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In Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita" there is the famous sentence: Рукописи не горят.

It's usually translated into English as "Manuscripts don't burn". However it seems to me (a native English and non-native Russian speaker) that it could also be read as an impersonal construction, "People don't burn manuscripts" (Рукописи here being accusative rather than nominative). So my questions:

  • Are both translations in fact correct?

  • If so, is either to be preferred? In context, both seem sensible to me - the latter perhaps even the more poignant, being so clearly contrary to the facts of life in Bulgakov's society.

  • David, just warn to warn to that translations from Russian to English are off-topic. – shabunc Apr 30 '15 at 22:08
  • @shabunc Sorry, didn't realise that. Is there somewhere else I can ask this sort of question? Or, is it possible to propose that this sort of question should be on-topic? It seems to me that russian.se is the natural place to ask it. – David May 1 '15 at 0:39
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"To burn something" in Russian would be жечь. Гореть is an intransitive verb, it does not accept an object.

The phrase рукописи не жгут could indeed grammatically mean both "one doesn't burn manuscripts" and "manuscripts don't burn (something)", though the latter meaning is unrealistic of course.

  • It is incorrect. "Рукописи не жгут" and "рукописи не горят" phrases have different meanings. The latter is an idiom. You can't replace it with the former. – jfs Apr 30 '15 at 19:03
  • @JFSebastian: what exactly is incorrect? – Quassnoi Apr 30 '15 at 19:58
  • Do you understand that both are true: "рукописи жгут" and "рукописи не горят" (using the meaning from the book)? And therefore it is incorrect to use "не жгут" instead of "не горят" here, see my answer. – jfs May 1 '15 at 13:10
  • @JFSebastian: where exactly in my answer did I say they were the same? – Quassnoi May 1 '15 at 15:04
  • Why do you mention "рукописи не жгут" if its translation is unrelated to "рукописи не горят"? It is misleading at best – jfs May 2 '15 at 13:04
4

― Простите, не поверю, ― ответил Воланд, ― этого быть не может. Рукописи не горят.

"Forgive me, but I don't believe you," Woland replied, "that cannot be: manuscripts don't burn."

The precise meaning Рукописи не горят is Рукописи are non-inflammable, incombustible.

How can we say the same thing using poetic phraseology in English?

The question will be answered.

2

"Рукописи не горят" idiom means "you can't kill an idea" or (sometimes) "art is immortal."

It has nothing to do with "рукописи не жгут" -- the Master says that he burned it only a couple of paragraphs above in the original text. Therefore the second translation is wrong.

The mere fact that it is an idiom means that the phrase should not be interpreted literally.

  • Do you mean that this was an idiom existing before Bulgakov used it? If so can you give any references? – David May 1 '15 at 0:34
  • 2
    @David: No. I don't think it is existed before Bulgakov. Though there are similar sayings: "что написано пером—не вырубишь топором" и (slightly different meaning) "слово не воробей, вылетит—не поймаешь" that might have existed before (I don't know). The point being that it should not be read as "people don't burn manuscripts" because they do but manuscripts survive anyway (it may be the blessing and the curse). – jfs May 1 '15 at 13:02
  • It seems that my suggested translation is wrong for grammatical reasons, see other answers. However I can't agree that it doesn't make sense. The novel has a large component of satire in it, and it is easy to imagine Bulgakov writing "people don't burn manuscripts" in the clear knowledge that they actually do. – David May 1 '15 at 20:37
  • Also IMO the Master did burn his manuscript exactly as he said, but Woland with his extraordinary/supernatural powers was able to "resurrect" it. – David May 1 '15 at 20:40
  • @David Maybe an example would help to illustrate the difference: "people had killed Jesus" (he did die) vs. "Jesus can't die" (God is immortal) and "Master had burned manuscript" (he did) vs. "manuscripts don't burn" (art is immortal). Your translation is inappropriate here – jfs May 1 '15 at 21:12

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