Translating Bulgakov: New Perspectives on a Russian Master – Pushkin House

Pushkin House is a Russian cultural centre in Bloomsbury which regularly hosts events related to Russian art, literature, history and so on. I attended a talk, Translating Bulgakov: New Perspectives on a Russian Master, which discussed the life of the Russian writer. It was chaired by publisher Alessandro Gallenzi and featured Hugh Aplin, translator of The Master and Margarita, and Roger Cockrell, translator of Bulgakov’s Diaries and Selected Letters.

The library at Pushkin House
The library at Pushkin House

I’m a huge fan of Bulgakov and The Master and Margarita is one of my favourite novels, so I was really interested to attend this discussion. If you haven’t read it, the book it is about what happens when the devil turns up in Soviet Moscow with a motley retinue including a talking cat – read it, it’s wonderful.

The talk began with Hugh Aplin exploring why The Master and Margarita was not published, or even submitted for publication. Bulgakov was well aware of the censorship issues in the Soviet Union during the mid-20th century. He was able to publish during the 1920s as that was a much more relaxed era, with satire and other forms of writing permitted. The Master and Margarita featured both a highly non-realistic storyline and the presence of Christ – neither of which were advisable in the stricter climate.

Roger Cockrell focused on the trials and tribulations Bulgakov endured. He managed to establish his reputation against all odds, gave up medicine to focus on writing, and kept going even in the face of constant rejection and censorship. He found it tough to earn a living, having a complicated relationship with the Soviet government and with the theatre, particularly Stanislavsky’s Moscow Arts Theatre. His play about Molière was never produced.

During his lifetime Bulgakov was known primarily as a playwright; his last prose works published in Soviet Russia came out in 1925, but his plays enjoyed greater success. In 1928, he had three plays running and another in production; one of the three was The Days of the Turbins, based on his novel The White Guard, inexplicably a favourite of Stalin’s (it was about a family of White Russians).

Bulgakov’s widow worked to ensure his fame, and by the 1960s some of his works had at last been published. Today, he is popular in Russia, but in Putin’s modern nation some artists are still regarded with disfavour, and Bulgakov has not escaped censure. The idea of erecting a monument to the author at Patriarch Ponds in Moscow has met with a lot of resistance.

Hugh Aplin was asked about the challenges of translating The Master and Margarita, and if there was anything still left to translate. He commented that regardless of the quality of the source material, the translator must always act as an interpreter. There are some inconsistencies in the text, which he mentions in his notes. In Russia, a number of different editions of the work have been produced based on the various versions Bulgakov worked on throughout his life, such as The Great Chancellor and The Prince of Darkness.

Roger Cockrell was asked how Bulgakov could physically manage to survive in the circumstances in which he found himself. He said that though the writer found it very difficult – he was often wracked with self-doubt, and was continually denied a visa when he begged the government to let him go abroad – he believed in the importance of writing and of literature, and this helped to sustain him. I admire Bulgakov so much – he achieved a great deal in incredibly difficult circumstances and I truly admire his commitment to literature.