Mary Poppins Translated

Mary Poppins Translated

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.

 

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books by Julia Kunz

Intertextuality Mary Poppins

Julia Kunz’s book Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books is a short, scholarly work written in a very straightforward manner. It is a must read for anyone who is interested in the Mary Poppins books, and like me, in P.L. Travers’s creative process. The pages of this book are filled with accurate observations and I believe that P.L. Travers would have been pleased with Kunz’s analysis of the Mary Poppins’s stories, except maybe for Kunz’s comments about Gurdjieff  (P.L.Travers’s spiritual teacher) in chapter seven.

There are two threads in Kunz’s book as the title itself suggests. One leads towards an explanation of the conceptual interconnections between the Mary Poppins stories and the childhood readings of P.L. Travers, and the second leads the reader towards a short demonstration, in the light of Freud’s concept of the ‘uncanny’, of some psychological aspects in the Mary Poppins stories.

Apparently, the method of connecting psychology and literature in order to extract meaning originates with Freud, and thus Kunz’s psychological analysis points to repressed childhood wishes expressed in the Mary Poppins stories. However, she does not connect the psychological features of the stories with P.L. Travers’s psychological struggles.  But then, there is so much to tell about P.L. Travers and her Mary Poppins, that clearly one book can’t cover it all.

What is intertextuality? It is a concept used in the literary field. Literary scholars view any given text as a network of texts, which implies that authors don’t create independently in a vacuum, but rather link, consciously or not, previously read literary and non-literary texts.  Kunz’s thesis is that some of the Mary Poppins stories (from the first four books of the series) can clearly be linked to Peter Pan, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the works of E. Nesbit, and of course, to fairy tales.

Psychology Mary Poppins

For example, and without any spoilers, Kunz links the story of Halloween* with the shadow of Peter Pan, Alice’s chaotic experiences down the rabbit hole with the strange adventures of Jane and Michael, and the story of the Marble Boy ** with Nesbit’s book The Enchanted Castle.

Kunz also makes extremely interesting, in my opinion,  parallels between Nesbit and P.L. Travers’s life experiences. Apparently, both these authors experienced early childhood trauma; Nesbit just like P.L. Travers lost her father at an early age and had a difficult relationship with her mother. Both had an interest in spirituality and esoteric teachings, and both led quite unconventional lives.

In her work Edith Nesbit then attempts to revive a female mythology, drawing on the theosophical writings of Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant (cf. Knoepflmacher 1989, 320), just as Travers instils her writings with the esoteric teachings of Gurdjieff, whose cosmogony is in part linked to that of Blavatsky.

Intertextuality and Psychology in P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins Books, Julia Kunz

I was pleased to read Kunz’s assertion of the value of the Mary Poppins books for the adult reader.  Kunz points to one obvious fact, yet one that is still largely disregarded by the public:

P.L. Travers transmits her knowledge to the reader on an unconscious level. The Mary Poppins stories tackle universal problems in symbolical ways but also with the help of parables and fables modeled on the traditional fairy tale structure.

The conclusion of the book is that the Mary Poppins stories offer an endless ground for exploration, and that is something that fills me with joy and encouragement.  This year I am revisiting the Mary Poppins books with the intention of compiling my own ideas and connections and hopefully writing the book I’ve been dreaming to write since I started blogging about P.L. Travers and Mary Poppins.

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* A story in which shadows are having a party on the lawn outside of the Bank’s house.

**A story about a marble statue that comes to live.

Reviewing Mary Poppins and Myth by Staffan Bergsten

Mary Poppins and Myth 1Mary Poppins and Myth was written some forty years ago by Staffan Bergsten, a Swedish scholar who after reading the Mary Poppins books* to his young daughter became aware of certain connections which appeared to him to be pointing in the direction of the possible inspirational sources for the adventures in the Mary Poppins stories. Bergsten decided to explore these connections. With that purpose in mind, he initiated a correspondence with Pamela L. Travers which lasted for a period of three years until the publication of his thesis in 1978 by the Swedish Institute for Children’s Books.  Bergsten tells the reader right from the start that his book is a comparative and analytical study and that some of his ideas “were knocked on the head by Pamela Travers, but others were confirmed”.

So, where did Pamela L. Travers find the material for her stories? Bergsten did not provide a definite answer to the question.  He concluded that it was:

highly doubtful that she had any clear conception of what sources she was drawing upon. Her comprehensive reading had sunk into the depths of her mind and the ideas, forms and happenings rose into her consciousness in the shape of spontaneous imaginative creations.  

