Anthea Bell: the English voice of Freud, Kafka & Asterix | Stillman Translations
Anthea Bell: the English voice of Freud, Kafka & Asterix

Anthea Bell is an amazing woman and we would like to commemorate some of her work and life story in this article.

Leading literary translator of the 20th and 21st century, what do we owe her? 

On this month, in 1936, Anthea Bell was born. By chance, she became a literary translator. And by talent, she became one of the most recognized figures in her field for her outstanding job. There are translating competitions today under her name, such as the Queen’s College translation competition. Or The Translation Exchange, which launched a brand new competition for schools to promote language learning and inspire creativity in the classroom.  

She won literary awards. Several of them. Won the Order of Merit of Germany in 2015. She dedicated herself to making authors like Hoffmann, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Georges Simenon, W.G. Sebald, René Goscinny, and Cornelia Funke, amongst others, available in German, French, Danish, and English. She received the highest honor for children’s translation from the International Federation of Translators. She was mentioned in the Mildred L. Batchelder Award more times than any other individual or organization.  

She was hands down an amazing woman. And we would like to commemorate some of her work and life story in this article.  


She was born in Suffolk on May 10th, 1936. She always claimed that her lateral thinking abilities enabled her to be remarkable at what she did. And that these came from her father Adrian Bell, a Times cryptic crossword setter. 

When we say her career began by chance, it’s because she didn’t seek out it. It presented itself to her in the shape of a children’s book translating job. At the end of the 1950s, German publisher Klaus Flugge asked her husband if he knew anyone who could translate Der kleine Wassermann. He said his wife could get it done.  

And so she specialized in fairytales for the publishing house of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Wonderlands, kingdoms, wizards, witches, large fields, and imaginary characters became her everyday landscape. But she eventually moved on to adult novels, art history, and musicology. From then on, she tackled nearly everything except 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. Because to her, as it is to us, literary translation requires such precision, creativity, and sensitivity that it is a work of art. And the way she chose to work, her methodology, reflected this passion. 


So, she didn’t just translate. When she had to bridge the french comic Asterix to the English world, she encountered numerous obstacles. She managed to transmit the spirit of something the graphic novel is widely known for its numerous puns. Puns are wordplays born from the very little things that separate a language from any other. This is why it’s likely to most times be impossible to portray. We have to go around it and find equivalences. For example, the druid in the French version of the series is called Panoramix; the name of the provider of the Gauls’ magic potion was turned into Getafix. And these fixes are not a way of standing out, but rather part of a school of thought when it comes to translation that we adhere to invisible translation. 

Anthea Bell always insisted that she was “an unrepentant, unreconstructed adherent of the school of invisible translation ” aiming to give readers the impression they were reading “the real thing”. When one localizes, what seals it as impeccable is if no one can tell it was originally from somewhere else. And so eight of her translations are among the 100 German Must-Reads

She moved with great care. She handled people’s words and thoughts and carried them to new horizons. When she sat down to write, she kept weighing up every sentence, wondering what the person in question would have thought of this or that phrasing. Sometimes she even had the opportunity to work with them, as she did with WG Sebald. 

“It was a great privilege,” Bell said, “and fascinating because his own English was so good that he could have written in it himself. It was very, very dense work. He wouldn’t use email and said he’d never unwrapped the computer in his office. I would draft out a passage and send it to him and he’d send it back while I did the next one, so we were working together on it all the way through.” 

Her commitment to what we do. Her undeniable talent with words and phrasing. Her respect for others. They live up to the term language expert and have brought us books of all ages and colors for us to enjoy.