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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Literature and Poetry  »  Consciousness in Translation - Part Three

Consciousness in Translation - Part Three

By Henry Schroeder | Published  08/8/2007 | Literature and Poetry | Recommendation:
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Henry Schroeder
United States
German to English translator
Fíxose membro: Oct 22, 2002.
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Part Three: The Translation of Consciousness in Third Person Narratives

Henry Whittlesey

Introduction: Narration and Interior Monologue

The lack of any temporal distinction between the different modes of interior monologue in Russian generally offers a translator the option of choosing either quoted monologue or narrated monologue for an English translation. (35) This chapter will explore the various advantages and implications related to the translation of Russian interior monologue as quoted monologue in English. The primary advantage is that by rendering consciousness as quoted monologue the translation will come closest to retaining the temporal structure of the original. Likewise propitious for the English version is the reproduction of a potential division between the reflecting narrator and the telling narrator in an original text where the narrator shares (reflects) their thoughts untransposed while telling in the epic tense (the preterite). Translating interior monologue as quoted monologue will consequently recreate this duality when the tense of these two modes coincides with the original.

Here a twentieth-century, third-person narrative with an impersonal omniscient narrator relating their story in the past tense will serve as the basis for examining this approach to reproducing interior monologue. Such a text has the potential to assimilate a range of modes for communicating the thoughts and speech of characters, yet not be too experimental to obscure any criteria for analysis. A suitable published translation as well as general familiarity with characters and plot make The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov a good subject for this study.

The occasional shifts from the epic omniscient narrator to passages in the present or future within the narrative report are limited in number and allow for a fairly manageable overview of narrative innovations related to consciousness. Retrospectively, Bulgakov’s narrator recounts events taking place in May, from Wednesday to Saturday, in Moscow. This report however runs together with the reflecting narrator’s commentary to the reader, with the monologues of the protagonists and some other ambiguous passages. The tense in these sections of the story differs from the epic narrative report.

The governing narrative situation of the novel emerges in the first sentence and only infrequently switches from this epic, third-person account (36):

В час жаркого весеннего заката на Патриарших прудах появилось двое граждан (Мастер и Маргарита, 5).

The past tense, an omniscient narrator, and a third-person perspective are all evident. Expanded is the scope of this report by embedded voices that betray or testify about their thoughts in the present tense. Here the narrator integrates into the narrative report the thoughts of Berlioz after Voland talks about his uncle in Kiev. The monologue is related in the present tense:

И опять передернуло Берлиоза. Откуда же сумасшедший знает о существовании киевского дяди? Ведь об этом ни в каких газетах, уж наверно, ничего не сказано. Эге-ге, уж не прав ли Бездомный? А ну как документы эти липовые? Ах до чего странный субъект... Звонить, звонить! Сейчас же звонить! Его быстро разъяснить! (MM, 46; emphasis added, highlights interior monologue in passage)

After an introductory sentence situates the thoughts of Berlioz, the narrative departs for the inner world of the protagonist. The change in tense signifies the alteration in perspective from report to monologue, and the entire arrangement of the paragraph recalls Ulysses, with situating text followed by monologue.

The aforementioned examples establish the general framework in which the narrator tells his story. There are however deviations that complicate interpretation and translation. One stumbling block emerges when the narrator enters the narrative as a participant (reflecting narrator):

Да, следует отметить первую странность этого страшного майского вечера. (ММ, 5)

The present tense следует generally marks a narrator’s address to the reader. Such commentary is extraneous to the plot of the narrative report and is attributed to the narrator rather than the thoughts of a character. (37) The reflecting narrator can be extracted from the telling narrator on the basis of tense, with the reflecting narrator voicing their opinions in the present tense. This distinction helps avoid the creation of a hierarchy or the privileging of certain interior monologues over others, and translating such passages as quoted monologue yields a translation with a texture identical to the original.

