Mary Poppins is translated in twenty languages and Bulgarian, my mother tongue, is one of these languages. I was seven or eight years old when I first read Mary Poppins, and it was still some time before my parents decided to leave the country and start a new life here in Canada. It was before I learned English and before I discovered Walt Disney’s adaptations of the fairy tales of my childhood.
One would expect that I would be curious and eager to compare my childhood reading of Mary Poppins with the original text at the very beginning of this blog project. Strangely enough, the idea never crossed my mind until recently, and only after I read an academic paper about the Polish translation of Mary Poppins*.
I was amazed to learn that the changes in the Polish translation exceeded the understandable modifications caused by the difficulty of translating certain idioms, proverbs, and other fixed expressions. Professional translators, I learned, must make a choice of either remaining loyal to the original text (adopt the method of foreignization) or adapt the text to the cultural context of the target audience (adopt the method of domestication.)
Mary Poppins was first translated in Polish in 1938 by Irena Tuwim and then, published in 1957 under the title Agnieszka. Other characters in the stories shared the same fate, the translator choosing to rename them with popular Polish names. Even some of the dialogues between Mary Poppins and the Banks children were modified to make Mary Poppins less frightening to the young readers. Names of streets and locations also changed, and in some instances for completely unconnected Polish words. The newest Polish translation of Mary Poppins was published in 2008. Although it is still Irena Tuwim’s translation, it contains few modifications made by Julian Tuwim and Irena Tuwim’s Foundation. The good news is that in the 2008 version Mary Poppins recovered her real name.
Reading about the Polish translation, I realised that Mary Poppins was altered not only for the movie screen and the stage, but in all probabilities in all its translated versions. Of course, it is more than obvious that any text translated in another language would undergo certain inevitable modifications. I just never thought about it before. However, once I became aware of this reality, I was left with no choice but to order Mary Poppins from a Bulgarian bookstore and begin my comparative reading.
I am currently halfway through the first Mary Poppins book, comparing the Bulgarian translation with the original text is a time-consuming exercise, considering I am comparing both versions sentence by sentence. Anyhow, I am happy to report that overall, the Bulgarian version as translated by Svetlana Stefanova is loyal to P.L. Travers’s original text.
The names of the characters remain unchanged, save for the Match Man and the Bird Woman whose names are translated in their Bulgarian equivalent, and for Willoughby, Andrew’s friend in the story Miss Lark’s Andrew. Willoughby, for some mysterious reason, is given a new name which can be translated in English by “wished-for” or “treasured”. It is interesting to note that in the Bulgarian translation the forms of address are translated phonetically. The words Mr. and Mrs. not being translated in their Bulgarian equivalent. Another interesting example where the original name of a character remains unchanged can be found in The Laughing Gas. In this instance the translator communicates the humour around Mr. Wig’s name, by indicating its translated meaning in a footnote. Children certainly appreciate the humour in the situation of a bald man with a name such as Mr. Wig.
Most importantly, in the Bulgarian translation the essence of Mary Poppins remains intact. Her exchanges with the Banks children keep all their harshness and coldness.
As for the idioms and fixed expressions in the original text, most of the time these are successfully translated by expressions having similar meanings.
The most notable changes I have noticed so far, deal with the translation of terminology connected with food. However, and despite the cultural differences, the translator tried to stay as close to the original food as possible. Here are some examples.
- Lime-juice cordial becomes Lemon juice with sugar.
- Crumpets become croissants.
- Raspberry jam cakes become pastries with raspberry jelly.
- Coconut cakes become cakes made out of coconut flour.
- Plum cake with pink icing becomes plum tart.
- Whelks are translated for mussels and pins for needles.
The dialogues in the Bulgarian version also contain some modifications, although they are subtle and do not change the meaning of the stories. When P.L. Travers wrote the dialogues she simply finished with “said Mary Poppins”, “said Michael”, “said Jane”. In the Bulgarian version however, the translator chose to describe the tone in which the words are spoken. For example, in the very first story East Wind, when Mary Poppins looks at the children and evaluates if she wants to accept the position of nanny or not, Michael asks her boldly, “Will we do?” prompting his mother to say, “Michael don’t be naughty” after which P.L. Travers wrote, “said his Mother.” In the Bulgarian version it reads “his Mother scolded him.”
The translator occasionally altered some descriptions of characters and places. Again, these changes do not affect the structure of the stories. Here is one example from the story The Laughing Gaz.
“At that moment the door flew open, and a thin watery-looking lady appeared.” “Watery-looking lady” became “a thin lady with watery bleu eyes”. I believe the reason for this modification to be the difficulty in translating “watery-looking lady” in Bulgarian. Using “watery-looking” in a description of a person does not make any sense in Bulgarian. Yet, in my opinion, using the word “pale” would have been a better choice.
In conclusion, the Bulgarian readers have a better chance than their Polish counterparts of getting to know Mary Poppins as she was imagined by P.L. Travers.
*Cultural Adaptation in Translation of English Children’s Literature into Polish: The Case of Mary Poppins, by Paulina Bialy, University of Silesia.