More Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature


Homeless Devil Berlioz

In an earlier post—Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature—I compared Bulgakov’s Satan with the Devil that appears to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan, one of the Brothers Karamazov. There are many similarities. Both seem to be gentlemanly, and in Dostoevsky, Ivan is sure that this character is the product of the delirium from his own “brain fever”, in Bulgakov, when the Master first encounters the Satan character, he says, “it would, of course, be much easier to consider you the product of a hallucination.” (These are reminiscent, too, of Scrooge’s argument that the ghost of Jacob Marley may be the result of a “slight disorder of the stomach,” in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”).

In that earlier post, I was concerned mainly with the outward appearance of the Devil, as described by both authors, and his manner. But I also included some discussion of how Dostoevsky’s Devil muses on the nature of good and evil, and his place in the conflict between them. He argues to Ivan that he is not inherently evil, or even bad, but that fate had chosen him to be the representative of these things, as a counterpoint to good:

Before time was, by some decree which I could never make out, I was pre-destined ‘to deny’ and yet I am genuinely good-hearted and not at all inclined to negation. ‘No, you must go and deny, without denial there’s no criticism and what would a journal be without a column of criticism?’ Without criticism it would be nothing but one ‘hosannah.’ But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style. But I don’t meddle in that, I didn’t create it, I am not answerable for it. Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there’d be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events.
(Translation by Constance Garnett)

I had written about this after only having gotten as far as chapter 15 in The Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream”, and so didn’t really know of a passage from that novel to compare to this one from The Brothers Karamazov. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I got around to translating Chapter 29, “The Fate of the Master and Margarita Decided”, and found this exchange between Voland (a.k.a. Satan) and Levi Matvey (a.k.a. Matthew, disciple of Jesus and author of one of the gospels):

     “I come to you, spirit of evil and lord of shadows . . .” replied the intruder, glaring at Voland with hostility.
     “If you come to me, then why do you not give me greetings, former tax collector?” Voland spoke dryly.
     “Because I do not wish you to be well,” the intruder answered coolly.
     “But you must come to terms with the fact,” Voland objected, and a wry smile twisted his mouth, “that you had no sooner appeared on the roof than you smacked of absurdity, and I’ll tell you where it is—it’s in your tone of voice. You utter your words as if you do not acknowledge shadows, or evil for that matter.Wont you be so kind as to consider the question: what would your good accomplish, if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if the shadows were gone from it? Shadows come from things and people, in fact. Behold the shadow from my sword. But there are shadows from trees and from living beings. Do you want to skin the entire globe, tearing away from it all the trees and the living things, for your fantasy of basking in pure light? Youre a fool.
(translation by John Dougherty)

Both Dostoevsky and Bulgakov both put forth the proposition that evil is essential to existence, that without it, good would not be good for anything. The Devil has a bad job, but it is crucial to life as we know it, and for that reason, he should be shown some sympathy, and some taste.






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.

At this point, with sticky sentences like this, I see what I can do to parse it. I found these meanings for component parts of the sentence in various online reference sites (,,

  • Все было так= Everything was so/such . . .
  • так= thus, as, so much, just so, like this, so much, to wit, in this vein, like, like that/this
  • так, как= like, such as; the way that;
  • как будто= as if, as though, as if it were; it seems that; apparently
  • должно быть= must be, should be, is bound to be; probably, supposedly . . .

Putting these together, I came up with, “Everything was just as though it was bound to be.” I like the more colloquial “bound to” for “должно быть,” rather than “must be,” “should be,” or “needs to be,” but while the essential meaning seems to work, it fails to capture the beat or alliteration of the original. The Russian sentence sounds something like this: “Vsyo bylo tak, kak boodto tak i dolzhno byt.’ The rhythm, and the repetition of the sounds ‘b,’ ‘t,’ and ‘ak’ are worth trying to preserve, as they almost literally hammer the point home. But as much as I wish I could recreate the musical quality of a Russian phrase in English, I realize this is almost always hopeless. That said, I cannot help but give it a try, or at least look for any opportunity to provide even the slightest hint of it in my translation.

