The Master and Margarita – the best translation?

In a mostly adoring essay entitled “You Don’t Know Dick”, Jonathan Lethem admits what’s obvious to anyone who’s ever cracked one of Philip K. Dick’s novels:

[Dick is] that species of great writer, the uneven-prose species: Dickens, Dreiser, and Highsmith are others. Russians will tell you Dostoyevsky is too, and that we don’t know this because translators have been covering his ass.

I don’t know which Russians Lethem has been consulting, and I can’t tell whether he’s implying that Dostoyevsky’s writing is as clumsy as Dickens’ (no great shame in that) or as clumsy as Philip K. Dick’s (yikes). But now I wonder, have English readers been ill-served by these deceptively elegant translations? Are we missing something of the original homely flavour of Dostoyevsky’s sentences? Do we not deserve access to a version of The Idiot that is as badly-written as the one Russians cherish?

I was reminded of Lethem’s comment while reading The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov’s most famous novel, written in the 1930s but unpublished until 1966, has been translated into English at least six times. The best-known versions are by Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Michael Glenny (1967), Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor (1995), and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (1997).

So my first task, when my book club settled on The Master and Margarita for its next meeting, was to determine which translation I wanted to read. Based on the excerpts provided on the About Last Night blog, I decided I would seek out Glenny’s. But I live in a small town, and there aren’t many copies of The Master and Margarita available in the half-dozen or so good used bookstores hereabouts. To be precise, I found one*: the Penguin Classics Pevear-Volokhonsky translation. It was in good shape and it cost ten bucks, and it seemed easier to just grab it rather than wait for the Glenny edition to arrive, more expensively, via Abebooks.

After our meeting, I borrowed the Glenny and Burgin-O’Connor translations from fellow book-clubbers. As a service to the reading community, here are two more versions of the opening paragraph, for comparison with the Ginsburg and Glenny versions excerpted on About Last Night:

At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy shirt, wrinkled white trousers and black sneakers. [Pevear-Volokhonsky]

One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch’s Ponds. One of them – fortyish, wearing a gray summer suit – was short, dark-haired, bald on top, paunchy, and held his proper fedora in his hand; black horn-rimmed glasses of supernatural proportions adorned his well-shaven face. The other one – a broad-shouldered, reddish-haired, shaggy young man with a checked cap cocked on the back of his head – was wearing a cowboy shirt, crumpled white trousers, and black sneakers. [Burgin-O'Connor]

There doesn’t seem to be much to choose from in these samples, so let’s dig a little deeper into the book. Here’s an awkward paragraph: the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth (a talking cat) have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (“crow”, in the Glenny version). Pevear and Volokohnsky offer:

Having returned Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her and asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella exchanged smacking kisses with Margarita, the cat kissed her hand, everyone waved to the master, who collapsed lifelessly and motionlessly in the corner of the seat, waved to the rook, and at once melted into air, considering it unnecessary to take the trouble of climbing the stairs.

Granted it was late and I was sleepy, but I had to read this paragraph four or five times before I figured out that it was not the master who “waved to the rook, and at once melted into air”, but rather “everyone” – Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context this makes sense – it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. Still, there’s no reason to muddle the reader this way, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin and O’Connor resolve the pronoun issue but the paragraph still feels cluttered:

After returning Woland’s gift to Margarita, Azazello said good-bye to her, asked if she was comfortably seated, Hella enthusiastically smothered Margarita with kisses, the cat kissed her hand, the group waved to the Master, who, lifeless and inert, had sunk into the corner of his seat, then they waved to the rook and immediately melted into thin air, not considering it worth the trouble to climb back up the stairs.

(Incidentally, this is the only one of the three translations that chooses to capitalize “Master”; which seems appropriate, since the character is given no other name.)

