On translation. x 3.
Some time after I had first read The Master and Margarita, I had an argument (if you could call it that) with a classmate who sneered at me for reading it in translation. (He was Russian). It's the best translation available, I said. How would you know?, was his reply. I had no answer to that, because I didn't speak Russian, and I didn't know then that less than two years later I would. (I vaguely remember mumbling something indistinct and staring down at the floor until his friend, who was standing nearby, dragged him away). It seemed ridiculous to say that somehow the flow of the words, the phrases chosen by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor for the Vintage International version of The Master and Margarita felt right to me. Felt as though they had captured something of Bulgakov's soul. In their forward the translators discussed how they sacrificed literal translations in order to retain to feeling of the original Russian, how they left certain names untranslated, unaltered. I felt that they had left the musicality of Bulgakov's words intact, the way words flow in Russian, burn bright in your mind. I was right, as it turns out. It was an incredibly liberating feeling when I finally learned Russian and started reading Bulgakov in the original, and I was in love all over again. I felt vindicated, somehow, that my instincts had been dead-on.
The Master and Margarita is probably the only book which I have read in different translations as well as the original. In comparing the various versions (I own three, and have briefly glanced at a fourth) I began to understand the importance of a translater's interpretation of a work, how their choices can obscure or illuminate the original writer's words, how different translations could completely change the feeling of a story. It is on the shoulders of the translator to make these choices, the heaviest of burdens. It is particularly tricky when the writer is long dead and you have to rely on your own sense of how he would have wanted his words to come alive in a different language other than his own.
Early on I had come across the Mirra Ginsburg translation, the oldest and most widely available one, and immediately it all felt wrong, even before I had turned the first page. It was strange, because Heart of a Dog had been funny and sharp and unexpectedly poignant, and it had also been translated by Ginsburg. But in The Master and Margarita, the Burgin/O'Connor version had left the poet Ivan's pen name as Bezdomny (in Russian, Бездомный), preferring to let the footnotes explain that bezdomny means homeless. (Speaking of literal Russian pen-names, Gorki, as in Maxim Gorki, means 'bitter,' but his books aren't published under the name 'Maxim Bitter,' for that matter). All of the other translations translate it literally, and Homeless wanders in and out of the pages, assaulting the eye and causing a little flicker of annoyance in the mind. In some versions, Levi Matvei (Левий Матвей, or simply, Левий) has become Matthew Levi, destroying the rhythm of Bulgakov's words.
Some years later another translation appeared, this one by Edward Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It is perhaps the most complete edition available, but something of the soul is lost. It's too precise. It felt strange to me, like meeting someone I loved once and finding that he has changed so completely I can't understand why I ever loved him at all. I have never finished it, preferring to return time and again to the version that I fell in love with all those years ago. I want to hold onto my illusions. And yet I wonder, if I had read any of these other versions first, would they have held me in their thrall, and the one I love now seem strange and terrible in comparison?