The Power of “THE”

The Seemingly Most Trivial Word Causing Some Nagging Translation Problems.

the power of "the"

the power of theAs mentioned in some earlier posts, there are aspects of the Russian language that leave the translator to her or his own devices in coming up with coherent, true and comfortable equivalents in English. One of these is the fact that the Russian language does not use the definite articles “a”, “an”, or “the” (see post-Banned Articles as Translation Problems). In most cases this a simple matter of judging from the context which, if any, of these needs to be added to the literal translation to make it work in English. In a simple sentence like, for example – “Он уехал в магазин,” which reads literally- “He went to store,” one can safely put a “the” before “store” without compromising the meaning of the original.

But it isn’t always quite so easy. I am currently bugged by the Russian lack of articles in a specific instance in regards my efforts to write a translation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. This problem presents itself immediately in the title; the English given above is just as it appears in Russian, but the question remains: should it be, as it is in most translations- The Master and Margarita (my emphasis)? And if yes, why? If this title gets an article, why not others: A War and The Peace? The Crime and The Punishment?

It can be guessed from the above examples that the question mainly turns on context and feel. The Master and Margarita sounds way better than The War and Peace, but Master and Margarita (without the “the”) sounds equally better than Quiet Don. This could be, though, because we have become used to certain accepted translations of titles. The commonly recognized version of the last example, And Quiet Flows The Don, sounds great, but the justifications for how that is derived from the original Russian, Тихий Дон– “Quiet Don,” are convoluted.

For me the main question in this instance is, should the title character of the novel be Master, or The Master? When he is introduced in Chapter 13 he stubbornly refuses to give his name as he chats with the poet Ivan Nikolaevich, whose pen name is “Homeless,” but when asked by Ivan if he is a writer he becomes mysterious:

Гость потемнел лицом и погрозил Ивану кулаком, потом сказал:

Я – мастер, – он сделался суров и вынул из кармана халата совершенно засаленную черную шапочку с вышитой на ней желтым шелком буквой «М». Он надел эту шапочку и показался Ивану в профиль и в фас, чтобы доказать, что он – мастер.

So in the original it is just the one word— мастер, or “master.” So I have translated it without the article:

The guest’s face became dark and he threatened Ivan with a fist, but then said:

“I am—Master,” he became stern and pulled from the pocket of his robe a thoroughly greasy black cap with the letter “M” embroidered on it in yellow silk. He put this cap on and displayed it to Ivan in profile and at the front, to demonstrate that he was—Master.

To me this sounds O.K., But here he is referring to himself, but later, when the narrator uses this title, it seems to beg for a “the.” For example:

Ивану стало известным, что мастер и незнакомка полюбили друг друга так крепко, что стали совершенно неразлучны.

It became known to Ivan that the Master and the unknown woman loved one another so strongly that they became completely inseparable.

Unable, so far, to find any rules or principles of translation theory to guide me in my use of articles in translation, I am left with the approach of simply doing what feels and sounds good to me. In this case, I am tempted to leave “master” without an article when the character with this title refers to himself, and to use “the Master” in all other cases (I won’t get into, here, the problem that in the original this title is mostly not capitalized). For the title of the novel this rule would call for adding the article, making it The Master and Margarita.

the power of the
Master Mikhail Bulgakov

This still leaves me pondering the power of definite articles in English. To me, an English speaker, there is a big difference between, master, a master and the master. How does the Russian language do without these? On the other hand, one might ask why English needs to use them. Is it not better to be more specific than “a” and “the”? There are any number of modifiers that could clearly define the character and importance of any “master,” for example: his master, all-knowing master, master of her domain, master of the universe.

But I come to the conclusion that while it might seem a trivial word, still, I’m not able to find a single Russian word that quite captures the power of the English “the.” Any suggestions?

© 2014, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

2 thoughts on “The Power of “THE””

  1. “To me, an English speaker, there is a big difference between, master, a master and the master. How does the Russian language do without these? ” – I would say you just feel what message author/speaker sends you.

    In “War and peace” – when you read these 2 words, do you think about certain war (you imagine, let’s say people with Kalashnikovs in jungles of Africa. Or you see marines on big ship, looking into the sky. Or samurai clans fighting to each other..)? Or it immediately makes you philosopher – you start thinking about destinies of innocent people in conflicts around the globe, destruction, greed of countries’ rulers, etc… For me it is the second case, which means it is not “the war”.

    The same logic makes me think, that title of Bulgakov’s novel requires “the” in English. We have мастер и Маргарита. Amount of “masters” is limited (everybody knows that talented people are not easy to find). Margarita is not Natalia or Irina. It is less common name and it stands out. Chances that someone who can be called “master” will meet a woman with name “Margarita” are very low. Also “man and woman” combination makes people to suspect that it is more than just “random person and random person”. There is a chemistry in the title. These circumstances make us to conclude that in the title author talks about unique situation and exact person, the master.
    In the text of novel I would use indefinite article or zero article in places, where мастер use as synonym of profession. For example, here: “Я – мастер, – он сделался суров и вынул из кармана халата совершенно засаленную черную шапочку …”

    And when it is used instead of his name – the. As you do it here: Ивану стало известным, что мастер и незнакомка полюбили друг друга так крепко, что стали совершенно неразлучны.

    Thank you for very interesting blog. I found it accidentally and enjoyed reading your posts.

    1. Thank you for contributing you thoughts on what I consider to be a very fun subject. Your point about how whether ‘War and Peace’ refers to a specific war, or war in general, informs the use of an article, or not, in the translation is right on. I have decided to use “the” in most of the text with “Master,” but for the title I’m still a little ambivalent about using it, if only because it sounds more like the original without it, and for the first-time reader the use of the term “Master” has not yet been established.

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