Anthea Bell has had a long and distinguished career as a translator, primarily from French and German. For the translation of children’s books she has been awarded the Certificate of Honour in the Hans Christian Andersen translators’ honours list (three times), the US Mildred L. Batchelder Award, and the UK Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation (three times). But what are the challenges of translating children’s literature? Anthea Bell talks to Gillian Lathey.
Interviewing Anthea Bell in her Cambridgeshire home, surrounded by six inquisitive, prize-winning Birman cats, I’m struck once again by the sheer pleasure she takes in her work, and by the meticulous care and writerly craft she brings to the translation task. No stone is left unturned in the search for the equivalent of a witticism in Asterix, the accurate rendering of an obscure German term in a nineteenth-century fairy tale, or the appropriate register and linguistic finesse of spoken exchanges between young protagonists in recently published fiction. How, then, did Bell become a world-renowned translator, recipient of many glittering prizes (including the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation – three times) and mediator for young English-speaking readers of anything from new versions of Grimms’ tales to the sound poems of Christian Morgenstern and contemporary fantasy trilogies?
Bell’s skill with words was first honed in childhood as she observed her father at the breakfast table compiling The Times cryptic crossword puzzle. At school, translation was by far the easiest part of an A-level in a foreign language; she finished the translation paper for German early and was left twiddling her thumbs, desperate to use the time for other parts of the exam. One comment on school French and German, however, is vital to an understanding of Bell’s attitude to her future career: ‘I raced through early stages of language learning in order to be able to read my first book in the language’. It was not speaking the language that mattered, but the ability to read those tantalising volumes on which she had already set her heart. From the very beginning of a career in working with languages, literature was the key.
Translating for children?
Nonetheless, translation was not the result of a long-cherished ambition. It all began by chance when a colleague of Bell’s husband wanted an opinion on a German manuscript, and that in turn resulted in her first commissioned translation of – it just so happened – a children’s book, Otfried Preussler’s The Little Water Sprite (1960). Translation proved to be an ideal occupation for a young mother who could sit with a portable typewriter at the kitchen table with her baby son in a carrycot at her side, and so Bell happily continued her accidental career.
Despite starting with a children’s book and the huge success of her versions of Asterix, Bell has never regarded herself as a specialist translator of children’s literature and indeed admits to a preference for translating longer prose works for older children. When asked about differences between translating for the two audiences, adults and children, she speaks with great conviction of the unity of the process in each case: ‘Whatever you are translating you are trying to get inside the author’s head – it’s like being an actor because translation is an interpretive craft. It’s always a question of finding the right voice.’ Bell has even had to write like Enid Blyton when translating newly minted Blyton stories by French author Claude Voilier into English. Conveying the idiosyncrasies of style and narrative voice into another language is equally demanding whatever the age group addressed, so translating for children is certainly no easier than translating for adults. Bell is also adamant that it’s essential to avoid the fatal trap of talking down to children, relating how she and German author Cornelia Funke fought to retain the word ‘portentous’ in one manuscript in the face of editorial opposition. And there are, occasionally, serendipitous links between translation for child and adult. Some years after translating a further volume by Otfried Preussler, his magnificent The Satanic Mill (1972, republished in 2011 as Krabat to coincide with a film version), Bell found a pleasing familiarity in translating Julia Franck’s adult novel The Blind Side of the Heart (2010) which also draws on the darkly magical Sorbian folklore of a region in eastern Germany close to the Polish border.
Most of us take translation for granted, but it is in the fine detail of the task where professionals find the challenges and possible pitfalls of translating for the young. How far should a translator go in adapting cultural markers – food, money, customs – with which an inexperienced reader might be unfamiliar? Bell has argued in her ‘Translator’s Notebook’ [Signal 1985) that the degree of adaptation depends on the age of the child, and that the level of foreignness which can be preserved is unique to each book. Foreign names may have to be changed in order not to alienate a young child, but at the same time the translator must at all costs avoid a levelling out that results in blandness and the loss of the atmosphere of the original. After all, she argues in the Signal article, Hänsel (usually without the umlaut) and Gretel almost always retain their German names in translation, and generations of children have coped with that. Translating fantasy, Bell adds in the interview, is ‘a doddle’ with regard to local and cultural features, since names, setting and other cultural paraphernalia are usually invented anyway.
