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The Master and Margarita: Translations

Taking a break from the dense The Sound and the Fury, I took a walk around the neighborhood. The window of the picture frame shop has this poster of Behemoth the Cat matted in a frame. The print is exactly the same as my t-shirt. It was a prop but the owner let me have it for $20. Now I just have to find the original Signet edition of The Master and Margarita with this cover.

Although I did not find exactly what I wished for, but luck is definitely on my side today. A short walk from the frame shop is Aardvark Books, where the residence orange tabby, Owen, who once out of either boredom or insecurity assaulted me. Today he was oblivious of the activities in the store, for he slept right at the window, soaking up the winter sun. Despite his skittishness, Owen is a cutie. I have to give him credit that some people go into Aardvark because of him.


Among the few copies of The Master and Margarita—Mirra Ginsburg (1967), Burgin & O’Connor (1995), and Pevear & Volokhonsky (1997), I found a copy of Hugh Aplin (2008). This new translation, published by Oneworld Classics, is based on the recently restored, unexpurgated edition, which benefits from over three decades of Bulgakov scholarship. My next reading of the novel would be Aplin translation. The new copy is available online for £8.99 but I bought it at ta bargain of $9. So the search for the Signet edition, translated by Michael Glenny, goes on; but up to this point, I still think Burgin & O’Connor is better, and more carefully done. The standard by which I compare different translations is a passage, a rather awkward one, the demons Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth the Cat, have just escorted the eponymous couple downstairs and are loading them into a car chauffeured by a magical rook (a crow?).

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. (Pevear & Volokhonsky translation)

This particular passage made a huge impression in me during the first read because 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” in their company: Azazello, Hella, and Behemoth. From the context and logic, it’s the demons, and not the master, who have demonstrated magical powers. The translators shall have no excuse to confuse the readers, when the muddle can be avoided through taking a little more care with pronouns. Burgin & 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. (Burgin & O’Connor translation)

As you can see, both Pevear & Volokhonsky and Burgin & O’Connor contrive to express a complicated series of actions in one sprawling but faithful sentence. While translator should try not to break down Bulgakov’s long sentences to preserve his original style, it’s more important not to sacrifice clarity. Now Alpin offers:

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. The crow switched on the headlights and drove out of the courtyard past the man asleep at the entrance.

Alpin also resolves the pronoun issue, but the sentence is still somewhat cluttered. I do have expectation for this new translation, especially it’s coming out of the U. For new readers my advice is to shy away from Pevear & Volokhonsky and read Burgin & O’Connor.

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8 Responses

  1. I don’t know how much more convincing I need to search for this book. You are really a careful reader and I admire you for that.

  2. This is just a wonderful book – imagine how nerve-wrecking it would be having to translate it… It takes real passion and love to translate masterpieces like this.

  3. […] The Master and Margarita: Translations […]

  4. Skittish or not, Owen is adorable; I’d love to visit the shop.

  5. […] The Master and Margarita: Translations […]

  6. Ugh I don’t like that Aplin paragraph at all. It seems to me to have lost panache. Pevear, I have to say, remains my favourite. To each there own though especially with Bulgakov’s writings.

  7. Hi Matthew, as “Master and Margarita” collector, I’m really enamoured by that print: do you know if there are other copies of it? Or some specification that could help me to found one, please?
    Compliments for your analysis of the different translations, and for that cute photo :3

  8. I just now wished to jot down a fast expression in order to give thanks you for all wonderful guidelines along with tips you might be demonstrating on this site.

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