Conversation with Olga Mäoets, the Russian Translator of P.L. Travers’s Moscow Excursion

Moscow Excursion Pamela L. Travers

Do you know Mary Poppins? Not the Disney character, but the magical nanny originally created by the Australian born author Pamela L. Travers? Probably not. And, most of you probably don’t know much about the life of Pamela L. Travers and her literary work unless, of course, you have seen Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks; and in that case, your perception of Pamela L. Travers has been, for entertaining purposes, distorted.

The publication of Pamela L. Travers’s first biography, Mary Poppins, She Wrote, by Valerie Lawson (first published in Australia in 1999) rekindled the interest in both Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers. It inspired the screen writers of Saving Mr. Banks, and the making of two documentaries: The Secret Life of Mary Poppins and The Shadow of Mary Poppins. And, Mary Poppins, She Wrote still continues to make ripples in the awareness of its readers. One such recent ripple is the rediscovery of Pamela L. Travers’s first book, Moscow Excursion, by the Russian librarian and translator Olga Mäeots.

Moscow Excursion was first published in 1934, a few months prior to Pamela L. Travers’s first Mary Poppins book, and it consisted of a collection of letters recording the author’s visit to Stalin’s Russia in the autumn of 1932. However, in her letters Pamela L. Travers obscured the identities of the people she met during her travel and only designated them by the letters A, M, T, Z, V. Olga Mäeots, a true fan of Mary Poppins and Pamela L. Travers succeeded, after many years of research, to identify some of these characters and to shed light on some important historical data. The translated and annotated Russian edition of Moscow Excursion was published in Russia in 2016 and was very well received by the public. 

Olga Mäeots agreed to answer a few questions about her experience of translating and commenting Moscow Excursion for the benefit of the English-speaking readership.  

LS: Not many people know about Pamela L. Travers’s first book Moscow Excursion. How did you discover it? 

OM: Many years ago, I was writing an article about Pamela L. Travers and saw this title in her bibliography. Of course, I got curious: it was PLT’s first book and she wrote about Moscow! I kept this fact in mind for some years and finally found the book, read it, and realized that it is full of enigmas.

LS: Indeed, at the very beginning of the book, Pamela L. Travers tells the reader that all the characters are “synthesized personages” and that she had given them fictitious initials for names throughout the book.” What made you doubt her statement?

OM: To translate a book, a translator needs to understand what the author has been writing about. Very often I had to stop and check myself to see whether I understand the text adequately or not. There are so many strange details and remarks that could be considered as exaggeration or a caricature, but finally it became obvious that PLT was very precise in her descriptions; one just has to find the facts that matched them. It was so with the description of a film British tourists were shown on their way to Russia. And with horseshoes in a palace, in the office of Tsar Nikolai, and with a cemetery in Leningrad. If these details were real, the people should be real, too. Historical facts I have learned helped me to check my translation and proved its adequacy.

LS: What motivated your decision to translate the book in Russian and did you decide to investigate these hidden identities right from the start?

OM: Moscow Excursion is an interesting well-written book and I wanted other people to read it  as historical evidence, and as talented fiction. I was not going to make any research at first. Research starts as a part of the translation process and the evidence I had found made me understand how little I knew – about PLT, about that period in history. (Cultural relations between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world in the 1930-ies still needs research. In Soviet Union, there are only friendly, positive memoirs, for example, G.B. Shaw’s or Romain Rolland’s which were published during Soviet times when books got official approval – critics were never mentioned.) 

LS: How much time did it take you to complete your investigations? And are they really completed? 

OM: The project is not completed as new data appears from time to time. It took me about 5-6 years to translate and make commentary. 

LS: I understand that your translation of Pamela L. Travers’s book was very well received by the Russian readers. To what do you attribute this success? 

OM: In the post-Soviet times, we have become aware that we know not all, we do not know enough about our history, and that new evidence is important. Also, a foreign view is always intriguing. I was afraid that PLT’s critical position would arise indignation of Russian readers but it never happened. First of all, she is protected by her popularity as a famous and beloved children’s author. Secondly, the book brings new interesting facts about our nearest past. And finally, what is more important for me, the reception of the book proves that Russian society is not any more unanimous in its opinions as it was in Soviet times. So, every reader could find something positive in PLT’s book to balance the blow on one’s patriotic feelings. Religious people approve of her remarks on the neglected state of churches; theater goers are interested in her theatrical impressions; anti-communists are happy with her critics of Bolshevism, and so on. Anyhow, my task in the commentary was to help readers realize that PLT was an interested traveler, though she was disappointed to a considerable extent. 

LS: What do you think is the value for the Western world of all the information you have uncovered? 

OM: First of all, the facts I have found contribute a lot to the portrait of the famous writer and present an almost unknown period in her biography; a period that was crucial for the shaping of her views, and her attitude to the contemporary world. But what is more important, PLT’s book proves to be an important evidence about the state of minds in the1930s. The book returns us (to a considerable extent due to my research and commentary) to many forgotten names (or supply new evidence about them) such as Hubert Butler or Herbert Marshall and cultural events which are important for our understanding of the epoch. The Russian-Soviet theme seems to be very inspiring at that time.

I hope that the book, with my commentary, will be published some day in some English-speaking countries. I don’t cherish any vanity hopes but am sure that it will be an interesting and important reading. 

Hopefully, Olga Mäoets’s dream will soon come true.

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