Mary Poppins in Russia: an excerpt from Elena Goodwin’s book Translating England into Russian, available from Bloomsbury

As a part of our investment into cultural, linguistic, and geographical hybridity of stories told about the Soviet Union, we at Punctured Lines are delighted to present an excerpt from a recent book by Elena Goodwin, Translating England into Russian: The Politics of Children’s Literature in the Soviet Union and Modern Russia, published by Bloomsbury.

In eight chapters covering both the Soviet period and post-Soviet Russia, Elena Goodwin explores translations of English children’s literature. She looks closely at the work of leading translators working from English to Russian, including Samuil Marshak, Korney Chukovsky, Boris Zakhoder, Irina Tokmakova, and Nina Demurova, among others, and considers how representations of Englishness depended on USSR’s ideology and reflected the shifts in post-Soviet Russia’s political and cultural climate.

Though this book is aimed primarily at academic historians and translation scholars, we believe it has much to offer to translators, bilingual readers, creative writers, and all others interested in the way one culture might be translated–or not–into another. Its focus on popular children’s and young adult literature makes the reading particularly enjoyable because so many of us are familiar with at least one version of the primary texts.

Below is an excerpt from Chapter 7: Framing P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins in Ideological and Cultural Contexts: Translating Features of English National Character. This is only a brief section of what is a fascinating story about how Mary Poppins became Russified, and how the portrait of England itself has been transformed in translation.

Our deep gratitude to the author, Elena Goodwin, and to Bloomsbury for giving us their permission and assistance with publishing this excerpt. Please enjoy–and buy the book, and ask your library to purchase it.

[Exerpt begins]

Soviet readers were first introduced to the Mary Poppins books in 1968. The Soviet version was called Meri Poppins [Mary Poppins] and consisted of two parts (House № 17 and Mary Poppins Comes Back) with a mention on the title page that the translation was abridged. Boris Zakhoder, the first translator of the Mary Poppins books, did not have the originals and had to borrow them from the library. He mentioned in his letter to Pamela Travers in 1969 that, strange as it may seem, he did not own any of her books and that he had used library copies in order to produce his translation. P. L. Travers sent all her Mary Poppins books to Boris Zakhoder by the end of 1969 (the first four books of the series), as he mentioned in his reply to her. This correspondence points to my supposition that the original books were not freely accessible to the general public and might have been on a censor’s list as titles not allowed for circulation.

The reason why Mary Poppins was not translated into Russian for so long was perhaps revealed by Travers herself when she suggested in an interview given to The New Yorker in 1962 that the Soviet authorities might consider Mary Poppins ‘a bourgeois institution’:

My great hope is to have her translated into Russian …. I know we don’t have any copyright agreement with Russia, but I say to my agent, ‘Never mind. Leave her around where the Russians can steal her.’ We haven’t left her around enough yet. I suppose the authorities would take her au pied de la lettre – they’d say a nursemaid was a bourgeois institution – but the children would understand her.

A narrow circle of people might have known about the existence of Mary Poppins as a literary character after the Disney film Mary Poppins was shown at the Fourth Moscow International Film Festival in July 1965. The title of the book and the name of the author appeared in the opening credits and an attentive viewer could have spotted that the movie was based on the books about Mary Poppins. Although the Disney film was screened as an out-of-competition film, it was a hit with the festival audience. However, it was not shown in Soviet cinemas afterwards. In the 1980s people could find it only on pirated videotapes and only after the demise of the Soviet Union did the Disney Mary Poppins become available to the general public.

Another reason for failing to introduce books about Mary Poppins to Soviet readers might be explained by Travers’s negative views about the Soviet Union. In 1932 Travers went to the Soviet Union to see Leningrad and Moscow and published a book about her journey in 1934 (before she wrote Mary Poppins), which was called Moscow Excursion. This book was immediately reviewed in the New York Times and called ‘impertinent and gay’; it was mentioned that Travers found the way the Soviet Union presented itself appalling and that the Soviets would probably denounce her as a ‘class enemy’. Travers depicted the Soviet Union as a depressing society and noted ‘the drabness, the universal grey, the complete sameness of the people’. According to Sheila Fitzpatrick, Travers toured the Soviet Union to understand its politics but had little sympathy beforehand or on her return to England. Travers’s lack of sympathy towards Soviet society is explicitly demonstrated in the book’s introduction: ‘In a world rocking madly between Fascism and Communism the writer prefers the latter form of tyranny if the choice must be made.’ As discussed in Chapter 3 of this book, the 1930s saw severe restrictions on the circulation of foreign literature in the Soviet Union. Censorship control was strengthened amid fears of intervention by international capitalism in the USSR; and foreign mass media, as well as literature were considered a great force for the promotion of ill feeling towards the Soviet Union. This is the most logical explanation why the foreign publication of Travers’s Moscow Excursion might have affected the possibility of her Mary Poppins books being translated in the Soviet Union.

