I want to write today (October 17, 2013) about a specific important difference between Russian and English that poses translation problems—minor ones, yet to me irritating and annoying. I will discuss this as it applies specifically to my efforts to translate Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (see also- The “Foreigner”, According to “The Plan”, My Approach to Translating Russian Prose to English , “The Old-Timers of Moscow Will Remember. . .!”, The Nature of Bulgakov’s Names, The Dread Pirate Archibald Archibaldovich, The Blizzard Gets Stronger?)
In some ways Russian is marked by a greater economy of usage than English. One of these is its tendency to omit words that could be argued to be unnecessary, but that in English are mandatory:
Articles: the, a, an–these words do not exist in the Russian language.
Pronouns, especially as the subject: in a Russian phrase, inflection–the function of variable word endings–usually ensures that the verb itself gives indication of the number and gender of who, or what, is performing the action. This, together with context, allows for the omission of a separate word for the subject when the phrase clearly refers to a specific person or thing.
The word “and” when used to connect phrases in a list: this is something I am encountering in Bulgakov but that I really don’t know is common in Russian usage. Some of Bulgakov’s sentences are lists of sequential actions, but are often free of this conjunction.
The first two of these peculiarities of Russian are usually easy to deal with—insert an article or an appropriate pronoun, and get the meaning without feeling like the original is being corrupted. The last issue, though, gives me pause. Does the addition of an “and” interrupt a particular flow that Bulgakov is trying to give to the sentence? He certainly uses “and” quite often, but not always where it seems there should be one. In some cases his lists read to me like run-on sentences, and I am tempted to break them up with periods. But this feels to me like an interference with Bulgakov’s choices. In the end I usually go with what feels right; balancing the feel of the original with what is easy to read in English.
These translation problems are relatively minor considerations, of course, but they bedevil me sometimes. Below are some examples of sentences from chapter XI of Master and Margarita. After the original I give a near literal translation, for which I have preserved the word order of the original and declined to add pronouns and articles, but have added other words whose meaning is implied in the inflection of the Russian words. This is then followed by my take on how the sentence should read in a literary translation of the work:
В небе то и дело вспыхивали нити, небо лопалось, комнату больного заливало трепетным пугающим светом.
In sky again and again flashed tendrils, sky burst, room of patient was washed with quivering alarming light.
In the sky tendrils flashed again and again, the sky burst, and the patient’s room was washed in an alarming, quivering light.
К тому времени, как появилась издалека пугающая туча с дымящимися краями и накрыла бор и дунул ветер, Иван почувствовал, что обессилел, что с заявлением ему не совладать, не стал поднимать разлетевшихся листков и тихо и горько заплакал.
By that time as appeared from afar frightening cloud with smoky edges and covered forest and blew wind, Ivan felt that had lost strength, that with report he not to cope, did not try to pick up scattered pages and quietly and bitterly wept.
By the time the fearsome thundercloud with smoky edges appeared from afar and covered the forest, and the wind blew, Ivan felt that he had lost his strength, that he could not cope with the report. He did not pick up the scattered pages, but quietly and bitterly wept.
Добродушная фельдшерица Прасковья Федоровна навестила поэта во время грозы, встревожилась, видя, что он плачет, закрыла штору, чтобы молнии не пугали больного, листки подняла с полу и с ними побежала за врачом.
Good-natured nurse Praskovaya Fedorovna visited poet in time of thunderstorm, became upset, seeing, that he is crying, closed shades, so that lightning would not scare patient, pages picked up from floor and with them ran off for doctor.
The good-natured nurse Praskovaya Fedorovna dropped in on the poet during the thunderstorm, became upset, seeing that he was crying, closed the shades so that the lightning would not scare the patient, picked up the pages from the floor and ran off with them for the doctor.
Как–то смягчился в памяти проклятый бесовский кот, не пугала более отрезанная голова, и, покинув мысль о ней, стал размышлять Иван о том, что, по сути дела, в клинике очень неплохо, что Стравинский умница и знаменитость и что иметь с ним дело чрезвычайно приятно.
Somehow softened in memory damned diabolical cat, not scared longer severed head, and, dropping thoughts of these, began to consider Ivan about that, what, in point of fact, in clinic very not bad, that Stravinsky clever and respectable and that to have with him business extremely pleasant.
Somehow in his memory the damned diabolical cat was softened, the severed head no longer frightening, and, putting these thoughts aside, Ivan began to consider that, in fact, the clinic was not so bad, that Stravinsky was clever and respectable, and that dealing with him was quite pleasant.
Дом скорби засыпал. В тихих коридорах потухли матовые белые лампы, и вместо них согласно распорядку зажглись слабые голубые ночники, и все реже за дверями слышались осторожные шажки фельдшериц на резиновых половиках коридора.
House of affliction fell asleep. In quiet corridors went out frosted white lamps, and instead of them according to order were lit weak blue night-lights, and occasionally from behind doors was heard careful steps of nurses on rubber mats of corridor.
The house of affliction went to sleep. In the quiet hallways the frosted white lights went out, and in their place, according to procedure, weak blue night-lights came on, and occasionally from behind the doors was heard the careful footsteps of nurses on the rubber floor mats of the corridor.
© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved