Master and Margarita | Banned and Censored: A History and Guide to the Translations.

master1The Master and Margarita is one of my favorite books of all time.  A satire of soviet life, The Master and Margarita features the devil and his retinue, Pontius Pilate, Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Иешуа га-Ноцри, Jesus the Nazarene), and nearly 10-20 other characters all caught up in fantastic and very chaotic adventure.  Bulgakov’s portrayal of the Russian literary union, the housing crisis, the collective fear of foreigners, and his fresh portrayal of famous biblical characters is absolutely and hysterically funny.

When Mikhail Bulgakov began writing this novel, he was in the midst of extreme success for his satircal plays which largely teased and harassed the White Army: the opposition to the communism during the revolution.  Perhaps growing too bold for Soviet times, he wrote a play (The Purple Island 1929) which criticized officials of the New Economic Plan, which created such a violent reaction that his works were immediatly banned and his career ruined.  Fearing further persecution, a year later in 1930 he burned the manuscript for The Master and Margarita and requested permission to emmigrate to his family in France.  The request was denied, and he was told if tried to leave Russia he would be killed.  In 1931, under encouragement from his new wife Yelena Shilovskaya, he started rewriting the novel, finally completing a 4th revision of the book in 1940, just weeks before his death from a hereditary liver disease.  After his death, his wife completed a final version based on notes and planned revisions in 1941.  It was 25 years before it appeared in print, in what is considered startling oversight in Soviet literary politics.  This  censored version of the text (with 12% removed and more changed) was published in 1966 in Moskva Magazine. Illegal pamphlet copies of the book called samizdats that contained the uncensored text were distributed by hand and eventually used in 1967 by a publisher in Frankfurt to complete the first full published version of the text.  The first complete version to appear in Russia wasn’t until 1973, compiled by Anna Saakyants and published by Khudozhestvennaya Literatura.  This was considered the cannonical version until 1989 when Lidiya Yanovskaya prepared the final version based on all available texts and manuscripts.

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Mirra Ginsburg Translation (Grove Press 1967):

Translated from the original censored magazine publication in 1967, this is one of the first English translations.  Considered hurried by some, a Russian professor of mine once declared that her translation is the only one that truly captures the comedic sense of the novel.  Hurried or comedic, this is an incomplete edition.


Michael Glenny Translation (Harper &  Row 1967):

Translated from the  Frankfurt edition, this is often considered the first complete translation in English, also from 1967.  For many, this translation is still incomplete, as it is taken from the a version of the book that was pulled apart then pieced together from samizdat texts. This translation was the only available complete edition in English for 28 years.

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Where the real split begins is between the Diana Burgin & Katherine Tiernan O’Connor translation and the Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. translation.  Published within years of each other both translations are incredibly complete, with notes, two translators, and a consultant.  Both translations seek to be accurate while still preserving the literary style of the satire.  Often, with excellent translations such as these, it can come down to an arbitrary personal preference.  Mine is firmly planted with Pevear & Volokhonsky, who are renown for the translations of Dotstyevsky, Chekov, Tolstoy and Gogol.  Nearly everyone I know who has read The Master and Margarita has read this translation and fallen in love with it, which makes me want to recommend it as the be-all and end-all edition, but the praise I have read by obviously devoted Bulgakov fans for the Burgin & Tiernan translation makes me hesitate.  Either way you go, you are sure to end up with a lovely, hysterical, and amazing story.


Janina Larenas is the book buyer for the New Book Department. She is a printmaker and book artist who works with a variety of mediums to create narrative imagery. Her pieces range from stickers and posters to science illustration, embroidery to zines, often merging technical crafts with fine art presentation.