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, regarding 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.

At this point, with sticky sentences like this, I see what I can do to parse it. I found these meanings for component parts of the sentence in various online reference sites (translate.academic.ru/, https://slovari.yandex.ru/, http://www.multitran.ru/):

  • Все было так= Everything was so/such . . .
  • так= thus, as, so much, just so, like this, so much, to wit, in this vein, like, like that/this
  • так, как= like, such as; the way that;
  • как будто= as if, as though, as if it were; it seems that; apparently
  • должно быть= must be, should be, is bound to be; probably, supposedly . . .

Putting these together, I came up with, “Everything was just as though it was bound to be.” I like the more colloquial “bound to” for “должно быть,” rather than “must be,” “should be,” or “needs to be,” but while the essential meaning seems to work, it fails to capture the beat or alliteration of the original. The Russian sentence sounds something like this: “Vsyo bylo tak, kak boodto tak i dolzhno byt.’ The rhythm, and the repetition of the sounds ‘b,’ ‘t,’ and ‘ak’ are worth trying to preserve, as they almost literally hammer the point home. But as much as I wish I could recreate the musical quality of a Russian phrase in English, I realize this is almost always hopeless. That said, I cannot help but give it a try, or at least look for any opportunity to provide even the slightest hint of it in my translation.

In part to try and get closer to the meter of the original, I tried moving away from the basic sense of “было”—the past tense of “to be,”—and go with its meaning as the past tense of “to occur,” “to take place,” or “to happen.” That led to “Everything happened just as if it was bound to happen.” But I wasn’t happy with “happened” and “to happen” for “было” and “быть:” it seemed like a stretch, and didn’t suggest a philosophical outlook the way the original seems to.

Back to working with “Everything was . . . to be,” I juggled some of the possibilities in my head, at which the thought of using “meant to,” instead of “bound to” occurred to me. I believe this conveys the sense of the original, and helps promote the notion of fatalism that I feel is couched in this sentence.

So the winner (for now) is: “Everything was just as though it was meant to be.”

As a general rule, I avoid looking at any other translations until I have completed what I consider to be a nearly final draft. I want to come to my own understanding of the text, and not be influenced by someone else’s translation before I even start. However, for especially tricky sentences like this, I like to compare my efforts with the way other translators have handled the same phrase. In this case, I was able to look at three examples: Michael Glenny; Richard Pevear & Larissa Volkhonsky; and Diana Burgin & Tiernan O’Connor:

  • “Everything was as it should be.” Glenny
  • “Everything was as if it ought to have been so.” Pevear and Volokhonsky
  • “Everything was seemingly as it should have been.” Burgin and O’Connor.

I like the second one, by Pevear and Volkhonsky, best. It has the same essential meaning as the sentence I came up with, and its meter is closest to the original, but I feel that the “ought to have been so” sounds a little clunky, and too formal or old-fashioned, for me. Glenny’s is too short, and seems to have left out the middle, the “как будто,” part. The one by Burgin and O’Connor is better, but the combination of “seemingly” and the conditional “should have been” doesn’t capture the force of the sentence, which, as mentioned above, is already weakened by the inability to reproduce the rhythm and alliteration of the original in English translation.

At one point in this process I tried to think of an English language phrase or saying that might capture the same meaning. The only one that came to mind is the title to a popular song from the 1950’s that is actually French, along with its English translation—“Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)”—from the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much. While I rejected this as a translation of “Все было так, как будто так и должно быть,” I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of a musical film version of The Master and Margarita, with Doris Day in the role of Margarita, singing this song while dancing around in the Master’s basement apartment on the morning after Satan’s Ball.


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