Goodbye To A Major UK Comics Publishing Figure
♦ Anthea Bell was one of the main translators of Goscinny and Uderzo’s classic Asterix comic series for the UK market and the sad news has reached us that she has just died at the age of 82. Here’s her obituary from The Guardian…
Anthea Bell, the translator who brought classics from Asterix to WG Sebald to an English readership, has died at the age of 82.
Her son, Oliver Kamm, a writer for the Times, announced the news on Thursday morning, describing Bell as “a literary giant and, in all respects, a brilliant person”. Kamm had written in December that his mother had fallen ill a year earlier, and was in a nursing home. “Her great mind has now departed and she no longer knows who I am,” he wrote. “Though her career is over, she remains a literary giant and no one has taught me more about language and languages.”
Bell, who worked from both French and German, translated texts by authors including Sebald, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud. She first began translating Asterix in 1969, coming up with some of its best jokes and puns. In her version, Obelix’s small dog Idéfix became Dogmatix, and the druid Panoramix became Getafix. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation describes her work on Asterix as ingenious and superbly recreated, displaying “the art of the translator at its best”.
According to the novelist Will Self, “it’s doubtful that the eminence of WG Sebald would be quite so great in the English reading world were it not for Anthea Bell’s magnificent translations of his works”.
“Indeed, given quite how important a translator is – often effectively rewriting the original – it might be better to speak of a hybrid creature: ‘Bellbald’, perhaps,” he said. “Yet if this is the case, then there’s also room for a ‘Bellterix’, since her translations of the famous French bande dessinée are widely attested to be a thrillingly witty recreation of the original, complete with pinpoint accurate punning.”
Self said that he had read Bell’s translations all his life, five years ago convening a translators’ symposium to discuss the “vexed problem” of translating Kafka, at which Bell shone. “Particularly inspiring was her analysis of his humour as a writer – incomprehensible to English readers until mediated by this very fine and very great mind,” he said. “In an era when Britain seems once more to be winding itself yet tighter into its immemorial and monoglot garb, we’d do well to remember the huge importance of literary translation as a vector for our understanding of – and empathy with – other peoples.”
Bell translated hundreds of books, from bestsellers such as Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series to ETA Hoffmann’s 19th-century novel The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. The first book she ever worked on came to her by chance, when her then-husband, Antony Kamm, a publisher, was asked if he knew anyone who could translate the German writer Otfried Preussler’s children’s book The Little Water-Sprite. “It was my first translation and I did it with my first baby in a carrycot at my side,” she told the Guardian in 2013.
The winner of a host of literary awards, Bell was also given Germany’s Verdienstkreuz (Cross of Merit) in 2015, and was appointed OBE in 2010. She believed that translations should “read as if they were not only written but also thought in English”, telling a conference in 2004: “All my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion – the illusion is that the reader is reading not a translation but the real thing.”
The award-winning translator Daniel Hahn said Bell was “the best in the business – an extraordinarily good and prolific translator, as well as incomparably generous to her colleagues in the field”.
“She was an elegant stylist, but more than that, a startlingly versatile one,” Hahn said. “I first learned her name, as so many people did, because she wrote all those impossible Asterix jokes I loved so much; but to other people she was Sebald, or perhaps Kafka – or sometimes Freud. She was Cornelia Funke or Erich Kästner for children, Saša Stanišić and Stefan Zweig for adults, and so many others besides. Literature struggles to thrive without translation. Today I can’t help wondering how we readers and writers ever could have managed without Anthea Bell.”