In her essay titled ‘Translation: Walking the Tightrope of Illusion’ in the Susan Bassnet and Peter Bush edited anthology, The Translator as Writer (2006), Anthea Bell wrote that in her role as a translator, she was wholly committed to remain “an unrepentant, unreconstructed adherent of the school of invisible translation”. But, there’s a price to pay for genius, and, Bell, 82, who passed away on October 18, discovered through the course of her magnificent career that the cloak of invisibility does not always sit easy on excellence. Indeed, as the person who endeared the irascible Gaul Asterix and his band of merry comrades to the English-speaking world, and rendered the works of German writers such as W G Sebald, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud without losing “the real thing” — their essence — Bell was a linguist and translator whose originality shone like a beacon.
Born in 1936 in Suffolk, England, Bell, best known for her 35 translations of the Asterix comics in collaboration with the late Derek Hockridge, managed to recreate the humour of the original French series through an intuitive understanding of cultural nuances. From Erich Kastner to Cornelia Funke, from Hans Christian Andersen to Stefan Zweig, Bell’s repertoire was versatile and includes over a 100 translations for both children and adults, mostly from German and French, but also from Danish. Yet, her foray into translation was a matter of chance. Her then-husband, publisher Antony Kamm, had been looking for a translator for Otfried Preussler’s The Little Water Sprite. Bell had read the Greek and Latin classics extensively and acquired a love for the French and German languages while in school. A new mother, the prospect of translating Preussler’s book greatly appealed to Bell and set her off on a path to creative fulfilment.
In a career spanning six decades, Bell towered over the literary scene, infusing her work with an ingenuity and effervescence of spirit that enhanced the writer’s original voice while making space for her own — no mean feat at a time when translations rarely got the attention they deserved.