Found in Translation: Anthea Bell

Anthea Bell holding a copy of Asterix and the Picts, photo by Felix Clay for the Guardian

My brother is eleven years older than I am. When I was born, he took it upon himself to raise me, from diaper changes, to teaching me the names of important dinosaurs. He fostered in me the greatest gift a sibling could give: the love of reading. While his X-Men collection is why I’m the publisher of WWAC now, there was a lot more literature that he introduced me to. Among the bookshelf collection was Asterix and Obelix.

At the time, I enjoyed, but probably didn’t fully appreciate, the adventures of two super-powered Gauls fighting to keep Rome from conquering their little village. I’m sure many of the jokes went over my head, but I laughed at more than enough of the silly names and antics for Asterix and Obelix to earn it a treasured place in my literary world.

What I did not fully appreciate until now is the fact that all of that was made possible by a woman named Anthea Bell.

Oh sure, the series creators, writer René Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo, played a big part in it too, but back when my brother was taking me to the library to capture all of the Asterix and Obelix stories we could find, I was still years away from French classes. It was Bell’s translation work that made Dogmatix and Getafix, et al., accessible to us.

Sadly, it’s taken her death for me to come to that realization.

There are so many unsung heroes behind the books we adore. From editors to letterers to copywriters and beyond. Each person plays an important part in shaping the pages we read, with far more nuance in their roles than we imagine.

Translators are no less an important part of the literary process. Translation is a fine art that goes well beyond literally translating words. “It’s all about finding the tone of voice in the original. You have to be quite free,” Bell told the Guardian in a 2013 interview. She goes on to describe the field as one that should be invisible, but her numerous awards and accolades prove to be paradoxical. “Anthea has a talent that not every translator has for catching the mood of a book. Some are a bit more wooden and some try to take too many liberties. She has a knack of hitting the right style and atmosphere,” said Klaus Flugge, the publisher who launched Bell’s critically acclaimed career.

The woman that New Books in German refers to as “the Grande Dame of Literary Translation” began her career when Flugge asked fellow publisher and Bell’s then-husband if he knew someone who could translate The Little Water-Sprite by German writer Otfried Preussler. Her first translation was a children’s book, which she translated with her first child at her side. Her skill quickly earned her more work and, when she eventually divorced Antony Kamm in 1973, she was able to support herself and her children on her own.

“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,” she said at a 2004 translator conference.

She has translated the classic works of Sebald, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, and Sigmund Freud, as well as more modern books, such as the Inkheart series, but it’s in the 35 volumes of Asterix and Obelix that I find the truth in those words.

When I was reading—or more recently, watching the Asterix and Obelix movie with my daughters—I had no idea that Dogmatix had originally been named Idéfix, or that my amusement in the druid Getafix’s name (né Panoramix) was entirely because of Bell’s talented work and obvious sense of humour. But I continue to love those stories nonetheless, warts and all. And I love that what my brother shared with me is now something I can share with my daughters (who can read Asterix and Obelix in both languages), thanks to the translations of Anthea Bell.

All hail the translatrix.

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Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.