What Burgin-O’Connor and Pevear-Volokhonsky have in common is that they labour to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. (From Burgin and O’Connor’s Translator’s Note: “[W]e have tried, as far as possible without sacrificing clarity, not to break up Bulgakov’s long sentences and to adhere to his word order.”) Glenny’s version reads more easily because he has been freer in his punctuation:

Having returned Woland’s present to Margarita, Azazello said goodbye to her, enquiring if she was comfortably seated; Hella gave her a smacking kiss and the cat pressed itself affectionately to her hand. With a wave to the master as he lowered himself awkwardly into his seat and a wave to the crow, the party vanished into thin air, without bothering to return indoors and walk up the staircase.

…But then, Glenny omits the information that the Master is “lifeless and inert” – for what it’s worth. Obviously he has made the editorial decision that the Master’s exhausted state is communicated well enough in surrounding paragraphs that it can be economically left out of this one.

My impression from browsing is that there’s very little to decide between the Pevear-Volokhonsky and Burgin-O’Connor versions; they say pretty much the same thing in slightly different ways. Glenny’s is the outlier. His translation seems easier to read, but the ease may come at the expense of exactitude. Personally I’m not sure how much that matters; I can live with a translation that loses a few details like “lifeless and inert”, even if Bulgakov himself might grumble. (But then, what if I’m missing something more important? – see below.)

But it’s really more a philosophical question than it is an aesthetic one: which should take priority in translation, precision or readability? Consider Shakespeare. Do his foreign-language translators deploy archaic and obsolete words to replicate the (often wearying) experience of reading Shakespeare in English? Or do they use modern words, saving foreign readers the difficulty of  following the involutions of the thought?

What is “difficulty”, anyway? Our language has an unusually large vocabulary, which makes it easier to be difficult when writing in English than in, say, French. What if you need a replacement for an obscure English word and there is no equally obscure French word available? Do you dig out your old Latin textbook and invent an entirely new but authentic-sounding word? (That’s what Shakespeare would have done.)

***

According to this extract from a book called The Translator in the Text by Rachel May, Michael Glenny’s translation was done from an incomplete manuscript. How incomplete?

When Bulgakov’s novel was first published in the Soviet Union in 1966, the text was heavily censored. Mirra Ginsburg’s translation was based on this censored edition. Glenny’s version came out in 1967, by which time the suppressed material was available in the West. Yet Burgin and O’Connor, in their Translator’s Note, claim that their 1995 effort is the first translation of the complete text. What was still missing from the version Glenny used? Was it just a few disputed lines here and there, of the kind that only purists and scholars quibble over? Or was it whole scenes of politically-sensitive material? Input from knowledgeable readers would be welcomed here.

Having read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s “complete” translation, I’m not sure how important those politically sensitive scenes are. Even in the uncensored text, criticism of the Soviet authorities is extremely circumspect and easy to overlook. When the Master, after offending the literary world with a novel on religious themes, is taken away by the secret police, he describes the scene like this:

“[T]here came a knock at my window…”

The Master doesn’t say who knocked. Instead he leans close to his interlocutor and whispers something into his ear, which “agitate[s] him very much.” Then he resumes:

“Yes, and so in mid-January, at night, in the same coat but with the buttons torn off, I was huddled with cold in my little yard.”

The knock at the window came in October: apart from the agitating whisper, no account is given of the missing three months. From the footnotes we learn that “It was customary to remove belts, shoelaces and buttons from the apparel of those ‘held for questioning’.”

Having seen The Master and Margarita in the number two position on the Wall Street Journal‘s list of  Cold War novels, I was expecting a more sensational exposé of Stalinism than that. Does the quietness of Bulgakov’s rebellion make the inclusion of that political material more or less crucial?

***

If you’re wondering: though I’m not entirely sure I liked The Master and Margarita (but that might just be the fault of the translation), I think you should read it anyway.

M.

* I found it at Westgate Books on 8th Street, easily the best bookstore in Saskatoon.