Finally there is the instance where a monologue has no clearly identifiable locus when the speaking voice is ambiguous. The first description of Fagot in the novel issues from Berlioz or the narrator. Since the speech of the experiencing protagonist reveals idiomatic expressions used by the narrator and simultaneously follows situating text for Berlioz, it is difficult to attribute this monologue to one figure:

И тут знойный воздух сгустился перед ним (Берлиозу), и соткался из этого воздуха прозрачный гражданин престранного вида. На маленькой головке жокейский картузик, клетчатый кургузый воздушный же пиджачок... Гражданин ростом в сажень, но в плечах узок, худ неимоверно, и физиономия, прошу заметить, глумливая. (ММ, 6; emphasis and parenthesis added, explain person and highlight reported thought)

Berlioz and Homeless are sitting on a bench when the air thickens in front of the former. The sketch of Fagot initially appears to be drawn in Berlioz's head, yet toward the end comes one of the author's classical phrases, прошу заметить, which hints at him being the source of this account. Oddly, the ambiguity here is very similar to that of narrated monologue in English where the words can sometimes be attributed to either the character or the narrator because both the narrative report and narrated monologue are (primarily) in the preterite. (38)

I. Translating Reported Discourse, Oblique Speech and Internal Experience in The Master and Margarita

Direct discourse represents the primary mode for conveying the inner thoughts of Bulgakov’s characters. The temporal aspect of translating direct speech/thought is not complicated to the extent that most verbs are translated into the equivalent tense, that is, they are not transposed. This rule applies to present and past tense verbs (with occasional exceptions), and exactly this approach guides the Volokhonsky-Pevear translation of the following passage with Margarita:

«Сон этот может означать только одно из двух, - рассуждала сама с собой Маргарита Николаевна, - если он мертв и поманил меня, то это значит, что он приходил за мною, и я скоро умру. Это очень хорошо, потому что мучениям тогда настает конец. Или он жив, тогда сон может означать только одно, что он напоминает мне о себе! Он хочет сказать, что мы еще увидимся. Да, мы увидимся очень скоро!» (MM, 226)

“This dream means only one of two things,” Margarita Nikolaevna reasoned with herself. “If he’s dead and beckoned to me, it means he has come for me, and I will die soon. And that’s very good – because then my suffering will soon end. Or else he’s alive, and then the dream can only mean one thing, that he’s reminding me of himself! He wants to say that we will see each other again… Yes, we will see each other very soon!” (MM, 220)

Tense is largely translated one to one: может означать becomes means (for some reason they decided to leave out can, but the tense remains present); это очень хорошо is translated as that’s very good, etc. Quotation marks as well as untransposed verbs tell the reader how Margarita has interpreted her dream. The thoughts take the same form as direct speech, with tags and staging words setting it apart from the narrative report; the discourse gives the reader insight into the direct processes at work in Margarita's mind by being separate from the narrator’s report.

Oblique speech and internal experience must be transposed in English, but are not transposed in Russian. Such speech or experiences follow phrases such as s/he thought, felt, heard, saw, said, become convinced, persuaded, sure, etc. (39)

С холодеющим сердцем Иван приблизился к профессору и, заглянув ему в лицо, убедился в том, что никаких признаков сумасшестия в этом лице нет и не было (ММ, 49)

With a chill in his heart, Ivan approached the professor and, glancing into his face, became convinced that there were not and never had been any signs of madness in that face (MM, 48)

The verb убедиться shifts the narrative report to the internal experiences of the character, which are in the present and past tense in Russian. Those same verbs are then transposed into the past and pluperfect tense in English. Not only does this alteration reduce the immediacy of the English text, but it also expands the scope of the narrator who is ostensibly summarizing the conviction of the character in this case. In Russian, however, it is almost the protagonist who expresses their convictions because they are voiced in the same tense as they would be if they said: "there are not and never were any signs of madness in that face." (40)

