More Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature

Devil

Homeless Devil Berlioz

In an earlier post—Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature—I compared Bulgakov’s Satan with the Devil that appears to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan, one of the Brothers Karamazov. There are many similarities. Both seem to be gentlemanly, and in Dostoevsky, Ivan is sure that this character is the product of the delirium from his own “brain fever”, in Bulgakov, when the Master first encounters the Satan character, he says, “it would, of course, be much easier to consider you the product of a hallucination.” (These are reminiscent, too, of Scrooge’s argument that the ghost of Jacob Marley may be the result of a “slight disorder of the stomach,” in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”).

In that earlier post, I was concerned mainly with the outward appearance of the Devil, as described by both authors, and his manner. But I also included some discussion of how Dostoevsky’s Devil muses on the nature of good and evil, and his place in the conflict between them. He argues to Ivan that he is not inherently evil, or even bad, but that fate had chosen him to be the representative of these things, as a counterpoint to good:

Before time was, by some decree which I could never make out, I was pre-destined ‘to deny’ and yet I am genuinely good-hearted and not at all inclined to negation. ‘No, you must go and deny, without denial there’s no criticism and what would a journal be without a column of criticism?’ Without criticism it would be nothing but one ‘hosannah.’ But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style. But I don’t meddle in that, I didn’t create it, I am not answerable for it. Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there’d be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events.
(Translation by Constance Garnett)

I had written about this after only having gotten as far as chapter 15 in The Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream”, and so didn’t really know of a passage from that novel to compare to this one from The Brothers Karamazov. Imagine my surprise, and delight, when I got around to translating Chapter 29, “The Fate of the Master and Margarita Decided”, and found this exchange between Voland (a.k.a. Satan) and Levi Matvey (a.k.a. Matthew, disciple of Jesus and author of one of the gospels):

     “I come to you, spirit of evil and lord of shadows . . .” replied the intruder, glaring at Voland with hostility.
     “If you come to me, then why do you not give me greetings, former tax collector?” Voland spoke dryly.
     “Because I do not wish you to be well,” the intruder answered coolly.
     “But you must come to terms with the fact,” Voland objected, and a wry smile twisted his mouth, “that you had no sooner appeared on the roof than you smacked of absurdity, and I’ll tell you where it is—it’s in your tone of voice. You utter your words as if you do not acknowledge shadows, or evil for that matter.Wont you be so kind as to consider the question: what would your good accomplish, if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if the shadows were gone from it? Shadows come from things and people, in fact. Behold the shadow from my sword. But there are shadows from trees and from living beings. Do you want to skin the entire globe, tearing away from it all the trees and the living things, for your fantasy of basking in pure light? Youre a fool.
(translation by John Dougherty)

Both Dostoevsky and Bulgakov both put forth the proposition that evil is essential to existence, that without it, good would not be good for anything. The Devil has a bad job, but it is crucial to life as we know it, and for that reason, he should be shown some sympathy, and some taste.

 

 

 

 

 

Dreams, Dreams, Dreams

With two dreams, one after another in Master and Margarita, Bulgakov touches on some risky subjects.

As mentioned at the beginning of my last post (“Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”), my efforts to translate Chapter XV of Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” led me to become fascinated with the use of dreams as a device in Russian novels. My first avenue for delving into this topic further was Dostoevsky’s use of it in The Brother’s Karamazov, specifically the chapter titled, “The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare.” This provided not only another example of a dream sequence, but also another depiction of the devil, so I devoted that last post to a comparison of Dostoevsky’s devil with Bulgakov’s.

Dreams of Nikanor Ivanovich

Soviet Show Trial-https://robertgraham.wordpress.com/category/anarchism/volume-1/chapter-18-the-russian-revolution/

I remained intrigued, however, by the dream thing. As I began translating the next chapter of Master and Margarita, “The Execution,” I was delighted to find that I was dealing here with yet another dream—this one dreamt by Ivan (Bulgakov’s Ivan, not Dostoevsky’s); two dreams in a row! Continue reading

Banned Articles (And the Occassional Conjunction) as Translation Problems

translation problems

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: Continue reading

The Blizzard Gets Stronger?

More On the Strange Results from Free Online Translation Sites: Bulgakov’s “Varenukha,” A Spicy Fruit Liqueur? Or “The Blizzard Gets Stronger?”

the blizzard gets stronger

Varenukha?

the blizzard gets stronger

or Varenukha?

 

 

 

 

 

 

In earlier posts I’ve hinted at my fascination with the strange and humorous forms that language sometimes takes in online translation applications (see posts-Google-translate: original Russian vs Google vs MeGooglisms- Russian to English). These delight me on a number of levels: for the assurance I get that there is still something a human can do better than a computer, for the comedic value I see in this sort of verbal slapstick, and for the insights into the nature of language I gain from looking at how and why it can go so wrong.

