Translations of ‘The Master and Margarita’; The Many Lines to Read

“Afterward, when it was frankly too late, various persons collected their data and issued descriptions of this man. As to his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side and gold ones on the right. He wore an expensive gray suit and foreign shoes of the same color as his suit. His gray beret was stuck jauntily over one ear and under his arm he carried a walking stick with a knob in the shape of a poodle’s head. He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth. Clean-shaven. Dark hair. Right eye black, left eye for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short–a foreigner.”
-From Michael Glenny’s translation of The Master and Margarita

“Afterward, when–frankly speaking–it was already too late, various official institutions filed reports describing this man. A comparison of these reports can only cause astonishment. Thus, the first says that the man was short, had gold teeth, and limped on the right foot. The second, that the man was of enormous height, had platinum crowns, and limped on the left foot. The third states laconically that the man had no special distinguishing characteristics. We must discard all these reports as quite worthless.
To begin with, the man described did not limp on either foot, and was neither short nor enormous in height, but simply tall. As for his teeth, he had platinum crowns on the left side of his mouth, and gold ones on the right. He wore an expensive gray suit and foreign shoes of the same color. His gray beret was worn at a jaunty angle over his ear, and under his arm he carried a cane with a black handle in the form of a poodle’s head. He appeared to be in his forties. His mouth was somehow twisted. He was smooth shaven. A brunet. His right eye was black; the left, for some strange reason, green. Black eyebrows, but one higher than the other. In short, a foreigner.”
-From Mirra Ginsburg’s translation of The Master and Margarita

Alright. So if it isn’t apparent, these two quotations were taken from the same portion of The Master and Margarita. Obviously there are discrepancies to be expected from different translations, especially from a language such as Russian–sometimes there is more interpretation required. But what drew my interest to this section of text in particular are not the differences in text/translation, but what those differences, to me, draw attention to in the text. In my opinion, these differences lead to two completely different texts.

Let’s begin with the similarities. Wait, no, let’s begin with who this is describing, because that is terribly important as well. Professor Woland, whose name isn’t revealed until later, is a mysterious foreigner. Presumably German. Woland is a variation on Voland, a demon from Goethe’s Faust, and for a time Woland was used as a synonym for Satan in German. The homage to Goethe’s Faust is apparent from the quotation that opens Book One.

Hold on. I was going to touch upon how the Glenny and Ginsburg translated the Faust quote differently, but then after checking my Walter Kaufmann translation, I realized that Kaufmann’s translation is incredibly different!

Okay, so here’s Glenny’s version:

“Say at last–who art thou?

“That Power I serve
Which wills forever evil
Yet does forever good.”

Here’s Ginsburg’s:

“Who art thou, then?”
“Part of that Power which eternally wills
evil and eternally works good.”

And here’s Kaufmann’s

“Enough, who are you then?”

“Part of that force which would
Do evil evermore, and yet creates the good.”


First thing to point out; Glenny’s version does not include that Mephistopheles (the second line of quotations) is a part of that power/force. The variance between power and force may be significant, but that I can attribute more to simply a different translation. But Glenny changes it from “Part of that Power” to “That Power I serve”. It’s very different to be a part of a power and to serve a power. And this Power is in a sense personified, because the power that he serves “wills forever evil”; this power wills, as opposed to a “force which would/ do evil evermore”. And in this case, even Ginsburg’s power “eternally wills/ evil”. But Ginsburg’s power simultaneously “eternally works good”, while Glenny’s power “Yet does forever good”; this yet brings to mind a begrudging nature. And Kaufmann’s translation also includes this “yet”, but his yet is significantly less begrudging; “Part of that force which would/ Do evil evermore, and yet creates the good.” The force ‘does evil’, but through this evil there seems to be this cyclical movement that creates the good. One neither negates nor resents the other. These three translations and readings underline different notions throughout the text for the reader. I don’t have the time to trace these three translations through the text, but I thought that I would bring them to light, even if by the reflection from the moon.

“Full lunar light, that you might stare
The last time now on my despair!”
–Goethe’s Faust

Alright. Going back to my initial quotations. There is another homage to Faust in the description of the mysterious stranger. The cane that he carries, with a knob in the shape of a poodle’s head; when Mephistopheles first comes to Faust in Goethe’s version, he first arrives in the form of a poodle.

Both characters are dressed in gray, clean-shaven, have dark hair, and one eyebrow higher than the other. These are the only similarities, to me, that exist in the translations. Despite the fact that other parts of his appearance are described similarly, the language used affects the significance of the description.