II. The Question of Narrated Monologue

What would be termed narrated monologue in English mediates in the present tense in Russian. (41) Bulgakov does nothing explicit to counter this claim, and does not even include any interior monologue that could allow for confusion between narrated and quoted monologue in English. The narrator only occasionally recounts in the idiom of the characters in the preterite (a defining feature of narrated monologue), but a shift to the character as narrator never occurs. A quintessential example appears in this rare exposition of Margarita’s thoughts:

- Благодарю вас, мессир, - чуть слышно сказала Маргарита и вопросительно поглядела на Воланда. Тот в ответ улыбнулся ей вежливо и равнодушно. Черная тоска как-то сразу подкатила к сердцу Маргариты. Она почувствовала себя обманутой. Никакой награды за все ее услуги на балу никто, по-видимому, ей не собирался предлагать, как никто ее и не удерживал. А между тем ей совершенно ясно было, что идти ей отсюда больше некуда. (ММ, 291; emphasis added)

This is the closest Bulgakov comes to narrated monologue in the English sense. The thoughts are introduced by она почувствовала себя обманутой, the tone is colloquial, yet the interjection of по-видимому would not issue from Margarita, would be left out if the words were formulated in her mind. The narrator, however, betrays a certain proximity to Margarita through the colloquial idiom of this italicized sentence, which only requires the removal of по-видимому to become something similar to narrated monologue, though does and would ultimately remain within the scope of the narrative report. (42)

III. Translating Interior Monologue as Quoted Monologue

Ultimately untransposed verbs define interior monologue in Russian and consequently cause such discourse to resemble quoted monologue in English. Similar to the example with Berlioz from page 1 are Rimsky’s thoughts on Stepa’s trip to Yalta after Voland has whisked him off the Moscow scene:

Гм... Да... Ни о каких поездах не может быть и разговора. Но что же тогда? Истребитель? Кто и в какой истребитель пустит Степу без сапог? Зачем? Может быть, он снял сапоги, прилетев в Ялту? То же самое: зачем? Да и в сапогах в истребитель его не пустят! Да и истребитель тут ни при чем. Ведь писано же, что явился в угрозыск в половине двенадцатого дня, а разговаривал он по телефону в Москве... позвольте... тут перед глазами Римского возник циферблат его часов... Он припоминал, где были стрелки. (ММ, 111; emphasis added).

The passage exhibits the primary features of interior monologue in Russian: present tense narration except for events in the past (i.e. untransposed verbs throughout); and the narrator situating the protagonist in the context of the narrative report (albeit afterwards). This approach leaves Bulgakov adhering to the tradition of relaying his characters’ thoughts in the present tense without forcing them to troop up to a statement and without using verba dicendi (staging words). Such interior discourse mirrors quoted monologue in English.

Monologue constitutes one of the major mouthpieces for relating consciousness in Russian. The primary difference between direct discourse and interior monologue is that the one has textual markers and the other is integrated into the narrative report without them. Such passages can generally be distinguished from the narrator’s story because they are in the present tense. Here is the passage that was cited earlier where Berlioz wonders how Voland can possibly know about his Kievan uncle:

И опять передернуло Берлиоза. Откуда же сумасшедший знает о существовании киевского дяди? Ведь об этом ни в каких газетах, уж наверно, ничего не сказано. Эге-ге, уж не прав ли Бездомный? А ну как документы эти липовые? Ах до чего странный субъект... Звонить, звонить! Сейчас же звонить! Его быстро разъяснить! (MM, 46; emphasis added, highlights reported speech/thought in passage)

And again Berlioz winced. How does the madman know about the existence of a Kievan uncle? That has certainly never been mentioned in any newspapers. Oh-oh, maybe Homeless is right after all? And suppose his papers are phoney? Ah, what a strange specimen… Call, call! Call at once! They’ll quickly explain him! (MM, 45; emphasis added)

