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Mikhail Bulgakov

A few days ago the discussion on my reader’s profile raised the question of the different translations on The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. To the best of my knowledge, you may find seven current editions of this modern Russian classics at the bookstores: [Top from left] Penguin Classics, Vintage Classics, Oneworld Classics and Penguin Red Classics editions, and the [Second row] Picador, Avalon and Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics editions..

BulgakovThe Vintage Classics edition is my first choice for the novel. Translated by Professor Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Conno, the 1995 edition is by far the best, especially if one is interested in studying what Bulgakov really wrote. They have the advantage of some 30 years of Bulgakov scholarship, which they take into consideration in their translation, and thus affords the most punctilious details. The endnotes, provided by the Bulgakov scholar Ellendea Proffer, are also invaluable. The Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, is almost as good as the Diane Burgin translation.

The Picador edition, translated by Mirra Ginsburg, was first published in 1967. It’s an alternative choice choice for the novel if you cannot find the two above. Ginsburg’s translation is lively and entertaining, but it was unfortunately made from the 1967 Soviet text without the advantage of the censored sections. As a result, it mirrors the censored version, including deletion of passages about the actions of the secret police and most of Nikanor Ivanovich’s dream. Depending on how you view this deletion as a caveat, this translation is worth a read.

A brilliant blend of magical and realistic elements, grotesque situations, and major ethical issues, The Master and Margarita combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem. Brimming with historical references, religious imagery, storms, witchcraft, and romance, Bulgakov’s novel is impossible to categorize: Its story lies between parable and reality; its tone varies from satire to unguarded vulnerability. Its publication represents the triumph of imagination over politics.

As you see, I’ve been on a campaign to promote this great novel, cajoling, encouraging, and canvassing those who have yet experienced this literary journal. Eclectic this book might sound, it is probably the most widely read book in 20th century Russia (former Soviet Union). Kindly approach a Russian and ask about the book, you will be assured of the novel’s significance and popularity. This is the one book that I always tell people to read, and I have made many of my friends read.

My Other Coverages:
The Master and Margarita (2006)
The Master and Margarita, Revisited (2006)
The Master and Margarita (2007)
The Master and Margarita (2008)

31 Responses

  1. I really need to track down some of these. My copy was published a few decades ago, and I can’t remember who translated it. But it would definitely be interesting to read different translations. I think mine might have deleted bits, which makes me want to cry. My quest begins tonight!

  2. I will get to this someday. I have The Satanic Verses on the TBR pile, but setting it aside until I read The Master and Margarita first.

  3. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve convinced me! However, I think I’m going to let it find me. I know that it will, now that I’ve made the decision to read it. I will see it at the library sale, or a bookstore, or at a friend’s house. Hopefully, it will be the right translation!

  4. My vintage classic edition is in the post! I’m hoping it lives up to your hype!

    PS. I’ve just secured a copy of The Shadow without a Name from bookmooch, as I saw it on your sidebar. Is that even better?

  5. I’ve never read this, but given the overlap in our literary taste, I think I’ll have to add it to my pile. And I’ll definitely look for the Vintage edition. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. This is a book that has been on my TBR for a while now and all your convincing has made me decide to move it up to the top! 😀

  7. Great run-down! Our copy of the book doesn’t have any of those covers, but we have the Burgin translation, which is your preferred one, so yay for us! I personally really like the cover on the Penguin Red Classics edition (so creepy!), but you’re right that it’s the words that really matter.

  8. This was so much fun to read! I’m a total geek about translations. 😉 I can’t remember which translation I read the novel in, but I’m planning a reread soon, so I’ll be looking for one of the top versions this time around!

