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: Continue reading

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


 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

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