This reminded me of a comment made by Pamela L. Travers herself in a recorded conversation with British author Brian Sibley that took place many years later. In that recording Brian Sibley commented that in the Mary Poppins stories “there is also a number of very serious adult concepts and thoughts” to which Pamela L. Travers responded:

They are underlined, I find those afterwards. I don’t put them in. Not long ago I was reading for the first time since it was published Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and I was overcome, how did this writer know my inmost thoughts, they are not said, they are not spoken, but they underlie the texts. And then with surprise I realised it was me. Well, I suppose it was me.

                                                                           P.L. Travers: The Woman behind Mary Poppins

I enjoyed reading Mary Poppins and Myth, the writing style is fluid and without any scholarly stuffiness. Bergsten had a genuine interest in the subject of his thesis and he wished to share his understanding of Pamela L. Travers’s literary work. He examined the Mary Poppins stories from three different perspectives: psychobiographical, literary and mythological.

Psychobiographical perspective

Bergsten perceived Pamela L. Travers as someone who looked at everyday life in the light of myths and fairy tales, a habit he speculated, she acquired early in childhood through her extensive reading of fairy tales.

So, in Pamela Travers’s childhood memories we find everyday figures and objects together with literary and mythical allusions, and this is the blend we find in all her books. Everyday realism and mythical stylization infuse each other not according to some worked out scheme but simply because this is the author’s own way of experiencing reality.

The accuracy of Bergsten’s remark is confirmed by Pamela L. Travers’s childhood recollections written in some of her essays published in Parabola years after the publication of Bergsten’s Mary Poppins and Myth. The descriptions of Pamela L. Travers’s childhood experiences are original and appear to have happened in some borderline reality between the world as we know it and the world of the fairy tales. Now, of course one can question the authenticity of theses memories and argue that Pamela L. Travers romanticized the facts and retold them many years later, after she had acquired vast knowledge about myths and fairy tales.  That may be, but the sensitivity and love for the fairy tales was in her blood and that explains the longevity of her Mary Poppins.

Staffan Bergsten also sensed that Mary Poppins encapsulated a “whole series of projections of more or less unconscious, sometimes contradictory, tendencies and ideals in the author herself.” But then he admitted that to speculate in that direction it will “lead into psychological and biographical questions and in the meantime at least there is not enough material of the kind that would let us discuss them further.” Pamela L. Travers was notoriously secretive, and the personal details of her life became public only after her death with the publication of her first biography, Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie Lawson. Consequently, the psychobiographical examination is quite brief in Bergsten’s book. However, it is clear that Bergsten regretted the lack of available biographical material.

Literary perspective

Bergsten classified the Mary Poppins books in the category of the fantastic tale because the adventures take place in the everyday reality which exists alongside a supernatural reality. And, although the natural laws do not apply in this parallel reality, logic remains present in all the adventures.  Bergsten also explored the possible links between other children’s books which were popular during Pamela L. Travers’s childhood such as Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan but the connections, he concluded, were quite thin.

Bergsten also noticed the poetic influences of Yeats, Blake and Wordsworth (Pamela L. Travers’s favourite poets) in the Mary Poppins stories in the themes of the “the glorification of the child” and its “innocence and imaginative power”. This probably motivated his interpretation of the main purpose of Pamela L. Travers as a writer, namely, to awaken and stimulate the inner child of the reader. Now I wonder if this was one of his ideas that was knocked on the head by Pamela L. Travers. 

Mythological perspective

Bergsten underlied the fact that Mary Poppins was articulated clearly around mythical elements. She comes down from the heavens and then at the end of each book she ascends up into the upper realms. She is eternal, her home is everywhere and nowhere. She can fly and be free from any confinements. Her magic is inexplicable, and above all, intrinsic. Mary Poppins doesn’t need a wand to perform her magic. The adventures also have mythical notes expressed in cosmic dances and celebrations of the whole of creation. Bergsten linked these to Pamela L. Travers’s Christian sympathies, to Gnostic traditions and to theosophical teachings and Hinduism. This mixture of inspirational sources explains Bergsten’s description of Pamela L. Travers as “a genuine and convinced syncretist who enthusiastically borrows from the most disparate cultures, religions and mythologies”.

In my opinion, Mary Poppins and Myth should be reprinted and made available to the public. It is of course possible for the fans of Pamela L. Travers and the Mary Poppins stories to find this book in a library or to purchase an old copy online.

* Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935), Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1944), Mary Poppins in the Park (1952)