  9. Here’s my subjective two-cents. I also preferred the earlier Burgin/Tiernan to the Pevear/Volokhonsky, though I am an admirer of the latter team’s accomplishments with other authors. I found the B/T more direct, had more vitality, and offered what I might call “traction” (meaning my brain could get a grip, and therefore my easily distracted mind tended to wander less). So I think the B/T might be the best for the first read through — when the reader is trying to grasp the main points of the plot and fathom the author’s intent and attitudes. The P/V seemed more concerned with accomplishing a polished literary style. It’s just a speculation, but I had the sense that they sometimes took verbal detours in order to make their own rendering distinct from earlier ones.

  10. Elena:
    The earlier translations were edited out and somewhat abridged. You might want to get the most recent ones, the Vintage or the Penguin editions. 🙂

  11. claire:
    Since you told me about the remote connection between the two, I’ve been looking for a copy of Satanic Verses, have yet to find a copy.

  12. Sandy:
    I saw you commenting on someone else’s blog about how I have mentioned the book a dozen times! Hehehe…I’m gald it’s finally getting to your brain to read it. 🙂

  13. Jackie (Farm Lane Books):
    I really hope you’ll enjoy the book, which is very clever. It’s so rich in metaphors and allusions.

    The Shadow Without a Name is just a very literary thriller. It’s a rarity in modern literature. It explores the identities, and the loss of them.

  14. Rebecca:
    I also have you in mind while writing this post, because I wasn’t sure if you have read the book. 🙂

  15. Lu:
    Yay for convincing another book blogger to reading the novel!! 🙂

  16. Steph:
    I read Tony’s excellent, thoughtful review of the book; and now I shall look forward to your opinion. The Penguin Red is published by Penguin UK, which I haven’t seen here. I bought a copy of that edition for my friend in Hong Kong.

  17. Eva:
    The most popular editions are Vintage (Diane Burgin) and Penguin (Pavear.Voloronsky). You must have read one of these two. try reading a different translation and see for yourself the second time around. 🙂

  18. “So I think the B/T might be the best for the first read through — when the reader is trying to grasp the main points of the plot and fathom the author’s intent and attitudes.”

    I agree. I usually pick the Burgin for my Russian literature course to facilitate understanding of the novel and in-class discussion. The style of Pavear is more sophisticated, but the price is that the narrative is not as direct.

  19. I have not read many Russian novels, only two: Doctor Zhivago and Anna Karennina. Not even sure if these would be in the same ballpark as what you mentioned. But I’m always down for a challenge, so I’ll add The Master and Margherita to my list.

  20. The master and Margarita has been the greatest discovery in my literary realm in the last year! I happened to have read the Vintage edition, which is very detailed and direct. I would venture into the Penguin edition as I know this book will deserve many more re-readings.

  21. Ooh, I’m going to look out for the Vintage Classics edition. I plan to read The Master and Margarita over the summer. Can’t wait to discuss with you!

  22. I wonder if your love of “The Master and Margarita” extends to any of Bulgakov’s other novels. I recently read “The White Guard” and rather liked it, even if it’s completely different. Have you read anything else by Bulgakov?

  23. jennygirl:
    The Master and Margarita could use more close reading, re-reading, and critical thinking. It’s a very fun read, making readers think about what those metaphors mean. I hope you enjoy the book. 🙂

  24. John:
    I’m so glad to hear that you’ll re-read. I have read it a few times and every re-read affords new meanings.

  25. gentle reader:
    Most likely I’ll re-read the book this summer! We can compare notes! 🙂

  26. Biblibio:
    I recommend “Heart of the Dog”, which satirizes even more fiercely the Soviet Union. He never finished the play but the novel “Memoir of a Dead Man” is derived from it. 🙂

  27. I just finished reading it for the first time, based on your recommendations. I really, really enjoyed it and plan on buying a copy to add to my personal library. Thanks, Matt! 🙂

  28. The Master and Margarita is one of the very best books I read this last year. I laughed and wept over it. Absolute genius. I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation (and liked it very much), but will look into the Burgin to see what I think of it…

  29. Angie:
    Hooray! I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I’ll have to re-read it myself. 🙂

  30. Jenny:
    I agree that it’s superb and genius!

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