My Approach to Translating Russian Prose to English

I want to examine the methods I have developed, to this point, for translating Russian prose to English. As mentioned in an earlier post, I am currently working on a translation of the Soviet-era novel Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. I will use a single paragraph from this novel to illustrate each step in my process of transforming Russian writing into what I hope is a readable English that accurately and fully captures the meaning and style of the original. translating Bulgakov

I would first like to make it clear that the methods described here are not ones that I am promoting as “superior”, or even necessarily “good”. What follows is simply a description of my personal practice in trying to understand, and properly render into English, some of the Russian prose fiction that I love.
This process can be broken down into five steps: read the original; look at it again for a quick assessment of how it might look in English; work out some of the troublesome problems of vocabulary and syntax; write as accurate a translation as I can while not violating English rules of grammar and style; write a more polished draft that preserves all the meaning of the original but is readable in English, and also conveys much of the mood found in the original.
The paragraph I will use as an example comes from Chapter IV of Master and Margarita—“The Pursuit”. In this chapter the poet Ivan Nikolaevich, who writes under the pen-name “Homeless”, is trying to track down “the Professor”, whom he thinks is responsible for a heinous crime he has just witnessed. Being led into a certain apartment house, he enters a room from a dark corridor and finds not the professor, but a naked woman standing in a bath tub with a sponge in her hand. This near-sighted woman apparently mistakes Ivan for her lover, and she laughingly warns him, “Fedor Ivanich will be back any minute! Get out of here now!”
It is the paragraph immediately following this that I will analyze:

The Original:
Недоразумение было налицо, и повинен в нем был, конечно, Иван Николаевич. Но признаться в этом он не пожелал и, воскликнув укоризненно: «Ах, развратница!..» – тут же зачем-то очутился на кухне. В ней никого не оказалось, и на плите в полумраке стояло безмолвно около десятка потухших примусов. Один лунный луч, просочившись сквозь пыльное, годами не вытираемое окно, скупо освещал тот угол, где в пыли и паутине висела забытая икона, из-за киота которой высовывались концы двух венчальных свечей. Под большой иконой висела пришпиленная маленькая – бумажная.

I read this through one time, and then again to try and get a first impression for a rough draft of an English translation.

First Impression:
There was, on the face of it, a vague misunderstanding, and the culprit in this was, of course, Ivan Nokolaevich. But acknowledging in this he did not want and, shouting . . ? . .: “Ah, (woman of diffuse something)! . .” here for some reason he . . ? . himself in the kitchen. In it no one appeared, and on the stove in the half-light stood . .? . around two dozen . . ? . . ? . One moon beam, . ? . . across the dusty, in years not cleaned window, barely lit that corner, where in the dust and . . ? . . hung a forgotten icon, from behind . ? . . that . . ? . . of the end of two . . ? . . candles. Under a big icon hung . . ? . . small–paper.

At this point I know which words I need to find definitions for. I also notice some problems of structure and syntax that will need to be worked out, but these usually become clearer as I understand more of the vocabulary. In this paragraph there are at least ten words I need to look up; there will probably be more as some of the words I think I know probably have connotations that I am not aware of, but that would work better. One example of this is the word “plita” (плита), which I know to mean “stove”. And while “stove” is a correct translation of this word, I found it can also can also mean, “range”, “slab”, “flag stone” or “marble slab”. I chose “counter” because after looking up the word “primusov” (примусов) in the next phrase I see that on this “plita” are “ a dozen or so Primus stoves”. Since I thought it sounded odd to say “on the stove stood a dozen stoves”, I decided that, as this was a kitchen, a “slab”, or “marble slab” could likely constitute a counter. And so “plita” will eventually become “stone counter” here.
For an especially difficult paragraph or sentence I will often put the whole thing through google-translate to at least start to get at the meaning. For this paragraph it was only the second and the second-to-last sentences that cried out for this treatment. But for this analysis I will give the entire paragraph, as translated by Google, to demonstrate the possibilities for, and the limitations of , help from this quarter.

The Google translate Version:
Misunderstanding was there, and it was responsible, of course, Ivan. But admit it, he did not want to and, exclaiming reproachfully: “Oh, slag! ..” – Immediately for some reason, he found himself in the kitchen. There was no one, and at the plate in the shadows stood silent about a dozen extinguished stoves. One moonlight, spilled through the dusty years did not wipe the window, says little about the the corner where the dust and cobwebs hung forgotten icon, which protrudes from Kyoto ends of two wedding candles. Under the big icon hung pinned small – paper. (sic)

In this instance google-translate doesn’t provide much help other than giving some definitions; for example I now get “reproachfully”, “extinguished”, “cobwebs” and “wedding”. But I also get “slag” and “Kyoto”, which don’t seem to fit here.