Update, July 19 2009: I was recently alerted to a wonderfully detailed discussion of The Master and Margarita on the literary website The Valve. I’m going to point you directly to a comment by a Russian speaker named Anatoly, who describes the Pevear-Volokhonsky version as an “awful travesty” – and seems to know what he’s talking about.

26 Responses to “The Master and Margarita – the best translation?”


  1. 1 Jackson March 7, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Thanks for this post. I was looking for just such info on translations of this novel. Excellent post…

  2. 2 larisa May 13, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    Truth – I’m going with the Burgin – O’Connor version based on this. Many thanks!

  3. 3 Mkesse July 8, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    After comparing three translated versions of The Master and Margarita, I was left with a clouded vision with the first two, then I picked up Burgin – O’Connor’s version and it just clicked. I was laughing in the matter of minutes and felt it to be nicely streamlined (avoiding what might otherwise be cumbersome prose). I loved it. One of my favorite books; I’m a lover of satire. Also, this book summed up a lot of my ambiguous and intellectual thoughts on Christianity (by using humor and demonstrating attitudes of the time).

  4. 4 Sergei July 13, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    Russian is my ‘A’ language, English is ‘B’. In my opinion Burgin-O’Connor’s version is superior to all other currently published translations.

    Can anyone suggest the best translation of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” So far I looked at Eva’s and Parvear’s translations. I did not like either opening — both take too many liberties and depart significantly from the original.

  5. 5 abt September 26, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    to Sergei:
    I have always sworn by David Magarshack’s great translation of The Idiot, for Penguin books.
    I just looked at Pevear and Volkhonsky’s translations of about 6 famous books – including The Idiot – and came away unimpressed.
    This is un unpopular thing to say, but I think they are seriously overrated.
    These two are making a lot of money translating a lot of Russian novels VERY quickly – just look at how many they’ve put out – it must be 10 or 20 books!
    In one sentence comparison, they literally changed ONE word from a well-known Constance Garnett translation – big deal. Also I think they chose an inferior word.
    And by the way, the fact that they were so close to Garnett means to me that they are consulting the “classic” translations at every step of the way.
    So once again – big deal.
    May they both get very rich – but not off of me.

  6. 6 Allison December 21, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Thank you for your comments on the translations of this book, which was recently selected for a book club that I am in. I too am opting for the Burgin-O’Connor version as it is the preferred choice of professors using the book for their courses. (I know this because it was the only one carried in the course section of the bookstore), other versions were on the shelves in the regular section of the bookstore. Interesting.
    Thank you.

  7. 7 Greg July 1, 2010 at 11:05 am

    This was an incredibly helpful post.
    Thanks for putting your thoughts & research together here!
    Greg

  8. 8 veelena August 12, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Hi! Thanks, your post is very helpful. I am a student from Ukraine and now I`m studying English translations of . My topic is about the reflection of the Soviet reality in the translations. For now I have read only one version of translation, by Burgin-O’Connor, and that very reality is showed only in the comments by the translator`s. Is that the only way of translating satire and making it understandable? I`ll be glad to discuss the subject with anyone who has read the novel in English/ From my side I, as a Russian-speaker, can try to explain some points of the novel, which you might not understand. Please conact me by e-mail angelbird@hotbox.ru

    Thank you!

  9. 9 Ron Helfrich November 28, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    The Ginzberg was based on the expurgated Moskva version of Master i Margarita that Khruschev gave the go ahead for. Glenny is based on a more complete text. Burgin/O’Connor, Pevear/Volokhonsky, and and Aplin are all based on the most recent editions of MaM, one from 1973 and one from 1990. I prefer Burgin and O’Connor in general though their are some things I like in Pevear/Volokhosky and Aplin.

    There are, by the way, problems with MaM text. Bulgakov worked on the book from the 1920s to the 1940s and was only able to revise earlier parts of the book before his death. Burgin/O’Connor, in my estimation, work from the better text, the text which contains more variants than the text Pevear/Volkhonsky and Aplin used. You get, if memory is accurate here, more of these textual variants in Burgin/O’Connor.