According to the correspondence between Travers and Zakhoder, it was the famous Soviet children’s poet Sergey Mikhalkov who met Travers in Switzerland at the end of the 1960s and told her that her books had been translated into Russian. The Soviet Mary Poppins immediately became very popular among Soviet adult and child readers, as Zakhoder’s letters to Travers show. Zakhoder wrote in his letter to Travers in 1969 that the print-run of ten thousand copies was instantly sold out in Moscow and that there were favourable reviews, including one in the literary journal Novyi mir. In the 1970s the translation was adapted for a radio show and for the stage, the script of which was also written by Zakhoder. Moreover, updated versions of the play have been performed in theatres around the country since 1991. In 1983 Mary Poppins appeared on Soviet TV screens in the film Meri Poppins, do svidania. It immediately became a hit and has been very popular since its first broadcast. At the same time, Mary Poppins was turned into a household name in modern Russia – babysitter agencies, cafés, family fun centres and even a fashion label are all called after the famous nanny.

Zakhoder regretted in his letter to Travers that his translation was abridged – fifteen chapters only from the first, the second and the third books – and mentioned that he was not able to obtain the fourth book. In the preface to the first edition Zakhoder promised Soviet children that they would meet with Mary Poppins again and that the story would be continued. Unfortunately, he did not keep his promise and the omitted chapters have never been recovered in the subsequent reprints of Zakhoder’s translation. Although two retranslations appeared in the 1990s (by Marina Litvinova and Igor Rodin), Zakhoder’s translation is considered a canonical text in Russian culture and is well positioned in the Russian children’s literature market.

In a letter to Travers in July 1969 the director of the Detskaia Literatura publishing house K. Piskunov explained why the Russian translation was abridged (quoted from the Russian original and its English translation, which was enclosed with the official letter sent to P. L. Travers):

Сокращение отдельных глав было обусловлено не только трудностями их перевода, но и большим желанием издать одновременно обе части, а детям младшего возраста, на кого рассчитана эта книга, мы избегаем давать книги большого объема.
[Abridgement of separate chapters was necessary partly owing to difficulties of translating and the desire to publish both parts at the same time and because for the younger children for whom this book is intended we do not like and avoid giving bulky books.]

He also said that it was uncertain whether B. Zakhoder would continue the translation of the next books about Mary Poppins and whether Detskaia Literatura would be able to revise the current translation. This letter points to the prevailing ideological conventions in Soviet literature written for children. At the same time, it signals the presence of censorship, although this matter is not clearly expressed in the correspondence. It is possible that self-censorship and editorial decisions could have somehow influenced Zakhoder’s opinion, to a certain extent, on how to construct the image of the English nanny in a way that Soviet child and adult readers of the late 1960s would accept, understand and like; and why certain chapters should not be included into his version, thus modifying the original structure of Travers’s books and the hidden message contained in them.

The first three books, Mary Poppins (1934), Mary Poppins Comes Back (1935) and Mary Poppins Opens the Door (1943), have elements of myth and are structured as myth – the interconnected chapters are repeated and everything returns, but in a modified manner. In Zakhoder’s translation the books’ original structure is modified, thereby distorting Travers’s intention to create the books in the form of myth. Travers was not happy about the new structure of the stories in Zakhoder’s translation and pointed out in a letter to Zakhoder that ‘the books are written in a definite rhythm and the stories should be read in their proper sequence’. She also added that she had ‘always thought that Russian readers would like it as they have a great sense of humour and poetry’, as she discovered when she went to Russia in the 1930s. Unfortunately, the Soviet readers who could not obtain the original texts (as well as the Russian readers nowadays who prefer Zakhoder’s translation) were not aware of the original narrative and Travers’s intention to create the original in the mythic form.

Zakhoder omitted one of every pair of repetitive chapters. It is difficult to know whether there was too much of the untranslatable in these chapters from the point of view of Zakhoder and the editor of Detskaia literatura publishing house, or whether there were ideological reasons for the omissions. In the first book, Mary Poppins, Zakhoder excluded the chapters ‘The Day Out’, ‘Bad Tuesday’, ‘The Bird Woman’ and ‘Christmas Shopping’. It is possible that the chapters ‘The Day Out’ and ‘Christmas Shopping’ were omitted because they contain lengthy descriptions of Mary Poppins’s clothes and of what the characters bought as their Christmas presents in, as Travers says, ‘the Largest Shop in the World’. Also the chapter ‘Christmas Shopping’ refers to Christmas as a religious celebration. From the point of view of Soviet ideology, both chapters might have looked like propaganda for religion and consumerism in the West, which might have been thought unsuitable for Soviet children.

