Source: Marko Fondse (1932 - 1999) translated The Master and Margarita in Dutch twice, the second time in co-operation with Aai Prins (°1959). Fondse wrote an interesting recap. Very modestly, he called his own translation «one of the most reliable in the world». Is it complacency? Not really. I have read twelve different translations of The Master and Margarita in six languages, and Marko Fondse's comes perhaps closest to the original text.
The Master and Margarita
No one will ever be able to define the final editorial text of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, one of the most famous novels of Russian literature of our century, but only published, heavily mutilated, a quarter of a century after the author's death in 1940. An attentive reader will always have questions about some loose ends, which result from repeatedly rewriting, shortening and extending again of the novel, and, of course, also from the untimely death of the author, who was almost blind in the last period of his life.
Different from Bulgakov's theatrical novel Black Snow, which stops in the middle of a sentence, The Master and Margarita can actually be considered as a basicly completed work.
Bulgakov worked on the novel from 1928 until just before his death on March 10, 1940, with long intervals.
In a first draft the book was kind of a diabolade with an interlaced story about Pontius Pilate. In 1930 the writer, who wasn't allowed to publish anything anymore since 1925, destroyed the unfinished manuscript, just some notebooks with a rough version survived. Only in 1932 he resumed the thread of what was going to be his masterpiece. Meanwhile he ad experienced a huge change in his life. After some ups and downs he had maried Elena Sergeevna Shilovskaya, who had divorced from a highly ranked military officer for him. In that year Elena Sergeevna enters into the novel as Margarita, in Book 1 not yet mentioned by name, but in Book 2 she's obviously the main character. The structure of the work becomes very clear.
Only in 1937 the novel gets his final title, when Bulgakov puts in writing a first «clean» manuscript version, complete with an indication of the chapters and dated March, 22-23, 1938. A couple of weeks later he dictates a typewrited version, in which he deletes merciless, but also extends and adds new intrigues. The job is done in less than a month. One year later he dictates the Epilogue to his wife. But even after that he endlessly goes on making changes in the typewrited version and its copies, an effort in which Elena Sergeevna is highly involved, since almost all changes are in her handwriting. Some notes on changes to be made could not be realised anymore, due to the writer's death. That's why some variants in specific parts of the text could no longer be synchronised with other parts of the text they referred or anticipated to. There are dozens of examples.
After Bulgakov's death, Elena Sergeevna was in a situation which could be compared to the situation of Osip Mandelstam's widow Nadezhda, with one difference: Nadezhda had to learn the unpublished work of her husband, who had fallen in disgrace, by heart, because the sole possession of his manuscripts could endager her life. It's unthinkable what would have happened if Elena Sergeevna would have been visited by «a certain Moscow institution», as Bulgakov describes the secret police.
What Bulgakov had left to his widow was nothing less than a textological chaos and she had to start with it as the first editor. For security reasons, she couldn't even consider to have someone else doing it, but her best qualification was that she had been there during all phases of the novel's genesis since 1932, just as it happened to Margarita in the novel.
The text which was left to Elena Sergeevna can be compared to a handwritten musical score in which the signs for the flats, the sharps, the selas and the bars are missing. A good editor could compete the musical punctuation without too much trouble. But it becomes difficult, not to say impossible, when the composer forgot to repeat secondary themes which he introduced before, or leaves them in the text where he deleted their original introduction. The vampire witch Hella, for instance, whom Satan clearly introduced to Margarita as an esteemed member of his retinue, plays an important role in the novel, but she's not there when Woland, Koroviev, Azazello and Behemoth fly away with the master and Margarita from Sparrow Hills, while the demons pass through a remarkable transformation during the following flight, and while the further adventures of the other characters are elaborated in detail in the Epilogue. Possibly this is a result of the fact that Bulgakov, except for his own Margarita, didn't have critical co-readers - for obvious reasons, of course.
Between 1946 and 1966 Elena Sergeevna made six attempts to get the book through the censorship, all in vain. (Though she succeeded in 1962 with The life of Monsieur Molière, thirty years after its completion).
At last, one of the fat magazines, Moskva, published a heavily mutilated version of Book 1 in its issue of December 1966. But in the next issue, in January of 1967, there was no trace anymore of Bulgakov. Book 2 was published in February. This delay created suspicions, and they were pertinent: in Book 1 the censors had deleted twenty-one passages, in Book 2 there were one hundred and thirty-eight passages deleted, about twelve percent of the entire text. Not only politically touchy subjects were censored. Social mores took their toll as well; all descriptions or suggestions of female nudity - there are many - were dropped without any justification, as it happened to the juicy language Margarita used after she became a witch. Many sentences were teared apart and often turned into sentences which no one could understand anymore.