The shift from the epic narrative report to the present tense indicates that these words are festering in Berlioz’s head. The effect is identical in Russian and English when translated as quoted monologue, which presumably accounts for Volokhonsky-Pevear’s decision to adopt this approach for the translation of most interior monologue in the novel. Fortunately, the editors did not interfere with the translation of this interior monologue as they did in many similar instances by altering them with tags or transposing the verbs into a different tense. Another moment where a protagonist voices the content in their head is when Homeless reveals his thoughts after Berlioz’s head has been cut off:

Виноват! Да ведь он же сказал, что заседание не состоится, потому что Аннушка разлила масло. И, будьте любезны, оно не состоится! Этого мало: он прямо сказал, что Берлиозу отрежет голову женщина?! Да, да, да! Ведь вожатая-то была женщина! Что же это такое? А? (ММ, 49)

The passage suggests an interior monologue because the tense switches to the present and future without any textual indicators. Though there might be initial confusion with the past tense and the lack of an introductory sentence from the telling narrator, the location of the text becomes evident in the second sentence where the thinker speaks in the imperative and then later in the present. Consequently, the translation as quoted monologue is to be rendered without transposition of the verbs:

Excuse me! But he did say the meeting wouldn’t take place because Annushka had spilled the oil. And, if you please, it won’t take place! What’s more, he said straight out that Berlioz’s head would be cut off by a woman?! Yes, yes, yes! And the driver was a woman! What is all this, eh?! (MM, 48; slightly modified from Volokhonskaya and Pevear, change explained below)

This translation would be the literal rendition of the previous Russian monologue that relates Bezdomny’s thoughts. The English translators or editors, however, did actually alter this passage slightly by including quotation marks at the beginning and end of it, consequently turning quoted monologue into psycho-narration/direct thought.

A principle source of confusion in the translation of Russian interior monologues as quoted monologue seems to be precisely this subject: the past tense. (43) Rendering consciousness in quoted monologue entails that thoughts in the preterite be communicated in exactly the same tense as they would be in direct discourse. There is still no transposition in tense as with oblique speech or narrated monologue despite their being in the past. In the following passage the translators have not shifted quoted monologue to direct discourse, but rather to oblique speech or narrated monologue:

Максимилиан Андреевич считался, и заслуженно, одним из умнейших людей в Киеве. Но и самого умного человека подобная телеграмма может поставить в тупик. Раз человек телеграфирует, что его зарезало, то ясно, что его зарезало не насмерть. Но при чем же тогда похороны? Или он очень плох и предвидит, что умрет? Это возможно, но в высшей степени странна эта точность – откуда ж он так-таки и знает, что хоронить его будут в пятницу в три часа дня? Удивительная телеграмма!
Однако умные люди на то и умны, чтобы разбираться в запутанных вещах. Очень просто. Произошла ошибка, и депешу передали исковерканной. Слово «меня», без сомнения, попало сюда из другой телеграммы, вместо слова «Берлиоза», которое приняло вид «Берлиоз» и попало в конец телеграммы.
С такой поправкой смысл телеграммы становился зсен, но, конечно, трагичен. (ММ, 202; emphasis added)

Maximilian Andreevich was considered one of the most intelligent men in Kiev, and deservedly so. But even the most intelligent man might have been nonplussed by such a telegram. If someone sends a telegram saying he has been run over, it is clear that he has not died of it. But then, what was this about a funeral? Or was he in a bad way and foreseeing death? That was possible, but such precision was in the highest degree strange: how could he know he would be buried on Friday at three pm? An astonishing telegram!
However, intelligence is granted to intelligent people so as to sort out entangled affairs. Very simple. A mistake had been made, and the message had been distorted. The word ‘have’ had undoubtedly come there from some other telegram in place of the word ‘Berlioz’, which got moved and wound up at the end of the telegram.
With such an emendation, the meaning of the telegram became clear; though, of course, tragic. (MM, 195; emphasis added)

The words are the thoughts of Berlioz’s uncle, which are initially situated (Максимилиан Андреевич считался…), then interrupted by the monologue of the author as character (Но и самого умного человека подобная телеграмма может поставить в тупик (44)), and then continue ambiguously: Раз человек телеграфирует… In general the present tense here indicates that someone is expressing their thoughts on the telegram, probably this uncle (Maximilian Andreevich), though possibly or occasionally the author.

