The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov – and a Rant about Translations

Maybe some books should be left in their original languages and not translated. I reach this conclusion reluctantly after having read most of The Master and Margarita. I just couldn’t finish it, it was that bad.


And yet … I have read quite a bit of Russian literature, including many translations. So I’ve been wondering if the translation might be the problem. Up front, the translators explain that they tried to use exact words instead of synonyms, adhering to Bulgakov’s phrasing to the extent possible. And I think that was a poor choice. Take, for example, these two sentences, chosen from a random paragraph:

        “The stranger beckoned with his finger for Timofei Kondratyevich to come out of the kitchen and into the hall. He said something to him, and then they both vanished.”


Imagine reading 335 pages of that kind of thing! Had someone handed that to me with a request for editing, I would have sliced and diced and rearranged, because it’s poor, awkward, clumsy English. As a reader, I get nothing from a translation like that. Absolutely nothing. Fidelity to the original work is not as important as readability in the translated version. If nothing else, this travesty will make me appreciate good translations that much more.


On top of the bad English, there was a huge section at the end of the book explaining the many cultural references that are likely to go over the heads of those of us who are not scholars of Russian literature.


This is all very frustrating, because parts of the book were thought-provoking, humorous, or poetic. But for the most part, reading this book felt like having a Russian hockey player recite the Yellow Pages to me.


I have all these tape flags stuck where I would normally take a second look to see how animal lovers might react to the book, but I’m not even going to go there. If you read this book, you’re on your own. Sorry. I wish it were different.


January 6, 2009 - Posted by | Editing/Writing Tragedies | , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I am totally with you- there are good translations and bad ones. I’m reading a translation from Spanish right now (Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon). I’m really enjoying it but I wish I had the Spanish original so I could compare. There are bits of awkward phrasing but it’s not bad. I think a good translation can give the same feeling & atmosphere as the original… but you can’t really do that by just translating literally.

    Comment by dulcinea47 | January 6, 2009 | Reply

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