Anthea Bell - photo

The Grande Dame of Literary Translation: Anthea Bell at Eighty

As New Books in German celebrates its twentieth birthday, one of the UK's most renowned and prolific translators and cherished long-time member of the NBG editorial committee celebrates her eightieth.

Anthea Bell’s career spans six decades and includes works by Stefan Zweig, W.G. Sebald, Freud and Kafka alongside a wide range of contemporary authors writing in German and French. An advocate of the art of ‘invisible translation’, she is nevertheless best known for her wonderfully creative English rendering of the Asterix series, and her work has attracted numerous translation awards as well as an OBE and the German Order of the Cross of Merit. Born in Suffolk and a graduate of Oxford University, Anthea Bell now lives in Cambridge, where she is currently working on the sequel to Cornelia Funke’s bestselling novel Dragon Rider. She spoke to Ruth Martin about her career in translation.

You’ve translated a huge range of books, from Asterix to Kafka. What do you look for in a potential translation project?

Well, we translators don’t have the choice, most of the time. But I always have to read a book before I agree to translate it. I know two translators who say they prefer to start working on a text without reading it first. I’d never dare do that: suppose I decided I didn’t like the book after all? Even if it’s light reading (nothing wrong with that), I want to feel sure that I consider it good of its kind.

If you’re translating a book by a living author, what kind of working relationship do you tend to have with them?

Nearly always a good one. Occasionally I’ve come across an author who wants a very literal translation, and I must admit that those authors are usually French. The well-educated Germans understand that a degree of freedom is often necessary, and one must be true to the spirit rather than the letter if there is any conflict. But with the Asterix series, the authors and editors at the French end have always been very understanding too. I corresponded with a student at Heidelberg writing a dissertation on the saga and its various translations; she concluded that it is easier or at least more effective to translate the puns and wordplay into a Germanic rather than another Romance language, because the translator has to approach the text at a tangent.

You’ve also given us new translations of classic works by Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka – how did you approach those projects?

With some awe. All of us working on the New Penguin Freud wondered if we had to adopt a fixed English terminology. Adam Phillips, as general editor, came to the rescue, said we could all follow our own instincts, and gave us a brief translator’s preface in which to mention any special problems. My volume was The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, so the big problem was the translation of Freud’s central term in that book, the Fehlleistung. After much thought, I decided against the word ‘parapraxis’, a neologism coined for the earlier translation, and worked with various ways of rendering the basic idea of saying or doing something unintended, arising from the operation of the unconscious mind. Freud makes a kind of detective story out of it. My Kafka title, in OUP’s trio of new translations, was The Castle, and only in translating it did I fully realise why the Eastern Europeans in particular celebrate Kafka as a humourist. I kept being reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass.

You’ve translated children’s literature throughout your career. What is it that appeals to you about books for children and young adults?

They were the first books I was ever asked to translate, and I am delighted that a couple of my versions of Otfried Preussler’s books have recently been re-issued. It was also fascinating, when I first met the novelist Julia Franck, to find that when she was a child Preussler had been one of her favourite authors. I think it is especially valuable to make the best books for young people written in any language available to them while they are the right age for them. It shows the young that while the English tradition of children’s literature is a rich one, there are other such books in other languages, and it can help them to get into the habit of reading widely.

You must have seen tremendous change in the publishing industry since the start of your career. Do you think the role of the translator today is different from when you started out?

Given that by definition translation is not – and in my view should not be – a high-profile profession, yes, I think we do get more respect for our craft than when I was embarking, entirely by accident, on my career. Practical reasons such as the existence of Public Lending Rights have something to do with it; a publisher can’t get away with leaving the translator’s name off a book, or the translator can’t claim his or her PLR payments.

Is there anything you’ve translated that has affected you very deeply?

I think one could hardly fail to be deeply affected by working on the translation of three of W.G. Sebald’s books, the first two – Austerlitz and On the Natural History of Destruction – with the active help and encouragement of Max Sebald himself. His sadly premature death in a road accident reinforced that sense of attachment to his work.

And is there a book that got away – something you would have loved to translate?

Well, several, but one mustn’t be greedy. All the same, I was bold enough to suggest a favourite of mine, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Lebensansichten des Katers Murr, to Penguin Classics. It was published as The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, with a cover picture taken from the works of the multitalented Hoffmann himself – composer, music critic, artist, a lawyer in his day job, and writer.