‘The Master and Margarita’ is a novel that was written, and whose actions take place, in the Moscow of the nineteen thirties. It depicts ordinary Russians living in the capital of the Soviet Union, but confronted with some extraordinary, even supernatural, occurrences. Bulgakov uses this setting to make some subtle, and not so subtle, observations and critiques of Soviet society and politics. Knowing well that such criticisms were unacceptable to the Communist regime, Mikhail Bulgakov apparently gave no thought to ever trying to publish ‘The Master and Margarita’. In fact, it was not until 1966, twenty-six years after the author’s death, that a censored version was first published in the Soviet Union. Today the ‘The Master and Margarita’ provides a rare, honest glimpse into the day-to-day life of Muscovites at a time when their world was changing at a breakneck pace in the aftermath of the 1917 Revolution.
This introduction will hopefully provide enough background to make some of Bulgakov’s observations easier to understand and appreciate. While this effort necessarily paints a picture that will seem rather grim, it should be kept in mind that the novel itself is absurd, comedic, and entertaining on many levels. This presentation puts The Master and Margarita into a genre of Russian fiction that uses fantasy, illusion, comedy, and absurdity, not to divert from or ignore a harsh reality, but rather to accept and embrace it, and more importantly, to disguise commentary and criticism of it from the ever-vigilant censor. This genre has a rich history in Russia from well before the Soviet era, as literary censorship was not invented by the Communist Party, but copied straight from the book of Tsarist rule. Continue reading “New Introduction to Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’”
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: Continue reading “More Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”
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.
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, regarding 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 “Que Sera, Sera: Margarita Nikolaevna’s Personal Philosophy?”
I 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.
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.
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.
Satan the pitiable victim in Bulgakov and Dostoevsky.
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 “Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”