The chapter ‘Day Out’ might have been left out because it echoed the chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’ from the second book that was translated. Both chapters show a slipping from reality into an imaginary world through a portal to the unreal: in the first book Mary Poppins goes into the coloured-chalk picture drawn on the pavement by her friend Bert the Match-man and goes on an outing with him; in the second book Jane finds herself in the past inside the antique Royal Doulton bowl after she accidentally cracks it. It is difficult to guess why the chapter ‘The Bird Woman’ was excluded because it does not contain any lexical difficulties for translation, nor does it have any ideologically sensitive allusions to religion, mysticism or the bourgeois style of life. The chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’ corresponds to the chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’ from the second book. Also the chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’ contained stereotyped representations of Africans, Chinese, Eskimos and American Indians, which was considered inoffensive when the book was first published (but accusations of racism appeared later, in the 1970s, and Travers was forced to replace the stereotyped ethnic characters, which caused offence in the United States, with exotic animals in the revised 1981 edition). It is highly likely that the Soviet censor would never allow a book with racial content for publication. Most probably these were the reasons for omitting the chapter ‘Bad Tuesday’.

In the second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back, Zakhoder left out the chapters ‘Topsy- Turvy’, ‘The New One’, ‘Robertson Ay’s Story’, ‘The Evening Out’ and ‘Nellie-Rubina’. The chapters ‘Topsy-Turvy’ and ‘Laughing Gas’ (included in the first book) have the same pattern – the children and Mary Poppins go to see her relatives; therefore, the appearance of another surreal adventure might have been the reason for omitting the chapter ‘Topsy-Turvy’ from the translation. However, by neglecting this chapter the translator denied his readers the opportunity to find out that the Royal Doulton bowl (which got broken in the translated chapter ‘Bad Wednesday’) was mended by Mary Poppins’s cousin Mr Turvy. The other chapters from the second book not included in Zakhoder’s translation might not have been thought suitable for Soviet children because of their allusions to religion, existential and spiritual ideas widely incorporated by Travers throughout the whole series of books. (Travers was interested in fairy tales, mythological literature, mysticism and spiritualism.) The chapter ‘Nellie-Rubina’ might have been left out because it alludes to Noah’s Ark as a Biblical topos or because it echoes the chapter ‘Mrs Cory’ included in the translation. The chapter ‘The New One’ repeats the translated chapter ‘The Twins’ from the first book, but it also has the newborn Annabel saying that she came from ‘the Dark where all things have their beginning’: ‘I am earth and air and fire and water … I come from the sea and its tides … It was a long journey’. The chapter ‘The Evening Out’ has a similar pattern to the translated chapter ‘Full Moon’ from the first book but at the same time it questions the nature of existence and contemplates the universe in a spiritual way. Finally, in the chapter ‘Robertson Ay’s Story’ the silly king is mocked by all his subjects but his jester, the Dirty Rascal, teaches him to be true to himself and do what he wants. This chapter might have been deemed unsuitable because of its individualistic approach to life but it is also safe to say that Zakhoder might have decided to substitute this chapter with the translated chapter ‘The Cat That Looked at the King’ from the third book Mary Poppins Opens the Door.

It appears that ideological norms (in the form of self-censorship) played a partial role in the process of choosing which chapters to translate. At the same time, it is important to take into account the counterargument of Alexandra Borisenko, who proposes that in order to avoid repetitions and to make the Russian translation a more interesting read, Zakhoder chose his favourite chapter from two repetitive ones. A similar opinion is expressed by Galina Zakhoder (Zakhoder’s widow):

Pamela Travers often exploits the same [literary] devices. In one chapter [characters] are flying under the ceiling, in another chapter – they are flying in some other way. And the narration in these parts loses its pace. Boris omitted passages of such a kind. I think Travers got angry when she found out the truth. It appeared to me that she felt that Zakhoder was right, that is why she was angry.

This view is feasible and can be explained by Zakhoder’s possible misunderstanding of the peculiarities of the narrative structure of the Mary Poppins books. It also points to the presence of the translator’s co-authorial voice based on his own literary preferences.

[End of exerpt]

To keep on reading, buy the book from Bloomsbury.

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Twitter: @BloomsburyHist

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