    If you haven’t read Dog’s Heart/Heart of a Dog check it out.

  10. 10 Pierre December 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Yep, Dog’s Heart is real fine, people got to read it indeed.

  11. 11 john December 27, 2010 at 10:41 pm

    This was very interesting. I wasn’t aware of the “incomplete” nature of Ginsburg’s version, though having read that and the Glenney version I’ve always liked the Ginsberg version — if only because she left the poet’s name as “Homeless.”

    And yeah, I “third” the recommendation of “Heart of a Dog.” Now that’s a story that rips into the “New Soviet Dog” er, man.

  12. 12 Natalia March 3, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Thanks for a great post. My 2 cents: I’ve just read B&O translation and find it a tremendously good work, no doubt. Still, I do not agree with their intention to keep the syntax structure exactly the same and avoid repetitions of words which were made by the author.

    In this case keeping sentences long, which is normal in Russian, but not in English, creates different effect. There are too many synonyms, it makes the language too flamboyant and distracts . The author’s repetition was there for a purpose. This is a stylistic tool. Using common idioms instead of word-by-word translation would be much better too.

    The whole point of Writing is conveying, except for ideas, the FEELINGS, and creating certain mood. Like in painting. This is what the greatest writers do and we value them for that so high.

    When I was reading M&M in Russian (I actually almost know it by heart), the reading process was EASY, I was reading like breathing. Maybe except for several parts about Yeshua. It’s different with the English version of B&O.

    I will try to find and read other versions of translations and share my impressions.

  13. 13 Beth Anne Martin March 30, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Thank you for this post! I was wondering about which translation to buy and I appreciate the excerpts.

  14. 14 Alex August 29, 2011 at 7:50 am

    Thank you – Great post! I was looking for some review on English versions of this book.

    PS.. I’ve already read it in Russian, now I’ll try ‘Burgin – O’Connor’ one..

  15. 15 olga November 12, 2011 at 5:39 pm

    Burgins’s is the best

  16. 16 Max Kelleher March 18, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    I read it in the Ginsburg translation, and it remains the best book I believe I’ve ever read, so the translator did something right!

  17. 17 Nancy May 5, 2012 at 11:36 pm

    Hi there,
    Awesome post, thanks!
    Was wondering if someone had an opinion/preferred translation of “Heart of a Dog”?
    Thanks

  18. 18 Alexandra September 6, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you for loving with passion my favorite novel “Master and Margarita”.
    I am Russian from Moscow, i was raised on this novel, i was many times near that apartment. I agree that the translation should be careful and thorough, there is so rich and colorful Russian language, then you might easy lose the meaning. As many books and plays of Soviet Union they had dowble meaning. Thank you again, Love, Alexandra Tselouiko

  19. 19 Rob McGee December 4, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    In chapter 14, a man is saved from two vampires by the sudden cry of a rooster announcing the dawn. The chapter’s title in Russian is_Slava petukhu_, which the Pevear/Volkhonsky translation renders as “Glory to the Cock” — an EXACTLY LITERAL rendering, but one that sounds, needless to say, rather unfortunate to native English ears.

    Glenny translates it as “Saved by Cock-Crow”, which is better, though slightly bland. As a non-native Russian speaker, I’d personally recommend “Thank Goodness for Roosters” as being idiomatically nearest to the original.

    P.S. As to which translation is best — if you’re an advanced student of the Russian language and want an English version for a side-by-side comparison with the original, there’s actually a lot to be said for Pevear/Volkhonsky.

    On the other hand, if you DON’T read Russian and aren’t trying to learn, but simply want an English edition that’s idiomatic and readable and funny (I mean, funny where it’s supposed to be!), then I vote strongly for Glenny.

