Bell, most widely known for her English-language versions of the Asterix comic series, was one of the most highly regarded of modern translators, translating both French and German with a range that extended from children’s books to the recondite literary fiction of Franz Kafka and W.G. Sebald.
Born in England 1936, Bell fell into translating by accident when her publisher friend Klaus Flugge wanted someone to bring Otfried Preussler’s The Little Water Sprite into English. She had a gift for translating what appeared untranslatable: The Asterix books, for example, are rife with quirky puns. Bell somehow found English equivalents for them. In a much-cited example, she turned the dog called Idéfix in French into Dogmatix in English.
She worked closely with Sebald to capture his sad wry tone and dense allusiveness in English. The novelist Will Self went so far as to say that, “it’s doubtful that the eminence of W.G. Sebald would be quite so great in the English reading world were it not for Anthea Bell’s magnificent translations of his works.”
Speaking to The Guardian, Self recounted discussions he had with Bell about translating Kafka. “Particularly inspiring was her analysis of his humor as a writer—incomprehensible to English readers until mediated by this very fine and very great mind,” Self noted. “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.”
At a conference in 2004, Bell said, “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.” Her philosophy, she said on another occasion, is that “a translation is successful if it’s invisible.”