What’s the best translation of The Master and Margarita?

These are the English translations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita:

  1. 1967 – Mirra Ginsburg
  2. 1967 – Michael Glenny
  3. 1993 – Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor
  4. 1997 – Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
  5. 2006 – Michael Karpelson (out of print)
  6. 2008 – Hugh Aplin

It’s a short list compared to, like Don Quixote, which has like 20. I thought, aha, there are only six this time, so the research on this one should go pretty fast.

Well, yes; but actually, no.

I got tangled up in two related questions about the origins of the book:

  • Was Bulgakov’s draft of The Master and Margarita complete?
  • Are all the English translations of The Master and Margarita complete?

I didn’t want to stuff what turned out to be ~1500 words into the beginning of my post at We Love Translations. That post is about choosing which English translation to read.

» What’s the best translation of The Master and Margarita?

THIS post is about the answers to those two preliminary questions.

Was the Bulgakov’s draft of The Master and Margarita complete?

It depends on what is meant by ‘complete’.

Bulgakov’s illness and death seem to have cut short a revision process that was still underway and might have cleared up what seem to be loose ends. If he had lived, in the absence of permission to publish, Bulgakov might have continued revising the text indefinitely, with what effects, we’ll never know. Maybe the novel would have noticeably improved, or maybe the novel’s essence would have remained unchanged.

So, is the novel incomplete because of the changes that were pending? Is it complete because the changes weren’t important?

Let’s see what Bulgakov’s translators said.

Translator Mirra Ginsburg says (NYT Jan 14, 1968), “Certain inconsistencies in the text clearly indicate that it was still a work in progress and that Bulgakov had not yet come to a final decision as to the treatment of some of its themes and incidents. Bulgakov’s archives surely contain hundreds of pages not included in either version, and neither can be regarded as ‘complete,’ since Bulgakov did not live to finish the book.”

Ginsburg, in her introduction: “Although he did not live to prepare a final version for publication, and the novel is thus still, in a sense, a work in progress, with some threads and details not yet completely resolved, it stands, both thematically and stylistically, as a masterpiece of extraordinary richness and complexity.”

It seems to be in Ginsburg’s interest to consider the manuscript to be in a state of flux, since her translation was based on a version edited by the Russian publisher. If the publisher’s cuts aren’t considered a legitimate part of the process of literary polishing, then her translation would seem to be incomplete, especially in comparison with the competing 1967 translation by Michael Glenny, which was made from a longer source text.

The brief author bio in a Vintage reprint of the Glenny translation says: “In 1938, a year before contracting a fatal illness, he completed his prose masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. He died in 1940.” Absent are protestations that the novel is great despite the source text not being finalized.

By contrast, the biographical note in the Burgin/O’Connor translation says, “When he died of nephrosclerosis (which had killed his father at the same age) in 1940, he had finished the writing of The Master and Margarita, although not the final editing, which he worked on up to months before his death.”

Biographer Ellendea Proffer says in the afterword to the Burgin/O’Connor translation: “Bulgakov had finished the novel in terms of structure, but he would certainly have continued to coordinate the minor changes he began in the first part of the novel with the second part if he had lived. The changes he was in the process of making before he died were not substantive…. Before concluding that everything unclear or seemingly contradictory is a mistake, we have to look at the text more carefully.”

Russian scholar Laura D. Weeks says something similar. She acknowledges an incomplete revision process, but then seems to say that any weirdness is probably intentional on the part of the author, and we need to root around until we find a way to interpret what he must have meant.

The Master and Margarita: A Critical Companion, edited by Laura D. Weeks, on pages 17-18 says, “Thanks to Bulgakov’s constant corrections and revisions, it is virtually impossible to call even the final notebooks the ‘definitive version,’ especially since so many of the final corrections are not in his own hand…. Because he died without subjecting part 2 of the novel to the rigorous revisions of part 1, in the minds of many critics the novel remains an unfinished work. [But I believe] that problems and apparent discrepancies encountered in the text can be resolved by placing the novel in the proper critical framework.” She goes on to give details about frameworks in which Bulgakov’s novel can be interpreted.

Translators Pevear and Volokhonsky seem more willing to consider that perceived flaws are actual flaws; they say in their Note on the Text: “At his death, Bulgakov left The Master and Margarita in a slightly unfinished state. It contains, for instance, certain inconsistencies.” Surely if something is “slightly unfinished” it’s unfinished? Why not commit to saying that? Or decide that whatever is missing or wrong is not important enough to prevent one from calling it “finished”? P&V seem determined to sit on the fence.

Rather than insist, like Ginsburg, that the work is “not complete because it’s not polished” or, like Proffer and Weeks, that it is “complete and flawless, despite incomplete revisions and apparent flaws”, or, like Pevear and Volokhonsky that it is somehow neither finished nor unfinished, I think it is reasonable to say that a book can be “complete” without being polished, which seems to be the opinion of Professor J.A.E. Curtis.

In Chapter 3 of A Reader’s Companion to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, J.A.E. Curtis says, “All in all, the variations between the later manuscript and typescript versions of the text are not of fundamental significance…. Nor is it really the case, as some have argued that the text is “unfinished”: Bulgakov had a clear sense of what he wanted to achieve in his magnum opus for some years before his death, and any inconsistencies that remain in the text are not sufficiently important to impede our understanding of his artistic purpose. On the other hand, it is probably true to say that there will never be an entirely ‘authorized’ text of The Master and Margarita.”