  20. 20 scott crosby (@impunity) December 11, 2012 at 6:47 pm

    I think my experience illustrates this issue. I read M&M in college at UCSB — checked it out at the library to save a buck or two. It was an old hardcover, I believe the Glenny version. It was incredible, one of the best books I’ve ever read, a real revelation. Later, after having returned my copy to the library, I bought the Ginsburg version (green cover with Behemoth the cat looking diabolical) and was just aghast that the teacher let the students believe this was an acceptable translation. IT WAS SO BAD, REALLY ATROCIOUS. The translation really is almost as important as the original creative, and in this case, makes all the difference. Just bought an old Glenny to verify, but I’m pretty sure that’s the one I read. Rightly deserves to be considered among the finest works of the 20th century, and both Bulgakov and the translator deserve a medal.

  21. 21 Ronald Helfrih July 14, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    The English translations of Dog’s Heart/ Heart of a Dog are, in some ways, a replay of Master i Margarita. Ginsburg and Glenny did the first translations in 1968. Avril Pyman did one which can be found in a Raduga collection of Bulgakov’s shorter works including the wonderful Fateful Eggs. Andrew Bromfield, who has done many translations from the Russian over the years, did one for Penguin in 2007.

  22. 22 rachael January 3, 2014 at 5:00 pm

    Hello
    I lent my copy of M & M to a friend who lost it and have been trying to find out who the translator of the the copy I had was. It was a small paper back with the cat dancing over the globe in red / yellow/ black I think? This copy made me laugh out loud from the start. Can anyone suggest which translation this may be- it was obviously an older one….

  23. 23 Mark Davess April 3, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    It might interest you to read what I wrote about various translations in this Goodread thread where it was being discussed. My entry is dated Sept 30th, 2013, so far almost at the end. The consensus in the thread seems to be a love of the Ginsberg translation and a loathing of the Glenny one (I don’t choose either but defend Glenny to some extent). My basic point is about the conflict between what sounds nice to you as an English speaker on the one hand and what is actually a balanced translation of the original text on the other. I find most opinions in that thread dubious because they focus on what they think sounds bad in English, or must be wrong, without realising that often that’s exactly what the Russian text says, while they often praise the style and content of translations that are making more explicit things that Bulgakov only implied. I approach this as a native English speaker who knows Russian very well, comparing various translations of one section with the original Russian text. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/618738-mikhail-bulgakov-s-the-master-and-margarita

  24. 24 Rob McGee April 4, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    @ Mark: I’m only familiar with the Glenny and Pevear/Volokhonsky translations — and as I said in an old comment above, I recommend the natural idiomatic flow of Glenny for English speakers who don’t know Russian and aren’t studying it, while Pevear/Volokhonsky is ideal for side-by-side reading with the original (the P/V version also benefits from excellent footnotes). Are there other English translations that you consider especially good for “reading in parallel” with the Russian? (I’ll check your blog, too).

    Also, you wrote: “they focus on what they think sounds bad in English, or must be wrong, without realising that often that’s exactly what the Russian text says”.

    As a long-time student of Russian myself, I partly agree with you, but think this is a complex question. There’s a case to be made that “to make a mountain out of a molehill” is (sometimes but not always) a BETTER translation of sdelat’ slona iz muxi than the literally correct “to make an elephant out of a housefly.”

    My argument is that Russians don’t “sound foreign” to themselves when they’re speaking in Russian to other Russians! To me, insisting that literal renderings of Russian proverbs are better is a bit like insisting that actors in a Robin Hood movie should speak with British accents rather than American or Australian accents, because “Robin Hood lived in England.”

    But this naively ignores the fact that Mr. Hood would’ve spoken a form of Middle English, and that all forms of today’s Modern English (whether UK or US or Australian) are EQUALLY FAR from Robin Hood’s 12-century speech. (So there was nothing “inauthentic”, linguistically, about Kevin Costner playing Robin Hood with a California-dude accent — despite the many other things to complain about in his silly movie!)

