Anthea Bell, Translator of Freud, Kafka and Comics, Dies at 82
Posted October 19, 2018 4:40 p.m. EDT
Anthea Bell, the rare translator who, despite her best efforts to stay hidden, became a name herself in bringing works by Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and other major writers to English audiences, died Thursday in Cambridge, England. She was 82.
Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her son Oliver Kamm, who said her health had been in decline since she was left frail by a stroke in 2016.
“All my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion: the illusion that the reader is reading not a translation, but the real thing,” Bell told a conference in 2004. She added that she liked simple translations that could “seduce readers” into loving the translated books.
For all her mastery of great literature, however, Bell was most celebrated in her native Britain for her translations of the French-language Asterix comic-book series, about a village of Gauls resisting Roman occupation.
In collaboration with university lecturer Derek Hockridge, Bell made changes to the Asterix series that rendered it funnier for an English audience. In one case she changed the name of a druid character, Panoramix, to Getafix, leading some readers to question what was actually in his potions.
She translated hundreds of books — she did not know the exact number — including W.G. Sebald’s “Austerlitz,” a dreamlike meditation on memory and the Holocaust that won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2012. Another project was German author Cornelia Funke’s best-selling “Inkheart” series of young-adult fantasy novels.
Bell’s work was responsible for bringing Austrian author Stefan Zweig to renewed attention, and she translated several of Freud’s works as well as the memoirs of Traudl Junge, Hitler’s last secretary, which were an inspiration for the 2004 movie “Downfall,” starring Bruno Ganz as Hitler.
“I choose a style for each book as it comes,” Bell told Publishers Weekly in 2011. “You’re always looking for the author’s voice. It’s like acting.”
She was born on May 10, 1936, in Suffolk, in western England, and grew up on a farm in the village of Redisham. Adrian Bell, her father, a farmer, was the first compiler of the Times of London’s cryptic crossword. Her mother, Marjorie (Gibson) Bell, was a homemaker.
Bell was sent to boarding school in Bournemouth, on England’s southern coast, where she developed an interest in German and French. She got her love of books from borrowing her grandfather’s collection of classic Greek and Latin literature.
Bell studied English at Oxford University, then married at 21 — “far too young,” she told The Guardian in a 2013 interview. Giving up hope of an academic career, she was pushed by her mother and her in-laws to undertake secretarial training.
She became a translator by “complete accident,” she said. Her husband, the publisher Antony Kamm, had been asked if he knew anyone who could translate a German children’s book, Otfried Preussler’s “The Little Water Sprite.” He recommended his wife.
“I did it with my first baby in a carry-cot at my side,” Bell recalled.
She was soon translating other books, getting commissions by word-of-mouth, as well as giving opinions on German books to publishers. In her mid-30s, after she and Kamm divorced, she realized she was earning enough from translating to support her family.
Bell mainly translated works written in German and French, but she once taught herself Danish over a single Christmas so she could translate books from that language as well.
She had no hesitation about translating popular fiction as well as highbrow works, and also happily translated technical literature, including entries for “The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.”
“A change is as good as a rest,” Bell said in a 2010 podcast interview when asked how she was able to work on so many different projects simultaneously.
Bell was named a member of the Order of the British Empire and received the German Cross of Merit, among other awards.
In addition to her son Oliver, she is survived by another son, Richard Kamm; two granddaughters; and twin siblings, Martin and Sylvia Bell.
In a telephone interview, Oliver Kamm said Bell briefly tried her hand at fiction in the 1980s after reading a story in a magazine while waiting for a hairdresser’s appointment and thinking, “I can do better than that.”
She proceeded to write a historical novel, “A London Season,” set in the early 19th-century Regency period, and submitted it to a publisher with whom she had never worked in the hope of getting honest feedback. The publisher asked her for a series, Kamm said, but Bell regarded the two books she ended up writing — the second was “The Floral Companion” — as “fripperies.” She did not talk about them often, he added.
In the 2010 podcast, Bell said she was so busy translating that she did not have time to write her own books. “Authors can get author’s block, but I’ve never heard of translator’s block,” she said. “Something’s got to go down on the paper in the end.”