Just Published: New Translation of ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov

I am pleased to announce the initial publication my translation of the 20th century Russian classic, The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Translating this novel from Russian to English has been a joy and an obsession; I finally feel that it is translated, edited, proofed and formatted to my satisfaction, and so ready to go out into the world. Currently it is only available as a Kindle e-book, but is days away from release as a trade-paperback. It will also soon be available on Apple’s iBooks store and at Barnes & Noble.

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by John Dougherty 

The Master and Margarita


An epic tale of love, good and evil, The Master and Margarita is at once serous and absurd, mundane and fantastic, humorous and dark. When the mysterious “black magician,” Voland, arrives in Moscow in the 1930s, all hell breaks loose. Voland and his cronies use extraordinary means to highlight the selfishness and pettiness of so many Muscovites, and make them suffer as a result. At this same time, one Margarita Nikolaevna, and a writer who calls himself “the master,” are engaged in a struggle to find peace in a world turned upside down in the aftermath of world war, revolution, and civil war, and a society crushed under the increasing repression exercised by the new Communist Party regime.

My translation of this Soviet-Russian classic by Mikhail Bulgakov began as a simple reading of it in English translation. My wife had brought home a copy of The Master and Margarita lent to her by a friend. I got as far as page three and realized: What am I doing? I can read this in Russian! Reading the original Russian inspired me to examine the language to try and understand the meaning more precisely and deeply. I soon decided that I should be writing down the findings of my research, and so this reading turned into a translation project. By the end of this work, three goals had emerged: first, to capture as best I could the nuances of meaning in every sentence; second, to craft a telling of The Master and Margarita that would preserve this meaning while making it a pleasure to read in English; third, and most importantly, to keep this awesome story alive. This last aim makes me feel like a teller of epic tales from a pre-literate age: one whose main tasks were to stay true to the memory of the story, and at the same time to know the experiences and culture of his/her audience, and to speak to them.

In the coming days I will be posting a list of questions for study and discussion, which will be useful in academia and for book groups. This list will be open to addition, and will hopefully inspire a discussion in the pages of this blog. Please feel free to engage, suggest new avenues for discussion of The Master and Margarita, and/or review this translation.

I can only hope that this translation will be a pleasure for others to read, as it was for me to translate, and that it might inspire others to remember and relate the epic tale of The Master and Margarita. 

7 thoughts on “Just Published: New Translation of ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov”

  1. Great and thank you for coming out with a new translation. It would be really helpful how your translation is different from the existing ones, especially the Pevear version? I don’t have any affinity to any particular translation, just that I am curious to know how yours better the others.

    1. Thank you, Eshwar, for asking a very important question. I have to honestly confess that my motivation for writing this translation was not to provide a different or better one. I was motivated by my love of language, love of word puzzles, and love of this story, which quickly took hold of me as I began reading it in Russian. This project began when my wife brought home a copy of an English translation (by Pevear and Volkonsky) that had been given to her by a friend. Though a devoted scholar of Russian and things Russian, I had not yet read this novel, so when I found it lying around I picked it up and began reading. I got to page three before it occurred to me: “What am I doing? I can read this in the original Russian.” Reading it in Russian, I found that the character of the language, and the way the story develops, made me want to understand every sentence, and so I couldn’t help but look up words, and try different English renderings of certain phrases. In a way, I was translating it before I even realized it.
      To your question of how mine is better than other translations, I can’t answer that question as I haven’t read more than a few passages of any other translation. I feel that mine tells the story accurately, and I can only hope that it is even half as entertaining and engaging as the original. As far as how this translation is different, I must suppose that it reflects my own understanding of both the English and Russian languages, and so is unique. My approach to translating is, simply put, to understand every passage, and to try to come up with an English version for each that both preserves the original, and is that I would like to read.
      If my translation succeeds in introducing this amazing tale to even one person who would not have otherwise have read it, I will feel it was worth the effort.

  2. I have just recently read this book and your insights on this site are great. You mentioned that you were going to put together a list of questions/discussion ideas for book clubs and scholars. Did you ever do that? I would love to see that list as this is a book that absolutely fascinates me in its depth, creativity, and commentary.

  3. Dear Mr Dougherty,

    Thank you for your online presence! What interests me is which Russian manuscript you have used as a basis for your translation? It would be very useful for the comparison.

  4. I emigrated from Soviet Union thirty years ago and now live in Texas. At some point I felt necessary to acquaint my English-speaking friends with arguably the most important piece of Russian literature there is – Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. We can discuss at great length why it has become that, but suffice to say that no other Russian piece is quoted (mostly without acknowledgement and often without realization) as frequently as this one, in everyday speak.
    When I realized that there were multiple translations into Russian (six by that time: Ginsburg, Glenny, Burgin & O’Connor, Pevear & Volkhonsky, Karpelson and Aplin) I set onto comparing them, to be able to give to my friends the best possible rendition. My truly bilingual step-son agreed to do it with me, independently, to compare notes later.
    I found, to my surprise, that several of translations make factual mistakes. [The most glaring example is Glenny’s rendition of Stepa’s attempt to determine whether he was wearing pants (chapter 7). Stepa, of course failed to make the determination; Glenny mistranslates as “was not”.]
    Also, the comparison revealed to our surprise that subsequent translations freely borrowed from the previous ones by paragraphs and more. Perhaps that could be interpreted as homage to an already impeccable job.
    In both my son’s and my opinions, no translation is really bad. [The Ginsburg translation has an unfortunate distinction of being abbreviated; she was working from the censored first Russian edition (Moscow Magazine) 1966-67 ].
    Remarkably, independently from each other, both of us placed two translations on top: Karpelson and Aplin.
    I would be thrilled to get my hands on the Dougherty translation. So far all I see is the Kindle edition however. Is there a way to get a paper copy?
    Please advise,

    1. Thank you, Michael, for your interest in my translation of this amazing work. I would be more than more than thrilled, and grateful, to get any critique of my translation. I did not write it because I thought other translations were lacking; in fact, I had never read any before I started. Rather, my efforts started as a simple reading of the original Russian. I had to puzzle out some of the passages, and would write down my conclusions. Soon I decided to just write everything down as I went, and so my reading turned into a translation project. Since finishing it, I have read two others–by Glenny, and by Pevear & Volkhonsky. I was happy to find that mine was mostly in agreement with these two, and in some cases I liked my own phrasing better. I am especially eager to know how I handled parts of the Pilate/Yeshua chapters, as I found the language there to be a little more difficult at times.
      Both hardback and paperback copies of my translation are available from the Barnes and Noble website: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-master-and-margarita-john-dougherty/1127765706?ean=9780999055335 .
      Or, if you’d prefer, I would be happy to send you a copy myself. You can contact me via email, at jdoc@russiantumble.com
      I look forward to hearing from you.

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