10 May 1936 – 18 October 2018
Daniel Hahn remembers translator Anthea Bell.
When Anthea Bell died in October 2018, her death was reported on the BBC news. Various papers ran lengthy obituaries. Twitter buzzed with grateful memories from fans, many of them referencing her work on children’s books. Now, given the general assumption that translators are supposed to be anonymous, invisible – in service to somebody else’s books and talents, rather than conspicuously flaunting their own – this very visible outpouring of appreciation was more than a little unusual. But Anthea, as we translators have long known, was different.
At the time of her death, Anthea Bell had a 57-year career behind her, a career that began in her early twenties when publisher Klaus Flugge commissioned her (via her husband) to take on a translation of Otfried Preussler’s The Little Water Sprite. (That debut piece of work, first published in 1960, is back in print today.) It would be a career of both dizzying variety and extraordinary consistency – she could do so many different things, but always in an exemplary fashion. She translated Kafka and contemporary crime, Holocaust stories and Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig; she did fiction and non-fiction; and some of the finest German-language novelists of our own day: not only (perhaps most famously) W.G. Sebald, but also Saša Stanišič, Julia Franck, Rafik Schami and so many more.
And then, of course, come the children’s books.
I can say with some confidence that no translator has ever been responsible for bringing more great international writing to the UK’s children than Anthea Bell. There are others who over the decades have made very substantial contributions to this area, translators such as Sarah Ardizzone and Patricia Crampton – making a trio who for years formed our basic A-B-C of translating for children – but even in that company, I’d argue, Anthea’s contributions were quite unparalleled.
The most successful contemporary children’s fiction writer in English translation must surely be Cornelia Funke – we have Anthea Bell to thank for The Dragon Rider and the Inkheart trilogy. The recent rediscovery of Erich Kästner – also Anthea. (She was sorry not to have had the opportunity to translate Emil and the Detectives, but made up for this by doing several others.) The much-loved Kai Meyer? Anthea. The stunning Bambert’s Book of Missing Stories? Also Anthea. As well as countless French books, new and old, including even that perennial favourite series of charming schoolboy delights, Goscinny and Sempé’s Petit Nicolas – yes, if you read that in English, you also have her to thank for that. Plus some Grimm, some E.T.A. Hoffman, and a lot more Preussler, some Perrault . . . Oh, and did I mention she also translated a few books from Danish among all these, too?
Anthea Bell won the Marsh Award a record three times (out of only eleven times it was awarded overall) – for Meyer’s The Flowing Queen, for Christine Nöstlinger’s A Dog’s Life, and for Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Where Were You, Robert? – in addition to several shortlistings. She won the U.S. equivalent, the Mildred L. Batchelder Award, a similarly record-breaking four times. In addition to various other prizes for her grown-up translations, and for her career as a whole (just imagine, an invisible translator getting an O.B.E.!), in her final year she was selected by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art for a ‘Carle Honor’ award, granted annually to a few individuals around the world ‘for their contributions to the field of children’s literature’.
And then, of course, there was Asterix – and really, I’ve saved the best for last. By the time the 36th album, Asterix and the Missing Scroll, was published in 2015, Anthea had become the only person in the world to have worked on every volume to date. René Goscinny was long dead, Albert Uderzo had retired, and all the other original translators had moved on (one way or another) decades earlier. But Anthea published her first Asterix book in 1969 (this year will be the 50th anniversary), and she would stick with them for the rest of her long career.
It’s often said that the two truly emblematic cases of texts whose literary quality is surpassed by their English translations are Asterix and The King James Bible. I can’t vouch for the latter, but I know this to be true for Asterix. These translations – many of them produced jointly with Derek Hockridge – are probably most widely praised for the character names, which are indeed brilliant (a tenacious dog called Dogmatix, a peddler of magical drugs called Getafix, a fishmonger called Unhygienix . . .), but there’s so much besides them. There’s an incredible energy to the English text, which manages somehow never to be bogged down by the cultural and historical allusions so densely packed into it. There’s all kinds of wordplay and other clever jokes, but their erudition never feels excluding – it’s both accessible to child readers and the source of surprising rewards for those of us (re-)reading them at a later age.
As a translator, I don’t think I’ve ever given a talk about translation that hasn’t at some point referenced Anthea’s work – as an example of what makes the job interesting, creative, rewarding, challenging. I talk constantly about the significance of her contribution to the translator’s profession. But my relationship to Asterix is different. Asterix is how I came to discover Anthea not as a colleague or friend but as a reader, when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. From the moment I first read Asterix, Anthea was one of my favourite writers, though I couldn’t have told you her name at the time. I’m glad we’ve learned to appreciate her properly, at last.