In part to try and get closer to the meter of the original, I tried moving away from the basic sense of “было”—the past tense of “to be,”—and go with its meaning as the past tense of “to occur,” “to take place,” or “to happen.” That led to “Everything happened just as if it was bound to happen.” But I wasn’t happy with “happened” and “to happen” for “было” and “быть:” it seemed like a stretch, and didn’t suggest a philosophical outlook the way the original seems to.

Back to working with “Everything was . . . to be,” I juggled some of the possibilities in my head, at which the thought of using “meant to,” instead of “bound to” occurred to me. I believe this conveys the sense of the original, and helps promote the notion of fatalism that I feel is couched in this sentence.

So the winner (for now) is: “Everything was just as though it was meant to be.”

As a general rule, I avoid looking at any other translations until I have completed what I consider to be a nearly final draft. I want to come to my own understanding of the text, and not be influenced by someone else’s translation before I even start. However, for especially tricky sentences like this, I like to compare my efforts with the way other translators have handled the same phrase. In this case, I was able to look at three examples: Michael Glenny; Richard Pevear & Larissa Volkhonsky; and Diana Burgin & Tiernan O’Connor:

  • “Everything was as it should be.” Glenny
  • “Everything was as if it ought to have been so.” Pevear and Volokhonsky
  • “Everything was seemingly as it should have been.” Burgin and O’Connor.

I like the second one, by Pevear and Volkhonsky, best. It has the same essential meaning as the sentence I came up with, and its meter is closest to the original, but I feel that the “ought to have been so” sounds a little clunky, and too formal or old-fashioned, for me. Glenny’s is too short, and seems to have left out the middle, the “как будто,” part. The one by Burgin and O’Connor is better, but the combination of “seemingly” and the conditional “should have been” doesn’t capture the force of the sentence, which, as mentioned above, is already weakened by the inability to reproduce the rhythm and alliteration of the original in English translation.

At one point in this process I tried to think of an English language phrase or saying that might capture the same meaning. The only one that came to mind is the title to a popular song from the 1950’s that is actually French, along with its English translation—“Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”—from the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. While I rejected this as a translation of “Все было так, как будто так и должно быть,” I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of a musical film version of The Master and Margarita, with Doris Day in the role of Margarita, singing this song while dancing around in the Master’s basement apartment on the morning after Satan’s Ball.


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

Russian News- RIA Novosti Reports on America’s Human Rights Record

Russian News:

I would like to try and add to this blog a weekly Russian news feature. In the beginning this will include my translation of, and brief commentary on, a contemporary Russian news piece. These articles will be chosen fairly at random, and from an array of sources. This first article was released last week on the RIA Novosti website. RIA Novosti is a state-run media outlet in the Russian Federation.


Report: The press in the U.S. is limited in its access to power, and its freedom of speech.
18:52 25 November, 2014 updated- 19:07 25 November, 2014
РИА Новости

A report by the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, made available to RIA Novosti, states that “the reality of contemporary America supports the contention that it is the deliberate policy of the executive branch of the U.S. government to create impediments to the work of reporters.” Continue reading


 translation problem

An example of the kinds of puzzles I encounter when translating Russian to English.

As I translate, things often go pretty smoothly. I may have to look up a few words in a given paragraph, but once I decide on a particular connotation, and appropriate English equivalent, I can move on pretty quickly. Sometimes, though, I run into a particular phrase or construction that demands extra effort. I might end up spending fifteen or twenty minutes trying to puzzle it out. The following is an example of such an instance. Here I was stuck on the seemingly uncomplicated three-word phrase—“на то и” (English transliteration= “na toh i”). I will outline here the process I went through to come up with a solution.

The original sentence:

“Однако умные люди на то и умны, чтобы разбираться в запутанных вещах.” –from Мастер и Маргарита, Глава 18-Неудачливые визитеры (Master and Margarita, Chapter XVIII-Unfortunate Visitors). 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-

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.

prof Woland mephistophelesUncle Vanya Guthrie








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

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? Continue reading

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 the Soviet Union or some its successor states. 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. Continue reading