Nitty gritty linguistic issues
Then there’s the perennial translators’ conundrum of how to render dialect or colloquial language specific to one region or period into English – would a Somerset burr, for example, be in any way an appropriate equivalent for the French of Provence? Bell opts for a colloquial spoken language, what she calls a ‘non-specific demotic’, which is not linked to any particular place and may vary from book to book. Dialogue predominates in much contemporary children’s literature and Bell’s particular love of translating dialogue is a great motivation for translating fiction.
Nitty gritty linguistic issues that arise in translation for any age include gendered nouns, where it does make a difference whether the sun is masculine as in French, or feminine as in German – and the other way round when it comes to the moon. In such cases compensation may be necessary in the form of masculine or feminine possessive pronouns in English; as Bell points out, even Walter de la Mare has the silver moon walk the night in ‘her silver shoon’. And it’s really difficult to find an equivalent for the frequently used third person singular pronoun ‘on’ in French or ‘man’ in German. Bell has her own solution: ‘”one” sounds as though you are talking to the queen, so I use “you” as a rule’. When similar linguistic or indeed cultural queries arise, it’s advantageous to be working with a living author. Questions on E.T.A Hoffmann’s (originator of the Nutcracker story) The Life and Opinion of the Tomcat Murr (1999), for example, could not be answered from beyond the grave. Bell has, however, recently had a close working relationship with German author Cornelia Funke (Inkheart, 2004): ‘Cornelia rewrites and rewrites anyway so she is happy to discuss queries and her English is excellent - she currently lives in Los Angeles’.
One striking difference between translating for children and adults is the challenge of working with illustrations. These cannot be changed, so the English text has to act as complement or counterpoint as in the original. On the other hand, existing artwork offers an opportunity for collaboration with internationally renowned artists. One successful partnership is that with Swiss illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger on picture book editions of Grimms’ tales, and fortunately there are more of these to come. But Asterix was undoubtedly Bell’s greatest test with regard to matching English text to images. Maintaining humour, especially in Asterix in Britain where much of it is at the expense of the British (French outrage at warm beer and the mint sauce and lamb combination, for example) calls for the wit and word wizardry that Bell possesses in abundance. One of her proudest moments is rendering the name of Obelix’s dog Idéfix as ‘Dogmatix’, a translation that works on multiple levels. And it’s no easy feat to work within the constraints of speech bubbles – Bell remembers counting the letters of the French and the English on her fingers to make sure the number was roughly the same.
A revival in translated fiction
What has been Bell’s direct experience of the fluctuations in the numbers of children’s books translated into English in the half century since the first Preussler and the early Asterix volumes? Has there been a move towards contemporary fiction rather than retranslations of the classics? Bell insists that there have always been publishers prepared to commission translated fiction, including, in the twentieth century, Erich Kästner’s highly influential urban adventure Emil and the Detectives, first published in the UK in 1931, and the rather more limited success of Austrian Christine Nöstlinger’s books (Konrad the Factory-Made Boy, 1986, to be reissued later this year) in the 1970s and 80s. Bell has always translated classics – tales by E.T.A. Hoffman and the Grimm Brothers for example – as well as contemporary literature, yet for two decades (the 1980s and most of the 90s) she didn’t translate any children’s books except the occasional picture book for North-South. She attributes a lot of the credit for the revival in translated fiction in recent years to Cornelia Funke, who showed the potential of translated children’s fiction to reach the bestseller lists, especially in the US. The Marsh Award has helped the situation too, while a demand for fantasy in the wake of Harry Potter and the vogue for Young Adult fiction encourage publishers to look out for the many foreign authors writing in both genres. Bell remains convinced that children should have every chance to read the best books written in other languages. Nonetheless, translation of children’s books into English still has a very long way to go before it reaches the level of other countries. Bell talks of colleagues in Germany – where as much as 40% of children’s fiction is translations – who specialise not just in children’s literature, but work almost exclusively within a specific genre.
Specialism would not be Bell’s cup of tea, however, since she enjoys translating literary fiction written in a wide range of genres and voices and for all ages. Anthea Bell is a wordsmith of the first order who happily works on long past retirement age because she loves what she does. When asked about favourites, her response is that she always likes the books she is currently working on, which at the moment involves the ‘inexhaustible energy’ of Kai Meyer in his Arcadian trilogy. But would she advise a young linguist today to become a literary translator? ‘If their English is good and they are prepared to work extremely hard, it’s a lot more fun than commercial or technical translation because of the variety.’ That reply sums up Anthea Bell’s passion and her dedication. How lucky we are that she has devoted so much of it to literature for the young.
Gillian Lathey‘s The Translation of Children's Literature: A Reader (978 1 8535 9905 7) is published by Multi-Lingual Matters at £21.95.