There is one section that particularly comes to mind: Ginsburg describes his eyes, “His right eye was black; the left, for some strange reason, green.”
Glenny, on the other hand, “Right eye black, left eye for some reason green.”
The first noticeable difference is that Ginsburg articulates that it is “His” eye. (He does this in the description of the mouth as well), while Glenny remarks on identifying factors as though they are floating in a vacuum. Also, Glenny doesn’t indicate that the difference of color in the left eye is “strange” at all; it’s merely “for some reason”. Now why would Ginsburg underline that not only is there a reason, but it is for a strange reason? And if Glenny doesn’t underline this, merely denotes that there is a reason, “for some reason”, does he want the notion of strangeness to be bracketed off?

The description of the mouth yields a similar discussion. For Ginsburg, “His mouth was somehow twisted”. For Glenny, “Crooked sort of mouth”.
This brings a few new factors into play. Not only does Ginsburg refer to the mouth as “His”, the term “was somehow twisted” begs the question, ‘Was it always twisted? Does he mean that the mouth was twisted in such a way that begged the question of “How”?’ And of course there is the connotation with the word twisted; not only is is a physical description, but it is also a description of a warped/unhealthily abnormal personality or way of thinking. Glenny’s description doesn’t seem accompanied by so much baggage, although his used of “Crooked sort” is incredibly interested. A crooked mouth doesn’t bring to mind much difference from a twisted mouth, but the word ‘crooked’ may also imply a “crooked smile”, or “crooked” in the dishonest sense, which, on face value, isn’t as menacing as “twisted”. But the notion of dishonesty and honesty bring upon a reference to Goethe’s Faust and Mephistopheles, who plays a great deal with dishonesty and honesty. This can also be found in Nietzsche’s work, which I believe a great deal of which can be traced back to Faust.

However, the biggest discrepancy that drew me to these quotations were they way they began. Ginsburg includes the various accounts, which Glenny does not, and he remarks that “We must discard all these reports as quite worthless.” Now, why include them when they’re worthless? A great deal of The Master and Margarita remarks upon people’s mismemories, which Glenny includes, but then why not include these? The descriptions that Ginsburg includes don’t shed light on much that Glenny leaves out, but it is interesting how Ginsburg uses the descriptions that he does include. One report said that man had gold teeth, another said he had platinum teeth, when in reality (whether or not we can call it that is certainly up for debate) he had platinum crowns on the left side, and gold on the right. Is there a comment upon perspective that Ginsburg includes that Glenny does not? I personally wonder how much of that is in the original Russian. It almost seems as though in Glenny’s description he attempts to assume a perspectival-less position, though not necessarily a God-like position. Perhaps this mysterious foreigner is perspectiveless, in that what you see isn’t a pespective; what you see is what is there when you look at him. Ginsburg’s offer of description and subsequent debunk brings to mind a familiar back and forth that exists in Russian literature. A constant refutation in the (possibly aware) language of the text itself. It seems as though Glenny’s translation includes this constant refutation, but perhaps more subtly. It takes more thought to realize the refutation in the language.

At the end, they both bring to mind Polonius’ famous line; “Brevity is the soul of wit”.
“In short–a foreigner.”
“In short, a foreigner.”

It’s almost a synopsis, and almost a waving away of all the wasted words that preceded it. Though all the preceding words act as justification for these four. Could it have been left at “A foreigner”? Why the necessity of justification when at the end those two little words say it all? Why the inclusion of the long and the short? Does the short refute the long? Are they mutually exclusive?

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3 comments

  1. So many issues are raised by this short passage that a chapter would be required to sort through them all. I’ll restrict myself to one question: What is the source of the Goethe quotation? It is often cited but as far as I’ve been able to find, no one supplies the exact place in Faust where Bulgakov found it.

    • Thanks to wikiquote:

      Part I, scene 6, Faust’s Study (I)

      Ein Teil von jener Kraft,
      Die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.

      Part of that power which would
      Do evil constantly and constantly does good.
      ––Mephistopheles, lines 1335–6.

      Translated by David Luke (1987). Faust, Part One. Oxford: Oxford University Press

  2. Hi-
    A nice little piece comparing those two translations. As I do not read Russian and I found it quite enlightening. I have read at least two other translations; that by Peavear and Volokhonsky, and my favorite, by Burgin and O’Connor. Maybe I will dig my copy out of storage and compare it with those you posted, or just use it as an excuse to read the novel again. I believe the Ginsburg translation left some material out, didn’t it? Anyway, thank you.
    Charlie

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