How does Margarita Nikolaevna’s character compare with that of other heroines of Russian literature? Some that come to my mind include:
Natasha Ilyinichna Rostova- War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
Sonya Semyonovna Marmeladov- Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ekaterina “Kitty” Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya– Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Tatiana- Yevgeniy Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin
Masha Ilyichna Shamrayeva- The Seagull, by Anton Chekov
What do these characters share with Margarita, and whats sets them apart? One thing to consider might be how these characters mark points on a timeline of the modernization of Russia. To what extent do these characters embody traditional or modern values; such as, religiosity, devotion to family, worth of the individual, gender inequality/equality? And how do they contribute to the redemption of male protagonists in these stories?
‘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’”
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.
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.
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.