Practically Perfect in Every Way: Translating Mary Poppins

I fondly recall childhood memories of watching Mary Poppins, and secretly hoped that a black umbrella was a perfectly acceptable form of air transportation (perhaps second only to the floating pink bubble of Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz). But funny enough, the first time I heard Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, it wasn’t Julie Andrews singing—it was sung in Italian by a voice talent.

Thanks to the dubbing industry, I can now dazzle at parties with my ability to perform the soundtrack of Mary Poppins in Italian, English, and German.

And while the idea of reading subtitles while trying to watch Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews dance with chimney sweeps on the roof tops of London may be (to borrow a phrase) “something quite atrocious”, the artistic and technical skill involved in dubbing lyrics is quite a lyrical feat: Consider the beat, number of syllables and rhymes that play together and harmonize. Not only does this require a linguist to translate the song, but also a songwriter or poet in the target language to adapt the translation to the musical requirements. And after that, the producer may still want to synchronize the lip movement to the translated lyrics.

So, let’s step in time with the details of translating a few refrains from English to Italian, and then back to English, noting the nuances:

Original English: That a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Medicine go dow-wown, medicine go down.
Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way.

Italian version: Con un poco di zucchero la pillola va giù, la pillola va giù, la pillola va giù.
Basta un poco di zucchero e la pillola va giù, tutto brillerà di più. (English back-translation: With a little sugar the pill goes down, the pill goes down, the pill goes down. A little sugar is enough and the pill goes down, everything will shine more).

Original English: Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!
Our daughters’ daughters will adore us and they’ll sing in grateful chorus “Well done, Sister Suffragette!”

Italian version: Ah! Lacci e catene noi spezzerem se tutte unite combatterem!
Noi siam le forze del lavoro e cantiamo tutte in coro: “Marciam! Marciam! Marciam! Suffragette, a noi!” (English back-translation: Ah! We will break ties and chains if we all fight united! We are the strength behind the work and we sing in choir: “We march! We march! We march! Suffragette, to us!”).

Do you have lyrics to music that you need translated? We’re here to help, ready to float over with our umbrellas and tidy things up for you. No auto-translation app would ever produce such amazing results, but the joint efforts of linguists and musicians can.