  25. 25 Mark Davess April 6, 2014 at 1:03 pm

    Thanks Rob. I can only say that I disagree with nothing. My comment wasn’t really meant as an attempt to argue any point. I just thought my thoughts on comparing some different translations (of a small section of the text) might interest someone.

    And please don’t misunderstand me, I certainly in no way am calling for any literal translation of idioms or anything even approaching that (that would make me too naive for even starting out on secondary school language studies, I’m simply not making anything like such a simplistic case, and I, of course, would not use ‘to make an elephant out of a housefly’. I’d have had no complaint either if Mel Gibson had made ‘The Passion of Christ’ in English with all actors with modern Oxfordshire accents)

    It’s just that there seemed to be quite a lot of (quite reasonable, if you’re not comparing with the orginal) picking fault with translations in that thread on Goodreads when sometimes the word or phrase they were picking on either was not idiomatic and could be quite arguably translated exactly as it was, or was attacked for its lack of what they felt was a nice ‘vibe’ in the English (lots of those translations add words to explicitly say something Bulgakov didn’t – ‘to seek out shelter’, etc., etc., etc…- and elaborate beyond what he said, or also to give a little extra sense of humour), without actually seeing that the feel of it was quite similar or the same in the original, and in both cases therefore didn’t deserve so much criticism.

    It’s just me giving my view on those various translations of that one paragraph and giving people an insight as best I can to how it compares with the original, to give a subtler angle on it for non-Russian speakers and for them to look at that as they choose, related to their own needs and desires in choosing a translation.

    People quite reasonably were saying that something sounds or flows better in English, or that the humorous feel is nicer here than there, or that it makes more clear sense in this version than that one, etc., etc. and I was simply trying to point at the idea of getting a point of comparison by looking at the original and getting as balanced and reasonable perception of that actual original text as possible, which, of course, is not making a case for literal translations of idioms or dialects or of whatever else may be misunderstood or sound totally odd in the target language.

    And I also can’t make any claims to be familiar with the translations as a whole. I read the book in Russian about 15 years ago, and some parts in English when looking at different translations out of interest. I only compare a paragraph here and admit it doesn’t give me a broad view that can really make me judge one translation of the entire book over the other.

    As for the question of which might be good to read in parallel with the Russian, in actual fact I’m not sure it would matter enormously. If someone’s abiliity in the language were good enough to sit comfortably and do such a thing, and not seriously struggle and therefore better spend their time with a simpler text to start with, then they’ll be able to distinguish the odd extra word or figure out how the translation had been changed a little in order to avoid untranslatable idioms, and by their efforts make good sense of the text anyway. That work in itself deepens understanding and helps consolidate language in memory

    But yeah, I chose the Pevear/Volkhonsky one, on the basis of only those translations of that paragraph, as being most ‘tightly’ close to the original text, but not really in a ‘word for word’ sense. Any such translation would, of course, be ridiculous. Glenny’s translation of that paragraph I was looking at is in fact not so purely focused on being natural and idiomatic, though his whole translation may be (I don’t know) but also quite ‘tight’ to the original, not adding stuff like some others do, so that translation may also be a good one for often finding a good translation of one word with a comparable English one when that’s possible (if the paragraph is representative) and for reading in parallel with less confusion.

    But then actually, for someone reading in parallel looking to understand the meaning, the extra bits that are added to make meaning more explicit than in the original, that I see in the Ginsburg and Burgin and O’Connor translations there, would probably actually help, if finding an easier and less equivocal path to understanding of meaning is the aim. Probably a personal choice here for the reader/student themselves when balancing those aspects.

    Anyway, so far, not based on a broad reading of the translations, the Pevear/Volkhonsky looks best to me, but by a small margin, with all the qualifications and nuances that I put on that in my post in that Goodreads thread. They’re all defendable and deserving of praise, as far as I can see.


  1. 1 Master and Margarita | Love, Sex & Other Dirty Words Trackback on May 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm

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