The present-tense verbs in the two paragraphs are translated inconsistently, but the most glaring alteration is the jump from the present tense to the past perfect in the second paragraph. Here the translators or editors have abruptly switched from one form of speech (quoted monologue) to another (narrated monologue) whereas no such alteration is needed. The reflecting narrator (re-)enters the narrative in the second paragraph (and in the first) to comment in the present tense, but, like every character, he also thinks in the tense of direct discourse. Hence, he speaks about the present in the present and the past in the past, just as he would in English direct discourse and quoted monologue. So when this narrator’s thoughts turn to the mistake and distortion, they should be rendered as they would without transposition. What happened in the past is not told in the pluperfect; what marks a generalization or current event is not recounted in the preterite. The proper, literal translation of the verbs in this passage should look like this:

Maximilian Andreevich was considered one of the most intelligent men in Kiev, and deservedly so. But even the most intelligent man might be nonplussed by such a telegram. If someone sends a telegram saying he has been run over, it is clear that he has not died of it. But then, what is this about a funeral? Or is he in a bad way and foreseeing death? That is possible, but such precision is in the highest degree strange: how could he know he would be buried on Friday at three pm? An astonishing telegram!
However, intelligence is granted to intelligent people so as to sort out entangled affairs. (It’s) Very simple. A mistake has been made, and the message has been distorted. The word ‘have’ has undoubtedly come there from some other telegram in place of the word ‘Berlioz’, which got moved and wound up at the end of the telegram. With such an emendation, the meaning of the telegram became clear; though, of course, tragic. (Emphasis added)

The consequence of this error in translation is greater than in the preceding example. Here the incorrect rendering of these thoughts shifts them to a different level than the other discourse. They are consequently privileged or deprecated depending on the interpretation, whereas in Russian they are completely neutral and would be here as quoted monologue.
At times in The Master and Margarita, the telling narrator participates as a reflecting narrator by speaking directly to the reader. Whether or not this occurs in the foregoing passage, he does in all likelihood describe the veranda here:

Правая щека Ивана Николаевича была свеже изодрана. Трудно даже измерить глубину молчания, воцарившегося на веранде. Видно было, как у одного из официантов пиво течет из покосившейся набок кружки на пол. (ММ, 64)

Ivan Nikolaevich’s (Homeless’s) right cheek was freshly scratched. It would be difficult to plumb the depths of the silence that reigned on the veranda. (MM, 63; emphasis and information in parenthesis added)

The present tense in Russian combined with the omniscient perspective suggest the reflecting narrator. Impersonal and subjectless constructions however efface a clear delineation between the reflecting narrator and Homeless. By and large these characteristics are retained in translation, which employs a subjunctive instead of the present for the reflecting narrator’s commentary. Translating such monologue untransposed leaves it open for interpretation and does not bind it to the reflecting narrator. This transposition in tense becomes a little more ambiguous in the following impersonal introductory clause where Homeless or the author comments on Voland’s story about Pontius Pilate:

Но надо полагать, что все-таки рассказывал профессор, иначе придется допустить, что то же самое приснилось и Берлиозу, потому что тот сказал, внимательно всматриваясь в лицо иностранца... (MM, 43)

But it must be supposed that the professor did tell the story after all, otherwise it would have to be assumed that Berlioz had had the same dream, because he said, studying the foreigner’s face attentively… (MM, 42)

The introductory phrase надо полагать is typical of the telling narrator who in Russia cannot help but pepper the narrative report with his personal commentary in the present tense. Phrases of this kind are very common in Bulgakov and other writers whose stories are primarily told in the past tense without any other intrusion. (45) The cited passage tosses out the potential duality in interpretation, since these words could belong to Homeless or the telling narrator as a reflector, and this ambiguity is incorporated into an untransposed translation as it must be supposed.

