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

Maria Petrovykh’s ‘Muse’

As it turns out, I did not win this year’s Compass Award for outstanding English language translation of Russian poetry, awarded through the Cardinal Points journal. I did not even make the short list.

Not too disappointed, though, as it was my first entry to any such competition, and now that I am no longer in the running I can present my work to anybody out there with any interest in the Russian poetry of the Soviet period.

This year the contest asked for translations of poems by Maria Petrovykh, a poet who was a friend of some of the greatest luminaries of the early Soviet period, notably Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam; Mandelstam’s poem, Masteritsa vinovatykh vzorov, that Akhmatova called “the greatest love poem of the 20th century,” was dedicated to Petrovykh.

Maria Petrovykh's Muse

Maria Petrovykh

The poem of hers I chose to translate for this contest is Муза—‘Muse.’ As I had not been familiar with ther work until I learned of this competition, I decided this poem would be a good place to start as it might give a clue to what inspired her to write. It turns out that “night” was one of her muses at this time. This is not that surprising for someone who had just survived WWI, the Russian Revolution, The Russian Civil War, the “Red Terror,” unprecedented poltical, economic and social experimentation and the beginnings of Stalinist totalitarianism.

But aside from historical context, I found this to be a beautiful poem, and my humble translation a pale ghost of the real thing. As always I struggled in my efforts to balance meaning, meter, tone and rhyme. I feel convinced that sacrifices must always be made of one for another; a strict observance of the exact meaning of each word makes it impossible to convey the meter and rhyme, but departing too much from meaning for these feels like an abomination.

But sacrificies must me made.

That said, below is my translation, followed by the original:

 

Muse

When by mistake I let the pen slip,
Missing the inkwell, near the moon see it dip,-
To the lake of black nights in its unceasing creep,
Is stitched the overgrown inkwell with a dream from the nightingale’s keep,-
Diverse harmonies rush from the pen,
An astonishing layer of silver on them,
They are like birds, of whose touch I am afraid,
But the lines flock together and fill up the page.
I welcome you here, wild-running night,
And we have exactly one origin and plight-
We are both dark for our doubting eyes,
One homeland we share and she never dies.
I remember how you were conquered by day,
You remember how I, from the rock, broke away,
You ever from the milky paths turn aside,
In the cracks of the lines you do love to hide.
Child of a dream, sketched with nightingale’s hues,
Solitary reader, you are my muse.
I see you off, with no thanks for your time,
But in a froth of delight, I am brimming with rhyme.

1930, Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

translated by John Dougherty 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

Where Were You On 19 August 1991?

History in Literature: The coup attempt in the Soviet Union of 19 August 1991 as viewed from the hinterlands.

19 August 1991

Bolshoi Ballet-Swan Lake-            WWW NEWS CN

I love reading good literature that gives a view of great historical moments from the perspective of ordinary people. At the beginning of Andrei Dmitriev‘s novel The Peasant and the Teenager (Крестьянин и Тинейджер) there is depicted, through the memories of a man in rural Russia, presumably the “peasant,” an event recent enough to be a part of my own consciousness–the coup attempt of August 1991 that sought to reestablish centralized Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union, in reaction to the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The decline of Soviet economic and social life leading up to 1991 is highlighted in the reminiscences of Panyukov, the first character introduced in The Peasant and the Teenager, as he reflects on the life he shared with his childhood friend, Vova, after both had served with the Red Army in Afghanistan. Continue reading

Panyukov’s Televisions

Andrey Dmitriev’s character, Panyukov, marks time according to the life-cycle of his televisions

Panyukov's 'Sunrise'

‘Sunrise’-Soviet Television Set

I have shifted back into translating prose for the time being. The poetry break was nice, but I want to try to actually finish a novel at some point. One of the attractive things about translating a poem, excepting epics like Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin, is that it can be started and finished in a few days, maybe even just one. A novel, on the other hand, is a long term project.
I will present here another passage from The Peasant and the Teenager (Крестьянин и Тинейджер), by Andrey Dmitriev. As mentioned in an earlier post, this novel begins with the introduction of Panyukov, a man living in a village in rural Russia. Panyukov’s character is initially described through his own reflections on his past, on the “best of times” he had enjoyed when his friend Vova still lived across the road and they worked together raising livestock and growing food in their private gardens and greenhouse. The excerpt below hints that the passage of time for Russians living in farm country could be marked by the life-cycle of televisions. It is funny, poignant and sad in a way that only the relatively minor misfortunes of others can be. Continue reading

A Winter’s Night—Pasternak’s ‘Зимняя Ночь’

A Translation of Boris Pasternak’s poem, ‘A Winter’s Night’

Boris Pasternak, a winter's night

Boris Pasternak

Feeling the need to take a break from translating prose, I decided to finally make an attempt to translate a Boris Pasternak poem that, while not seasonally appropriate in May, is one of my favorites—’A Winter’s Night’.

 

A Winter’s Night

The blizzard swept over all the land
Beyond the furthest road
A candle glowed near at hand
A candle glowed
Continue reading

‘Крестьянин и тинейджер’

крестьянин и тинейджер

Andrey Dmitriev

Andrei Viktorovich Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер-The Peasant and the Teenager: A view of Russia in its last decade as a Republic of the U.S.S.R.

крестьянин и тинейджер

Recently I have been engaged in translating and studying certain novels that have won the Russian Booker Prize, an award presented yearly since 1992 to honor outstanding Russian fiction . With this exercise I seek to gain a broader understanding of contemporary Russian thought and culture. My primary interest is in how Russians today view their own history, especially that of the Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet period.

The two works I’ve looked at most recently serve to bookend this period: Казус Кукоцкого (Kazus Kukotskovo = ‘The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky’), by Lyudmila Evgenyevna Ulitskaya, and Крестьянин и Тинейджер (Krest’yanin i Tinyedzhyer = ‘The Peasant and the Teenager’), by Andrei Viktorivich Dmitriev. In a recent post (‘Казус Кукоцкого’) I examined Ulitskaya’s novel as to how it portrays the Revolution and its aftermath, finding her views consistent with my own narrative of this period. Turning to Dmitriev’s ‘The Peasant and the Teenager,’ I was delighted to find not only a portrayal of Russia in the decisive last decade of the U.S.S.R., but one from the perspective of rural, ‘collective farm’ Russia. Continue reading