Cover to My New English Translation of ‘The Master and Margarita’

This is the cover I made for my translation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which will be published before the end of summer:

The Master and Margarita

Cover of New English Translation of the Master and Margarita by John Dougherty ©2017

As I was in the final stages of editing, proof-reading and formatting this translation of ‘The Master and Margarita, I agonized over how to get a good but inexpensive cover to put on it. I initially considered using the graphics services provided through the website fiverr. In the process of coming up with a proposal to a graphic designer for the creation of this cover, I considered a sort of collage that would include some of the themes and iconic images that are presented in the novel again and again. After putting a list together of these things, I thought “hey, I can do this.” Not having any experience with this sort of design, other than a brief flirtation with the free image manipulation program Gimp, I decided it was time to purchase and learn to use Adobe Photoshop. I asked my brilliant and artistic photographer friend Jen if she had any tips, and she pointed me to Adobe Creative Cloud. This was appealing to me for its option to do a trial use, and not have to buy a software package up front.

So now I can photoshop! This translation project started out as an occasional exercise to keep up my Russian language skills, but has turned into a project that has unexpectedly led me to learn a whole host of new skills and software applications: use of Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, Calibre and Sigil; how to get an ISBN and register a book with Bowker. Fun stuff.


 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

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

‘Four Centuries’-An Ambitious New Journal of Russian Poetry in Translation

Four CenturiesA day after announcing a sabbatical from my work blogging, something was brought to my attention that I feel the need to comment on.

A new Journal, Four Centuries, has been going for a year now, and it publishes translations of Russian poetry in a number of languages: Continue reading