Que Sera, Sera: Margarita Nikolaevna’s Personal Philosophy?

Never having read The Master and Margarita, either in Russian or in English translation, I started on the original Russian a few years ago, but it quickly turned from a reading activity into a full-scale translation project. Within just a few pages I decided that I really wanted to fully grasp the meaning of every sentence and phrase. The novel is so rich and beautifully woven that it begs a more careful reading than a glancing, second-language perusal.


The cover of my recently copyrighted translation of Master and Margarita, Part I.

After completing Part I, I imagined that I could not be any more surprised by what I would find in Part II, but the novel continues to introduce still more astonishing new characters, scenes and details. But the magic cream, broom-rides and flying pig notwithstanding, what I’m really enjoying about Part II is the unfolding of Margarita’s character. She is strong-willed, independent, devoted to the Master, charming, intelligent, resilient, and funny. But there is one sentence in chapter 27 that seems to express the core of her outlook on life, and as such it is proving devilish to translate. This is one of those seemingly simple sentences whose combination of ambiguity and critical importance call for some extra effort to get it just right.



The original is: “Все было так, как будто так и должно быть,” and it is used to express Margarita’s attitude, upon reflection the next morning, toward the supernatural and occult events she had just lived through on the night of Satan’s Ball.

My immediate, literal impression went something like this: “Everything was such, as though it should be.” There are, however, some things about this rendering that don’t work, not least of which is the rhythm of it, but the meaning was clear enough that I could see in this statement a trace of a certain philosophical fatalism that seems to rear its head in Russian literature from time to time. Continue reading

Preface to an English Translation of ‘Master and Margarita’

A Preface to Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, Master and Margarita:

English translation of Master and MargaritaI recently finished translating Part One of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, a project that began as a reading of the original Russian language text, but soon became something of an obsession with trying to understand every sentence and turn of phrase. This has been satisfying to me on so many levels: it exposes me to the richness of Bulgakov’s imagination and the beauty of his prose; it exercises my Russian language skills; it deepens my understanding of Russian society in the tumultuous 1930s; it exercises my writing skills; and it scratches my puzzler’s itch.


Having arrived at the end of Part One, I started thinking about what would be involved in putting it into book form. I had to think about proof-reading, editing, and designing a cover. I also considered adding an appendix to discuss the importance of names used, and the meanings of their Russian roots. I believed this might be of interest to any reader who was not familiar with the Russian language. But when I later imagined my friends reading this translation, I began to think about providing them some more general background information. The following is the result of my attempt to do just that. I try to explain some of the features of life in Moscow in the 1930s, as far as I understand them, that are integral to the story, but would not necessarily be known to the average 21st century English reader.

Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov

English translation of Master and Margarita

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov


Translator’s Preface

Continue reading

Dreams, Dreams, Dreams

With two dreams, one after another in Master and Margarita, Bulgakov touches on some risky subjects.

As mentioned at the beginning of my last post (“Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”), my efforts to translate Chapter XV of Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” led me to become fascinated with the use of dreams as a device in Russian novels. My first avenue for delving into this topic further was Dostoevsky’s use of it in The Brother’s Karamazov, specifically the chapter titled, “The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare.” This provided not only another example of a dream sequence, but also another depiction of the devil, so I devoted that last post to a comparison of Dostoevsky’s devil with Bulgakov’s.

Dreams of Nikanor Ivanovich

Soviet Show Trial-https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/category/anarchism/volume-1/chapter-18-the-russian-revolution/

I remained intrigued, however, by the dream thing. As I began translating the next chapter of Master and Margarita, “The Execution,” I was delighted to find that I was dealing here with yet another dream—this one dreamt by Ivan (Bulgakov’s Ivan, not Dostoevsky’s); two dreams in a row! Continue reading

Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature

Satan the pitiable victim in Bulgakov and Dostoevsky.

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While translating Chapter 15, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” of Master and Margarita, I was reminded of another chapter in Russian literature devoted to one character’s dream—“The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare”, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. On revisiting this old favorite, however, I was inspired to reform my purpose of comparing dreams in Russian literature to comparing depictions of the devil there. While far from identical, both Dostoevsky’s Devil and Bulgakov’s Satan are portrayed in ways that invite the reader to feel some compassion, pity and sympathy for them. Continue reading

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 an 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. Continue reading

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. 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

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); translation.babylon.com 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