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.

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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.

Jesse Kavadlo, the author of the blog Hourman, takes issue with the meanings of names in Henry James’ Daisy Miller, calling “Daisy”, and “Winterbourne” too “heavy-handedly symbolic”. Might the same judgement apply to Capote’s “Holly Golightly”? One must bear in mind, though, that for some names in fiction, the meaning lies in the distinct lack of it; “Tom Jones” being an outstanding example.

When translating, if a character’s name has meaning, in Russian, I want to convey that meaning to the English reader. Bulgakov’s choice of names in Master in Margarita often seems to deliberately make a point about the nature or role of the owner of that name. For example, one of the first characters introduced is the poet Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, who goes by the pseudonym ‘Bezdomny’, a word whose meaning is “homeless”. Pseudonyms often have such obvious meanings, and in this case I’ve chosen to express this meaning rather than call him Bezdomny in my translation. But in most cases, the allusion is less apparent, and even less important. For example, on a tour of Griboedov, the building that is the home to the literary organization MASSOLIT, the narrator characterizes each room according to the sign on its door, and one is so described:

on the door to room No. 2 was written something not entirely clear: ‘Daily Creative Permit: M.V. Poblozhnoy’

. But Poblozhnoy is a common form of the adjective meaning ‘spurious, counterfeit, queer’. Here I am tempted to translate the name as M.V. Spurious. So basically, the question is this: to translate, or transliterate?

старбакс кофе Early in chapter V we are introduced to two characters, Foka and Amvrosy, whose conversation illuminating the merits of the restaurant at Griboedov the narrator himself claims to have overheard (see my translation of this conversation and the description of Griboedov in my earlier post, The Old-timers of Moscow will Remember).  The English equivalent of Amvrosy is apparently “Ambrose”, but I choose not to use this, as I would also not want to call someone named Ivan, “John”. The fairly un-Russian sounding surname “Foka”, happens to be the Russified version of the Greek Φωκᾶς, given in English as “Phocas”, and is the name of a Byzantine Emporer who is described on Russian Wikipedia as “a simple, hideous-looking man with an ill temper.” I think “Foka” will do in the translation, as I know that few readers of English would recognize this allusion (if, in fact, Bulgakov is even trying to make it). A third name is mentioned in this passage—Archibald Archibaldovich—but more about him in my next post.

Later we are introduced to twelve members of MASSOLIT, sweltering in an upstairs room of Griboedov as they await the arrival of Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz. Not all are named, and most have ones that do not have obvious and important alternate meanings. But a few are worth noting: the author of popular sketches Zagrivov, or “Scruff”; the novelist Ironim Poprikhin—the first name can mean “with irony”, and the last resembles the name of the protagonist in Gogol’s Diary of a Madman; Glukharev—“Woodcock”; and Kvant, or “Quantum”.

The one woman among these literati is, I think, very nicely characterized in this scene. She is introduced as Nastasya Lukinishna Nepremenova. Her family name, ‘Nepremenova’, means ‘indispensible, essential, certainly, bound to’. But even better is her pseudonym, as a “writer of naval battle stories”—Skipper George. Later in the chapter she is described as a “giant”, dancing with “little Deniskin”.

The dancing scene occurs when the writers, being tired of waiting for Berlioz, go down to the restaurant where a jazz band is playing. Among those dancing is a Tamara Halfmoon. But the most interesting use of names here comes when the “prominent members of the poetry division of MASSOLIT” are introduced. There are five of these; all but one is given a single name only, and all have distinct meanings. There are: Pavianov- “Baboon”; Bogohoolsky- “Monkey-of-God”; Sladky- “Sweet”; Spichkin- “Matchstick” (or “Pointed Stick”); and finally Adelphina Boozdyak- the last name being the name of a small village in Bashkortostan in Central Russia. At this point I am not sure which to give for these in my translation, the transliteration or the translation. I would go with translations, except that the last one presents some problems.

I found an analysis of the names of these characters, “the writers at Griboedov”, on a website devoted to this novel. In addition to discussing the meanings for the names that I’ve outlined here, this site is also helpful in identifying characters that Bulgakov intended to represent actual writers, but with their names changed. One aspect of this site’s approach that doesn’t quite work for me, though, is the tendency, when translating the meaning of a name to English, to try and make it sound “Russian”: “Babonov” for Baboon, “Blasphemsky” for Blasphemer (which name I still think I want to give as “Monkey-of-God”), “Sweetkin” for Sweet, “Smatchstik” for Matchstick. Really? And as these names are given only singly, and Russian does not use articles, they could conceivably be rendered as the baboon, or the monkey-of-god, etc.

I come away from this analysis of Bulgakov’s choices of names with the impression that he put a lot of thought into them, and I imagine him enjoying the exercise. His use of names supports Colin Burrow’s argument, in the review mentioned above, that “comic dramatists also often seem to have been attracted to what Anne Barton has called Cratylic names – those which appear to endorse the view of Plato’s Cratylus that there is an intrinsic relationship between name and nature.”

© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

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