pen slip,
Missing the inkwell, near the moon see it dip,-
To the lake of black nights in its unceasing creep,
Is stitched the overgrown inkwell with a dream from the nightingale’s keep,-
Diverse harmonies rush from the pen,
An astonishing layer of silver on them,
They are like birds, of whose touch I am afraid,
But the lines flock together and fill up the page.
I welcome you here, wild-running night,
And we have exactly one origin and plight-
We are both dark for our doubting eyes,
One homeland we share and she never dies.
I remember how you were conquered by day,
You remember how I, from the rock, broke away,
You ever from the milky paths turn aside,
In the cracks of the lines you do love to hide.
Child of a dream, sketched with nightingale’s hues,
Solitary reader, you are my muse.
I see you off, with no thanks for your time,
But in a froth of delight, I am brimming with rhyme.

1930, Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

translated by John Dougherty Continue reading

Banned Articles (And the Occassional Conjunction) as Translation Problems

translation problems

I want to write today (October 17, 2013) about a specific important difference between Russian and English that poses translation problems—minor ones, yet to me irritating and annoying. I will discuss this as it applies specifically to my efforts to translate Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (see also- The “Foreigner”, According to “The Plan”, My Approach to Translating Russian Prose to English , “The Old-Timers of Moscow Will Remember. . .!”, The Nature of Bulgakov’s Names, The Dread Pirate Archibald Archibaldovich, The Blizzard Gets Stronger?)

In some ways Russian is marked by a greater economy of usage than English. One of these is its tendency to omit words that could be argued to be unnecessary, but that in English are mandatory: Continue reading

The Blizzard Gets Stronger?

More On the Strange Results from Free Online Translation Sites: Bulgakov’s “Varenukha,” A Spicy Fruit Liqueur? Or “The Blizzard Gets Stronger?”

the blizzard gets stronger


the blizzard gets stronger

or Varenukha?







In earlier posts I’ve hinted at my fascination with the strange and humorous forms that language sometimes takes in online translation applications (see posts-Google-translate: original Russian vs Google vs MeGooglisms- Russian to English). These delight me on a number of levels: for the assurance I get that there is still something a human can do better than a computer, for the comedic value I see in this sort of verbal slapstick, and for the insights into the nature of language I gain from looking at how and why it can go so wrong.

Recently I discovered another free translation site that I find even more entertaining than Google or Bing (formerly Windows Live Translator); is especially notable for its greater tendency to insert proper names, often unnecessarily, and to translate a single word as an entire phrase, occasionally an English quote or idiom. I was especially struck, and remain puzzled, by its preference for rendering the name of one character from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita–Varenukha, (Russian- Варенуха)–as the English phrase “the blizzard gets stronger.” Continue reading

Where Were You On 19 August 1991?

History in Literature: The coup attempt in the Soviet Union of 19 August 1991 as viewed from the hinterlands.

19 August 1991

Bolshoi Ballet-Swan Lake-            WWW NEWS CN

I love reading good literature that gives a view of great historical moments from the perspective of ordinary people. At the beginning of Andrei Dmitriev‘s novel The Peasant and the Teenager (Крестьянин и Тинейджер) there is depicted, through the memories of a man in rural Russia, presumably the “peasant,” an event recent enough to be a part of my own consciousness–the coup attempt of August 1991 that sought to reestablish centralized Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union, in reaction to the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The decline of Soviet economic and social life leading up to 1991 is highlighted in the reminiscences of Panyukov, the first character introduced in The Peasant and the Teenager, as he reflects on the life he shared with his childhood friend, Vova, after both had served with the Red Army in Afghanistan. Continue reading