Episodes sketching an atmosphere similar to the scene on the veranda also allow for ambiguity. An interpretation of the descriptions could attribute them to a reflecting character or a reflecting narrator and again suggests one of them depicting their impressions. Whoever expresses these thoughts, however, they represent an interruption in the narrative report in both source and orientation. For a translator, there is no need for interpretation in these instances as long as they are rendering monologue as quoted in English, i.e. untransposed.


In Bulgakov the division between a telling and reflecting narrator allows the narrator to comment on and participate in the story as a character equal to the others in speech and thought. The author, the master, Margarita, Homeless et. al. speak and share their views either in marked psycho-narration or quoted monologue. Consequently, an extensive dialogue takes place across the spectrum of the novel’s pages, engaging all speakers without favoring one or the other. The reflecting narrator is merely one of these figures and differs from the telling narrator by using the present tense to speak. This reflecting narrator emerges in various capacities: to comment on events, describe scenes or express his view. Sometimes his commentary comes at the beginning of a paragraph, sometimes it is embedded in it. In each case the switch in perspective (from telling narrator to reflecting narrator) is evident in the change to the present tense. Again the ostensible ease with which such passages should be translated – the translator need only eschew any transposition of the tense in the original – turns out to be rather complicated. The Volokhonsky-Pevear translation reveals this especially in embedded shifts of the kind with the telegram.

Furthermore, where only the commentary or interior monologue of the reflecting narrator is transposed, it may then fall within the scope of the telling narrator or become a part of the narrative report, consequently expanding its role and increasing its authority. This would certainly be even more pronounced in the translation of The Master and Margarita if other interior monologues (issuing from protagonists) remained untransposed. As it is, the inconsistent approach complicates any interpretation of the translation.

By applying different approaches to the translation of interior monologue, the translators also create hierarchies that do not exist in the original: favoring and disadvantaging certain monologues at the expense of others. Rendering all monologues in the narrative as quoted monologue rather than narrated monologue is potentially ideal for Russian novels like The Master and Margarita because the author can speak and think as an equal with the other protagonists. This dialogue would not be possible or would not be evident if the characters’ speech was transposed to the preterite and the pluperfect (as in narrated monologue or oblique speech), while the author spoke in the present or vice versa. This difference would lend certain voices more authority and potentially extend the influence of some roles. Irrespective of the consequences and theoretical implications, translators must adhere to a consistent approach in the translation of interior monologue. They cannot shift arbitrarily any more than they can translate one paragraph of an epic narrative report in the preterite and the following in the present.

35 See part one and two.
36 Primarily when the Master narrates in the first person for a brief period later.
37 Some of these subjectless, present tense phrases are so ambiguous that they could in fact potentially stem from a character.
38 See part one and part four. I.e. since most dialog is in the present tense, it is transposed to the preterite for narrated monologue.
39 See part one for examples from Tolstoy, Austen and Joyce.
40 See part six
41 This was illustrated in the translation of passages from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man into Russian, where narrated monologue in the past tense was transposed to the present. Also examined was Sologub’s story In Bondage, which offers a passage in free indirect discourse that is clearly narrated monologue due to the inclusion of the protagonist’s name in the present tense communication of his thoughts (exactly as Stephen’s name appears among his past-tense thoughts in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).
42 The question remains, however, whether this passage would indeed be considered narrated monologue in the English sense. This issue requires more research, but the reverse translation of narrated monologue from A Portrait of the Artist in the present tense in Russian strongly suggests that the Russian language does not make a distinction between various forms of interior monologue.
43 Beyond the scope of this article, the noted difficulty is presumably because the Anglo-Saxon mind is still trained to hear reported speech as narrated monologue, i.e. transposed.
44 This is also incorrectly interpreted and translated in the past tense.
45 Similar examples before this are on pages 5, 7 and 8 of Russian novel (Azbuka edition) and page 7 and 9 of the English translation (Penguin) for additional examples.

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