To careful readers, her name was as well known as many of the authors she translated, writers whose works ranged from the philosophical speculations of Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud to the “Inkheart” fantasy books for young readers and the pun-filled French comics series Asterix.
But for British translator Anthea Bell, who rendered about 250 French, German and Danish books into English — so many that she stopped keeping count — literary celebrity marked a failure of sorts. What she sought, she often said, was invisibility, as she spun the illusion that the books she translated were written in English by authors who thought in English.
“I have two large panes of glass at the bottom of the window above the desk where I work,” she said at a 2004 conference on translation. “One has little distorting flaws in it, the other, probably a modern replacement, allows an undistorted view of the garden beyond. In presenting a foreign text in English, I would wish to be like that perfectly transparent pane of glass, but I’m well aware that the slightly distorting pane is probably the one I resemble.”
Ms. Bell, whose self-deprecating comments belied a talent at delving inside the minds of authors and conveying their words, thoughts and spirit into English, was 82 when she died Oct. 18 at a hospital in Cambridge, England.
Her son Oliver Kamm, a columnist for the Times of London, said she had been in poor health since suffering a stroke in 2016.
Ms. Bell translated comics, picture books, novels, memoirs, essays and even encyclopedia entries for “The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians,” tackling nearly everything but serious poetry or science. Freud was no exception, she said, classifying her Penguin Classics translation of “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life” as a work of literature rather than hard psychology or psychoanalysis.
Working without an agent, she was guided by requests from publishers as well as her own interests, which ranged widely but featured a few hobbyhorses: children’s literature, which she believed wasn’t translated nearly enough, and books centered on the Jewish experience or the Holocaust.
Among the latter were “Until the Final Hour,” the memoir of Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, which inspired the 2004 movie “Downfall,” and “The Pianist,” the memoir of composer and Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman, which was adapted into a 2002 film by director Roman Polanski.
In the literary realm, Ms. Bell was closely linked with the German-language writers Stefan Zweig, whose early 20th-century novels and stories had largely fallen out of favor before her translations, and W.G. Sebald, the genre-bending novelist, essayist and British academic who died in 2001. Ms. Bell met and worked closely with Sebald to translate “Austerlitz,” his final novel, which centered on the “Kindertransport” rescue effort for Jewish children during World War II.
The book won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2002, and she considered her translation — which mirrored Sebald’s labyrinthine German sentences, peppered with subordinate clauses — among her finest achievements, her son said.
But she was best known for her work on Asterix, the long-running comics series about a village of Gauls and their Roman occupiers that was first published in France in 1959, with text by René Goscinny and illustrations by Albert Uderzo.
Ms. Bell said the comics went untranslated into English for a decade, batted down by several publishers because firms believed it was “too French” and “impossible to translate.” They went on to sell more than 350 million copies worldwide but failed to develop a large audience in the United States, she speculated, because “the Americans don’t understand irony as much as we do.”
Over three dozen volumes, Ms. Bell and a collaborator, Derek Hockridge, were credited with producing translations that not only maintained the series’ high concentration of puns per panel, but in some cases improved on the original.
In one panel from “Asterix and Cleopatra,” the character Obelix visits the Luxor Temple in Egypt and suggests that a giant obelisk would look nice in the middle of their town. When his friend disagrees, Obelix declares, “We shall never be in concord over this!” — a reference to the fact that the French took just such an obelisk for the Place de La Concorde in Paris.
“The ingenious translations by Anthea Bell have a well-deserved cult following,” literary scholar Peter Hunt wrote in “The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation.” “For all their knockabout farce, these books are remarkably subtle, and in a way display the art of the translator at its best.”
Their success was all the more remarkable given Ms. Bell’s background. As she put it at the 2004 conference, she became a translator “by pure accident,” although her interest in literature began early, in a bookish household where her mother was a homemaker, her father was a cruciverbalist who devised puzzles for the Times of London, and her grandfather was a deputy editor of the Observer newspaper who steered her toward his Loeb collection of Greek and Latin classics.
The oldest of three children, Anthea Bell was born in Redisham, a village in the English county of Suffolk, on May 10, 1936. She studied French and German while at boarding school in Bournemouth and received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Oxford in 1957. That same year, she married Anthony Kamm, a publisher.
She was “far too young” to marry, she later told the Guardian, and, feeling pressure from both sides of her family, she studied to become a secretary.
When her husband was asked whether he knew anyone who could translate “The Little Water Sprite,” a German children’s book by Otfried Preussler, he suggested his wife. “It was my first translation and I did it with my first baby in a carry-cot at my side,” she told the Guardian in 2013.
Her books were four-time winners of the American Library Association’s Mildred L. Batchelder Award, given to U.S. publishers for the year’s best children’s book translated into English. She also received the highest honor for children’s translation from the International Federation of Translators .
Her marriage to Kamm ended in divorce. In addition to her son Oliver, survivors include another son, Richard Kamm; twin siblings; and twin granddaughters.
Translation was an art form that sometimes led Ms. Bell into rabbit holes of historical research. For “Eva’s Cousin,” a novel by Sibylle Knauss based on memoirs by Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, Ms. Bell described the “banks” of a lake where Braun and her cousin went swimming.
A copy editor changed the wording to “shore,” a more traditional description but one with little basis in fact, Ms. Bell found. Battling with the editor, she procured a picture that showed the lake was mostly surrounded by tall rocks. It could hardly be called a shore, and the language was reversed to follow Ms. Bell’s original translation.