In this imperfect life, “done well enough” is “done”.

Are all the English translations of The Master and Margarita complete?

Well, it’s hard to say. None of the English translations are deliberate abridgements. The translators were all doing the best they could with what was available to them at the time. The unavoidable fact is, there’s no single authoritative source text because the novel’s publishing history is complicated.

As best I can make out, here’s what happened.

  • 1928 – Bulgakov started a draft.
  • 1930 – Bulgakov burned the draft.
  • 1931 – Bulgakov started a new draft.
  • 1940 – Bulgakov stopped working on the draft (after a period of working on it blind, by dictation).
  • 1940 – Elena Sergeevna (Bulgakov’s third wife) promised Bulgakov she would make sure the novel was eventually published.
  • 1940 – Bulgakov died.
  • 1940 – Elena made a new typescript of the novel.
  • 1963 – Elena edited the text, producing another new typescript.
  • 1966-67 – Using the 1963 typescript as a source, but making substantial cuts, the journal Moskva published the novel. The cuts amounted to “12%” or “60 pages of manuscript” or “over a hundred pages” or “23,000 words”.
  • 1966-67 – “Samizdat” copies of the missing text were made on typewriters with carbon paper and privately circulated attached to the Moskova version within the USSR.
  • 1967 – The cut portions were published by Scherz Verlag in Switzerland.
  • 1967 – The publisher Eesti Raamat in Estonia (inside the USSR) published an “uncensored” Estonian translation.
  • 1967 – Einaudi published an edition after Elena received permission from the government to supply the original text for publication in Russian overseas (by arguing that the cuts had been editorial choices and not cuts made to please government censors).
  • 1967 – YMCA Press in Paris published the novel in Russian after Elena was allowed to travel to France to visit family, apparently taking the text with her.
  • 1967 – Grove Press published Mirra Ginsburg’s English translation.
  • 1967 – Harper and Row (New York) / Collins and Harvill (London) published Michael Glenny’s English translation.
  • 1969 – A version with missing passages reinserted in italics was published in Russian by Possev Verlag in Germany.
  • 1970 – Elena died.
  • 1973 – A Russian publisher called Khudozhestvennaya Literatura finally published an uncensored Russian version based on Bulgakov’s 1940 draft, edited by Anna Saakiants, as part of an 812-page volume of Bulgakov’s works called Romany (“Novels”).
  • 1989-90 – A Russian version compiled from “all available manuscripts” was prepared by Lidiya Yanovskaya and published in a five-volume collection by Khudozhestvennaya Literatura.

Scholars now have access to a variety of original drafts as well as published versions of the novel. However, Elena’s role in helping Bulgakov during his illness and her edits after his death complicate the matter of determining which changes Bulgakov would have wanted. Still, most people assume he would want people to read what was cut from the first Russian edition. After all, people risked arrest and punishment in Soviet Russia just to read what was cut from the first Russian edition!

Global Histories: “Manuscripts Don’t Burn: The Master and Margarita as a Case Study of Samizdat in an Extra Gutenberg Culture” by Julia Boechat Machado
This is an interesting 16-page article on Samizdat publishing (illegal Soviet Russian self-publishing). “Samizdat was not under centralized control, and for that reason, not standardized. There are numerous instances of passages being excised or changed by typists who were tired or honestly felt they were improving it…. Dissemination was also an issue. It was too difficult to make several copies of a text to be distributed. On a typing machine, writers used carbons and papyrus paper to make seven or eight copies at once, but the last one of the bunch would be almost unreadable. Taking pictures of the paper and printing it in photographic paper was also an option, but it generated a book that was very thick, expensive and that tended to curl. With the number of copies being so limited, the work had to be constantly retyped by different people, with no centralized control.”

The 1967 Ginsburg translation was based on the shortened Russian edition. In contrast, the 1967 Glenny translation was based on a longer, “uncensored” version of the source text. All the other translations (Burgin & O’Connor, Pevear & Volokhonsky, Karpelson, Aplin) were based on the 1973 and 1990 texts.

I have seen a couple of people vaguely claim the original Ginsburg translation was subsequently updated. The current edition says the copyright for the Ginsburg translation was “renewed” in 1995, but I haven’t been able to find any definitive evidence that additions were made to the Ginsburg translation to supply what was arguably “missing” from the 1967 version. If the current edition were more complete than the original, I imagine the publisher would say so somewhere on the cover or in the first few pages of the newer edition. So I conclude that the Ginsburg translation remains incomplete.

To read about what’s (presumably) still missing from the Ginsburg translation and to what extent it matters, see the Ginsburg part of my translations post.


Publishing is messy in the best of circumstances, and Bulgakov’s novel wasn’t published in the best of circumstances.

Was Bulgakov’s draft of The Master and Margarita complete?
As far as Bulgakov is concerned, the novel is, of course, as complete as it’s ever going to be. The story doesn’t leave off in the middle with a cliffhanger, if that’s what worries you.

Are all the English translations of The Master and Margarita complete?
Unless (contrary to my impression) the Ginsburg translation has been updated, you’re better off with any of the others—assuming what you really want most is a translation of the complete Russian source text.

» What’s the best translation of The Master and Margarita?

If you’ve read one of the others already, though, why not read the Ginsburg text too? Many have mourned the fact that hers is less complete, since if it were, they’d prefer it to all the rest.