On further investigation I find that “slag” is British slang for “a promiscuous woman”, and google-translate mistakes the genitive form of the word “киот” (kiot), meaning a case or cabinet for an icon, with the Russian spelling of the Japanese city/prefecture, Kyoto.
So the next task is to look up the remaining words I don’t know the definitions of, and put this all together with my understanding of the rules of Russian grammar to get an English translation that best captures the literal meaning of the original in a way that is readable in English.

Preliminary Draft:
There was a misunderstanding here, and to blame for it, of course, was Ivan Nikolaevich. But to this he did not want to admit, and exclaimed reproachfully: ” Ah, slut!” and then, for some reason, he found himself in a kitchen. No one was there, and on a slab of stone in the half-light mutely stood a dozen or so extinguished Primus stoves. One moonbeam, seeping through a dusty, not wiped in years window, meagerly illuminated that corner, where among the dust and cobwebs hung a neglected icon, from behind the case of which protruded the ends of two wedding candles. Beneath the large icon was pinned a small object–of paper.

The last step is perhaps the trickiest; it is here that the temptation to rewrite the original is greatest. But my primary goals are to make it true to the original, functional according to the rules of English grammar and style, and an enjoyable read. As this last bit depends on my own idea of what is “enjoyable” in literature, this step necessarily introduces a subjective element. To try and strike the right balance between the object (the original text) and the subject (the reader), I write it the way I would like to read it, but only in so far as I add nothing and take nothing away, if at all possible.
Another difficult aspect of this step involves my recognition that this kind of writing has its own historical, social and cultural context. As a student of Russian and Russian history I “get” some of this, but as an American there is a lot I don’t get, and a lot I bring to this work that is definitely not Russian. So I do my best to work with the knowledge I have, and to learn from the author as I go. One consideration, though, that works in my favor is the fact that my translation should resonate more with one who might read it, a person literate in English, than it would with Bulgakov and his contemporaries anyway.
This is also the step that I find to be the most fun. I get to play with the word order, use an English language dictionary and thesaurus, and maybe even use an English idiom or two, while still following the rules I’ve set for myself. This is the part that feels most like writing.

Final (maybe) Draft:
There was a misunderstanding here, and the blame for it, of course, fell to Ivan Nikolaevich. But he did not want to admit this and, exclaiming reproachfully, “Ah, you slut!” right then, for some season, found himself in a kitchen. There was no one else in there, and on a stone counter in the half-light a dozen or so extinguished Primus stoves stood mutely. One moonbeam, seeping through a dusty window that had not been wiped in years, feebly illuminated that corner where among the dust and cobwebs hung a neglected icon, from behind the frame of which protruded the ends of two wedding candles. Beneath the large icon was pinned a smaller one–of paper.

I had to read over, a number of times, the part where Ivan goes from being in a bathroom and reproaching the naked woman with the sponge, to suddenly being in a kitchen confronted with camp stoves and icons. But that is what it says. And enough really strange, even supernatural, things happen in the story to this point that I could trust I was translating this properly.
This kind of final draft is often not the last word. The last line of this paragraph was a puzzle. It literally reads, “ Under the large icon hung pinned small—paper.” So I struggled to decide—a small what? Pinned? What about “paper”? Whatever it is, it must be feminine. I originally wrote something like: Under the large icon, hanging by a pin, was a small object—of paper. But when I moved on to the next paragraph I found the very next line to read, “No one knows what came over Ivan now, only that, before running out the back door he confiscated one of these candles, and the paper icon as well.” So now I could presume that the “pinned small—paper” was, in fact, an icon. But as the adjectives “pinned”, “small” and “paper” were all in the feminine form, I had to see if any form of “icon” was feminine. Looking back at the paragraph I saw that the Russian word for icon–икона (ikona)–is, in fact feminine; so it still works. I worried that writing a smaller “one” violated my rule to never add anything, but decided that I was not adding anything to the implied meaning, and that I could not make it work otherwise; I had to somehow indicate that this thing was an icon, or the reference in the next sentence to the “paper icon” that Ivan was confiscating would not make sense.
So all of this is an outline of what I often do in my spare time. It may sound tedious to some, but I find it exciting, with the unfolding of each idea or scene coming as the discovery of some hidden treasure.