Remembering the Unforgettable Anthea Bell #AntheaBellDay

Yesterday, 10th of May, was the birthday of that wonderful translator and champion of German and French literature, Anthea Bell. After her death in 2018, Roland Glasser, himself a translator from French, had the following brainwave:

I realized that she was one of those people who had almost an immortal presence, like Bowie or Dylan, and was the nearest thing we translators had to a contemporary icon! Her reputation was on a whole other level. And in contrast to St Jerome [patron saint of translators], she was a contemporary woman translating secular texts and thus, in many ways, more relevant to many of us. I had visions of translators parading through the streets carrying her effigy (yes, I know that goes against the whole “secular” thing!). And so the idea for  #AntheaBellDay was born. Last year, the inaugural day coincided both with the AGM of the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires // European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations at the Writers’ Centre in Norwich and an exhibition of Sebald’s photgraphs at the @SainsburyCentre at the University of East Anglia. It seemed most auspicious!

Every translator and every writer who has ever worked with Anthea Bell has expressed their profound admiration not only for her skills, but for her generosity of spirit and championing of her colleagues. Sadly, I never got to see or hear her in person, but she has nevertheless had a profound personal impact upon me.

As a child I discovered her translations of Asterix long before I got to know the name of the translator. I collected and read the Asterix and Obelix books in three languages: French, German and English. Even at the age of 7-8, I realised that the German language editions were OK but nothing to write home about, while the English language editions at times surpassed the original. My favourite examples are Getafix for the druid (so much wittier than Panoramix) and Dogmatix for Obelix’s little canine friend (which translates the spirit of Idéfix perfectly, but with additional humour).

Later, I became obsessed for a while with all things Sebald and this was where Anthea’s translations helped me most. I tend to read books in German and French in the original, because I was fortunate enough to grow up in a multilingual environment. In my late teens/early twenties I was just a tad fanatical about it: poo-poohing reading in translation as ‘taking the easy way out’. Which was ironic, given that I was studying modern languages and training to become a translator and interpreter myself. However, when I read Anthea Bell’s translations, particularly of Sebald’s Austerlitz, for example, I discover something new, an additional nuance that I’d missed in the original.

At a recent literary event, Julia Franck spoke about the joyous experience of being translated by Anthea Bell, and how difficult it was losing her. Anthea, Franck said, had an intuitive feel for the language and how to make it work in English, how to keep its melody and rhythm, while conveying several layers of meaning.

When I was reviewing for Crime Fiction Lover, I read quite a few of Anthea’s translations of crime novels, such as those by Ferdinand von Schirach. Now, you know I love my crime fiction, but occasionally the style can suffer a little at the expense of the plot. Not so with Anthea’s translations – I remember a particularly beautiful description of a landscape which was much more eloquent in Anthea’s rendering of it than in the original text (of an author who shall remain nameless here). Anthea was no literary snob – she translated widely, across all genres (I am particularly fond of her children’s literature), always to the best of her abilities, rather than solely to a deadline or a pay cheque.

Below are a few of my treasured Anthea Bell translations. I do hope that this commemoration of her life and work will continue for many years to come. And I still aspire to translate maybe a third as well and as broadly as she did!

10 thoughts on “Remembering the Unforgettable Anthea Bell #AntheaBellDay”

  1. Thanks for sharing your own experiences with Anthea Bell’s translations, Marina Sofia. She did some extraordinary work, and all you have to do is read one of her translated stories to get a sense of how good she really was.

  2. It was lovely to see so many appreciative tweets about Anthea Bell yesterday on Twitter, and now your post. It took me a while to realise that when looking for a novel to read in translation the translator is as important as the writer. She was one of the best I’ve come across.

  3. A beautiful tribute to a wonderful translator, someone who clearly had quite a noticeable effect on you as an individual. I always think of Bell as being in a similar bracket to Margaret Jull Costa, another gifted translator with an intuitive feel for the rhythm of language.

  4. Beautiful love letter to Anthea Bell, Marina! I didn’t know for a long time that she translated Asterix comics into English. I always thought of her as someone who translated from German to English (we can blame German Literature Month for that 😁) and I have read many of her translations from German. I think nearly all the stories by Stefan Zweig I have read have been translated by her. Also one of my favourite murder mysteries involving sheep detectives called ‘Three Bags Full’ by Leonie Swann, was translated by her. When I discovered that she also translated the Asterix series, my admiration for her went up even more. She was definitely one of the greats. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. I compared the German beginning of Austerlitz with her translation and wasn’t too sure what to think about it. You say some of her translations are more beautiful than the original. That’s Certainly the case for Sebald but I found that problematic. If English- speaking people knew his writing can be clunky and grammatically incorrect . . .

  6. Oh, I didn’t know she’d died. I’ve read a few of her translations—I also loved Austerlitz, and I’ve enjoyed some others like Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki. What a good way to commemorate her life and work!

  7. Ils ne nous suivent pas! Londinium est encore loin?
    Non, quelques pieds…, les Romains mesurent les distances en pas, nous en pieds
    En pieds?
    Il faut six pieds pour faire un pas
    Ils sont fous ces Bretons

    They’re not following! Is it far to Londinium?
    No, only a few hundred feet…. you measure distance in mètres, we do it in feet.
    Feet?
    Yes, you’ll find it quite easy once you get your hand in
    These Britons are crazy.

    Lateral thinking maybe but unforgettable

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