Recently I discovered another free translation site that I find even more entertaining than Google or Bing (formerly Windows Live Translator); translation.babylon.com is especially notable for its greater tendency to insert proper names, often unnecessarily, and to translate a single word as an entire phrase, occasionally an English quote or idiom. I was especially struck, and remain puzzled, by its preference for rendering the name of one character from Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita–Varenukha, (Russian- Варенуха)–as the English phrase “the blizzard gets stronger.” Continue reading

‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook,’ Coming to America.

Hamm and Radcliffe bathing together in a young doctor's notebook

Daniel Radcliffe and John Hamm in the bathtub scene from ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook.’

Bulgakov’s A Young Doctor’s Notebook to be aired in the U.S. on the cable channel Ovation.

An article in The New York Times today (July 14, 2013) announced that the British four part mini-series of A Young Doctor’s Notebook, based on the stories of Mikhail Bulgakov and starring John Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe, will air in the U.S. this Fall on the cable channel Ovation. This is especially good news for me as I had managed to view the first episode, but have been unable to find any version, paid or free, of subsequent episodes. Hopefully I will be able to view this series from Ovation’s website, and not have to get cable TV.

Previous to hearing about this production last year, I had not read the collection of Bulgakov’s stories that inspired it—Notes of a Country Doctor. Having decided to read an English translation of this collection before viewing A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and now having seen the first episode, I am more eager than ever to watch the rest as I am interested in how they handled Bulgakov’s unexpectedly dark, and deeply disturbing conclusion. I don’t know what to expect, really, as this production introduces the new and significant element of having the older doctor (Hamm) visiting and engaging with his younger self (Radcliffe) as he stumbles through his first assignment as “a real doctor” in a hospital in remotest rural Russia. 

For my first mention of this production and review of the first episode, see my previous posts: Harry Potter and Don Draper do Bulgakov and A Young Doctor’s Notebook- episode 1 reviewed.

Also check out my translations, and discussions, of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: The “Foreigner”; My Approach to Translating Prose; The Old-Timers in Moscow Will Remember!; The Nature in Bulgakov’s Names; The Dread Pirate Archibald Archibaldovich.

© 2013, John Dougherty. All rights reserved

The Dread Pirate Archibald Archibaldovich

Archibald Archibaldovich

 

Who the hell is Archibald Archibaldovich? And what is with that name? The introduction of this particular character in chapter V of Master and Margarita is so clever, and fun, that I am awed by it. The process goes something like this: the name is casually dropped, and quickly forgotten; later, a rather striking figure is described, but not given a name; toward the end of the chapter the person and the name come together, and the context is surprising. Continue reading

The Nature in Bulgakov’s Names

In chapter V of Master and Margarita, Bulgakov introduces a number of individuals, and their names present me with new translation problems, mainly concerning the translation of names for fictional characters. This chapter has brought me to consider how a writer of fiction chooses names for his/her characters: do they just pop into the writer’s head? Are they familiar names of acquaintances? Does the writer’s pet monkey leaf through a book of names and press its finger to one when needed? In some works of fiction the names seem somewhat random and unimportant, but in others the names themselves lend something to the story. I came across a review of a recently published book on the subject; Literary Names: Personal Names in English Literature by Alastair Fowler, Oxford, September 2012. Colin Burrow writes a good review of it, on the London Review of Books website.

behemouth, Azazello
Names mean things. In English, last-names like Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor are common and have origins that are clear. But when translating from Russian, if I were to come across names like Plotnik, Ivanov, Kuznetzky or Portnoy, I would probably not change them to the English equivalent of their root meanings (Carpenter, Johnson, Smith or Taylor, respectively); I would just transliterate them. But in some cases the meaning of the name is important. Continue reading

“The Old-Timers in Moscow Will Remember! . .”

Mosocow @1930

As I was translating a passage from Master and Margarita, it dawned on me that what I was reading was the author’s own reflection on the kinds of changes that Moscow had gone through during the two decades that saw World War I, revolution, the end of Tsarism, the establishment of Communist Party rule, Civil War and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Given what I know of Russian history, I found this little aside in chapter V to be enormously interesting, bold and insightful. Continue reading

All According to “The Plan”

In a previous post I commented about use of comedy, satire, absurdity and fantasy in Russian literature to mask political or social commentary, and hopefully avoid censorhip. I found in the first chapter of Master and Margarita what could be read as a critique of policies that were at the foundation of the Communist Party’s attempt to realize a socialist/non-capitalist economy in the Soviet Union—the Five Year Plans.

But first a brief overview of the history of Soviet economics: Continue reading