Gurdjieff wrote Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson from 1924 through 1931, and continued in later years to make significant revisions. Before his death in 1949 he entrusted the book and his other writings to Jeanne de Salzmann, his closest pupil, with instructions for future publication. Mme. de Salzmann had followed Gurdjieff for over 30 years and played a central role in his decision in the l940s to organize the practice of his teaching.
Gurdjieff wrote Beelzebub's Tales in Russian and Armenian, and the original manuscript was typed and revised in Russian. An English translation was produced in successive steps at the Prieuré. It consisted initially of a word-by-word interlinear translation with each word in English placed above the corresponding Russian word in the typescript. Reworked by different pupils at different times, the translation was finally edited by the well-known author and editor A.R. Orage, mostly in New York. Although he worked closely with Russian speakers and, indeed, Gurdjieff himself, Orage knew no Russian and was unable to read Gurdjieff's original text.
The English version was first published in 1950, just a few months after Gurdjieff died. He had overruled objections that the translation needed more work, insisting that the time had come to launch his ideas into the mainstream of Western thinking. As the English text was the initial publication of the book in any language, it was assumed by many readers to have been written or specifically approved by Gurdjieff. Although a prefatory note stated that the original was written in Russian and Armenian, the significance of this was easily disregarded in the absence of a published edition of the original Russian text. The note also stated that the author had personally directed the translation, and Gurdjieff had often been present when the translation was read aloud to English-speaking pupils and visitors.
What few readers knew was that, in fact, all of Gurdjieff's work in completing the book was in Russian. His spoken English, like his spoken French, was effective and memorably colorful for his purposes as a teacher in conversation with his pupils, but since his arrival in Western Europe in the early 1920s, he had not taken the time to master either language. He could not have judged, much less approved, the English text and had to rely on Mme. de Salzmann, who was fluent in Russian and English, for reassurance that the meaning was preserved. Gurdjieff did not approve the writing style of the English translation.
Although before his death Gurdjieff had insisted on immediate publication, he reportedly acknowledged that the English book was a "rough diamond" and asked Mme. de Salzmann to revise it at a later time. Her first priority was to prepare the French edition based on the Russian manuscript, a task that was not completed until 1956. Thereafter, she began work with selected American pupils to revise the English language version. The primary aim was to bring it closer in substance to the Russian text, using the widely admired and well accepted French edition as a model. A secondary but important aim was to have it correspond more faithfully in style to Gurdjieff's Russian writing, particularly to make it as clear and understandable as the Russian. Mme. de Salzmann herself worked for a number of years with the editorial team and then left them to complete the project. The revision, despite interruptions, was finally completed more than 30 years later.
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