The first translations which were published were based on this heavily corrupted text, but yet they caused a worldwide literary sensation. For my first translation, published by De Arbeiderspers in 1968, I could use the Moskva-text, but also a not very readable copy of what must have been Elena Sergeevna's typescript, minus the cut parts. I can't check anymore to what extend both texts differed. But, next to those texts, I got a little later a publication of Scherz Verlag in Zürich with the deleted parts of the text, often one word or half of a sentence, but often huge parts of text as well. As I learned later on, this publication was based on a samizdat-edition which was circulating in the Soviet Union soon after the publication in Moskva. I made my translation in Rome and I was lucky I did that since, when I was halfway, there was published an Italian version with the missing pieces integrated at the correct places in the novel - for the Scherz-edition did not indicate where the missing parts belonged. In the Dutch edition, these fragments were printed in italics, just like it happened in the Russian edition published by Posev (Frankfurt 1969). I wrote about this intervention in my epilogue of the first Dutch translation:
«A work which is based on such elementary [human] points of view can't be censored, because they are its leaven. Those who want to cut and paste can only remove the hard-to-digest currants. In this edition they are not only put back on the place where they belong, but, by mutual agreement with the publisher, there was decided to indicate them in the text in such way that the Dutch version is the only one which shows clearly what happened, and where. It doesn't make the book nicer, and there is a risk that the reader pays more attention to the currants than to the bread. Of course, this could never have been the intention of the author, because to him, they belong to the whole work in an organic way. But we don't have often the opportunity to see how censorship works exactly. And it is an effort worth making to see the unequalled coherence of the exceptionally complicated unity, which is even more visible by this working method.»
In the thirty years which passed since this first translation, much things have happened. Censorship has been abolished together with the Soviet Union as a form of government. In Russia, a generation is growing up for which the atrocities of the Stalin era have already grown dim to such extent that for new readers additional footnotes are required in the new Russian editions of The Master and Margarita.
In my new translation the italics are removed. Those who are interested can still consult one of the five editions of the previous translation.
In fact, there was no reason anymore to maintain the italics in the third edition in 1975, because in 1973, an uncensored edition was published in Moscow, in one binding with The White Guard and Black Snow. It was based on the last typescript of Elena Sergeevna from 1963. (She never had the chance to see an uncensored publication herself). According to later editors this typescript could be subject to discussion, not only because Elena Sergeevna did no longer have a copy of the «final» editorial text, but also because the publisher had been rather self-willing sometimes as far as the definition of the text was concerned.
Only in 1989, Lidya Yanovskaya could publish an edition which could meet the most severe textological requirements, it was published by Dnipro in Kiev. Yanovskaya reviewed the text thoroughly again for the fivefold Anthology in the series Chudozhestvennaya Literatura (Moscow 1990), and this revision is the basis for my current translation.
Although the book got enthusiastic comments, I wasn't much pleased about my translation after a critical rereading. I had to make it in six months under high pressure, using corrupt texts which confused me often, and it didn't get better after the publication of the Russian edition in 1973 which was, as I said, no spotless text neither. Publisher De Arbeiderspers didn't like my idea to do it all over and, frankly, there was no reason for it neither since there was no really reliable source available.
But I had more reasons to propose a new translation. Charles B. Timmer had found «some stylistic playfulnesses» in my translation, but he was kind enough to call them the «défauts de [mes] qualités». Kees Verheul thought correctly that I had translated the book with the exaggeration typical of a student. That's why there would be three more editions of a text which, to put it mildly, I didn't approve anymore.
When publisher G.A. van Oorschot planned the publication of Bulgakov's Anthology in the Russian Library, I understood that I got an opportunity for a thorough review, maybe even a completely new translation.
The decision to translate the book again was facilitated by the Belgian Slavist J. Rombauts, who had compared my translation with the Dnipro-edition, and who sent me repeatedly long lists of devergencies he had noticed, and for which I want to express my gratitude once again.
The opening of such a complicated text was no sinecure. I needed a more frank and energetic hand than mine. And I was lucky again. Aai Prins, whose translation of The White Guard I had been reading with much admiration, was prepared to look at the text together with me, to clean up the missing or differing passages and to purify the book from baroque language and unfounded laconicallies. She made a first thorough revision, from which I could start, because we needed more than just some adaptations. After that, I reviewed everything again together with her, and five revisions later the present result was achieved. It became a whole new book. Because we could benefit from the results of recent text research, this translation may be considered as one of the most reliable in the world. I also want to thank Tom Eekman here; he reviewed the entire text too and made annotations which I used gratefully. The responsibilty of the final text, however, is completely mine.
Marko Fondse (1932 - 1999) was a poet and translator of Russian. With his work, among which the translation of The Master and Margarita, he won the Prize Martinus Nijhoff in 1969.
Your guide through the novel
In this section are explained, per chapter, all typical notions, names of people and places, quotations and expressions from the novel with a description of the political, social, economical and cultural context.
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