Research at the RBML | Hannah Klimas on Mirra Ginsburg’s translations of Mikhail Bulgakov

Hannah Klimas, PhD Candidate at the School of Languages, Cultures, and Societies at the University of Leeds, recently visited the RBML to examine materials for her research on Mirra Ginsburg and her translations of Mikhail Bulgakov, best known as the author of The Master and Margarita. Klimas’ project, entitled “Breaking the ‘fifth’ wall: The role of the translator in British and American staged productions of the works of Mikhail Bulgakov,” focuses on the translation of Bulgakov’s theatrical works. Below read about how Klimas’ time in the archive helped her develop a richer and more complex picture of Ginsburg and an understanding of the surprisingly competitive business of translation.



What brings you to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library? 

The only way to truly understand the process of translating Bulgakov’s work for US stages is to visit the US archives. I was thrilled to learn that Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library held the Mirra Ginsburg collection. Mirra Ginsburg is arguably the most prolific US translator of Bulgakov and the opportunity to learn more about her life and work from primary sources was too good to pass up on.

How long have you been using RBML materials?

Seeing as I am primarily a UK-based researcher and this is my first project looking at not just the UK, but also the US perspective on theatre translation, this is the first time I have had the opportunity to use RBML materials. Now that I know more about the diverse range of material on offer, I suspect my work will bring me back to RBML at some point.

What have you found? Did you come here knowing this material was here?

Before visiting the archives, I knew that the collection contained a wide variety of material, but I was surprised to learn that the Library contains such historically-significant items. On the first day of my research, I handled a handwritten letter from Bulgakov’s widow to Mirra Ginsburg, and it was wonderful to see that the collection contains and preserves such unique and important items. Without having seen such letters, I would never have known how Ginsburg’s translations were received by the person closest to Bulgakov or how she obtained his works for translation in the first place. This has all been invaluable to my research.

What have you found that’s surprised or perplexed you?

Handwritten letter from Elena Bulgakova to Mirra Ginsburg, praising Ginsburg’s translations of her husband’s work and thanking her for earning Bulgakov recognition abroad, Moscow, USSR, 28th July 1969 (Columbia RBML, Mirra Ginsburg papers, BA#0134).

I was surprised by Ginsburg’s extreme competitiveness (particularly with her British counterpart, Michael Glenny) and just how outspoken she was, which seems to have been both to her benefit and detriment as a professional translator. When you first begin researching a person, they seem so distant, both in time and space, and you tend to view them from a polished, academic perspective. This is so much so that you tend to forget that they are real people, with emotions which sometimes get the better of them! Reading Ginsburg’s personal correspondence has allowed me to gain an in-depth understanding of the complex interpersonal relationships which underpin both translation practice and the worlds of theatre and publishing.


What advice do you have for other researchers or students interested in using RBML’s special collections?

Make the most of the resources available to you – especially the staff! The academic environment at the RBML, and Columbia in general, is incredibly friendly and supportive, so don’t feel nervous about being judged for not knowing US archive protocols (I know I certainly didn’t!) or even just asking for guidance. Most of all, just enjoy the experience and take a moment to appreciate some of the beautiful rare books on display in Special Collections.