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

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

The Dread Pirate Archibald Archibaldovich

Archibald Archibaldovich


Who the hell is Archibald Archibaldovich? And what is with that name? The introduction of this particular character in chapter V of Master and Margarita is so clever, and fun, that I am awed by it. The process goes something like this: the name is casually dropped, and quickly forgotten; later, a rather striking figure is described, but not given a name; toward the end of the chapter the person and the name come together, and the context is surprising. Continue reading

The Nature in Bulgakov’s Names

In chapter V of Master and Margarita, Bulgakov introduces a number of individuals, and their names present me with new translation problems, mainly concerning the translation of names for fictional characters. This chapter has brought me to consider how a writer of fiction chooses names for his/her characters: do they just pop into the writer’s head? Are they familiar names of acquaintances? Does the writer’s pet monkey leaf through a book of names and press its finger to one when needed? In some works of fiction the names seem somewhat random and unimportant, but in others the names themselves lend something to the story. I came across a review of a recently published book on the subject; Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature by Alastair Fowler, Oxford, September 2012. Colin Burrow writes a good review of it, on the London Review of Books website.

behemouth, Azazello
Names mean things. In English, last-names like Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor are common and have origins that are clear. But when translating from Russian, if I were to come across names like Plotnik, Ivanov, Kuznetzky or Portnoy, I would probably not change them to the English equivalent of their root meanings (Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor, respectively); I would just transliterate them. But in some cases the meaning of the name is important. Continue reading

“The Old-Timers in Moscow Will Remember! . .”

Mosocow @1930

As I was translating a passage from Master and Margarita, it dawned on me that what I was reading was the author’s own reflection on the kinds of changes that Moscow had gone through during the two decades that saw World War I, revolution, the end of Tsarism, the establishment of Communist Party rule, Civil War and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Given what I know of Russian history, I found this little aside in chapter V to be enormously interesting, bold and insightful. Continue reading

My Approach to Translating Russian Prose to English

I want to examine the methods I have developed, to this point, for translating Russian prose to English. As mentioned in an earlier post, I am currently working on a translation of the Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I will use a single paragraph from this novel to illustrate each step in my process of transforming Russian writing into what I hope is a readable English that accurately and fully captures the meaning and style of the original. translating Bulgakov Continue reading

All According to “The Plan”

In a previous post I commented about use of comedy, satire, absurdity and fantasy in Russian literature to mask political or social commentary, and hopefully avoid censorhip. I found in the first chapter of Master and Margarita what could be read as a critique of policies that were at the foundation of the Communist Party’s attempt to realize a socialist/non-capitalist economy in the Soviet Union—the Five Year Plans.

But first a brief overview of the history of Soviet economics: Continue reading

The “Foreigner”

“’…So who are you, after all?’
‘I am a part of that power,
That ever wishes evil,
and ever accomplishes good.’”
Goethe, Faust

This a quote from Faust, but is also found at the beginning of the first chapter of a Russian novel I am translating. As I realized that I was translating a Russian translation of a German work I felt I was playing a game of ‘Whisper Down the Lane’, and wondered how I was contributing to a departure from the original statement.
The novel, Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is one of the best known novels from the Soviet period. The story combines satire, farce and absurdity in ways that are both playful and dark at the same time. This follows a particularly Russian literary tradition (of which Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol is an outstanding example), that is often argued to be a response to efforts by the state to suppress dissent, and criticisms of political leadership. Russian writers learned they stood a better chance of getting away with such commentary by masking it with comedy, satire or fantasy, and readers learned to appreciate the underlying meanings.
The translation is slow going, but I love how each passage unfolds in the process, allowing me to more fully appreciate the art as well as the literal meaning of each sentence. This slow approach combines with my study of Russian history, culture and politics to give me greater insight into where Bulgakov is coming from and what he is trying to say. One passage that I especially love provides the first critique I’ve found by a Russian of what has become part of the Western narrative of Russia—an underlying streak of xenophobia, and mistrust of foreigners, that defines Russian society’s view of its place in the world. Continue reading