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Anthea Bell (1936-)


Anthea Bell is best known for her work as a translator and adapter of novels and stories for both children and adults, creating a body of work that is over 200 titles strong. Her award-winning work has allowed English-speaking readers access to traditional stories, contemporary picture books, classic novels, and even cartoon strips originally written in German, French, and Danish. For adults, she has translated books by diverse authors, including politician Willy Brandt; translations of the works of German author W. G. Sebald have also won her awards and critical acclaim. Her work for children includes stories and books by the Brothers Grimm, Clemens Brentano, Ludwig Bechstein, Wilhelm Hauff, and Hans Christian Andersen. Bell has won several awards for her translations of contemporary original works or retellings, including Mildred L. Batchelder Awards for her translations of books like The Cat and Mouse Who Shared a House, Buster's World and The Boys from St. Petri, the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize, and the Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation.

Bell recalled how much she enjoyed reading books like The Story of Babar (written in French by Jean de Brunhoff), which had been translated into English when she was a child. Yet, she believes translated books do more than entertain children. First, they encourage children to understand other languages: "The avid child reader just has to know what is inside a book, and if it happens to be in a foreign language, it may impel the child to learn the language," she wrote in Horn Book in 1978. Second, as Bell suggested in a speech published in Top of the News, translated books allow ideas to be shared despite the barriers language can impose. It is the role of the translator "to give authors from other countries a voice as like their own as possible in which to address English-speaking children, so that their ideas can be passed on."

Then again, as Bell suggested in Bookbird, there is something to be said for a book that entertains because it is funny. Humorous books, like Asterix the Gaul by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo or Christine Noestlinger's novels, are Bell's favorite books to translate. "Humour is a most peculiar thing, when you stop to think of it: universal, easily recognizable, extraordinarily hard to define," Bell commented in Bookbird. "But a wonderful builder of bridges and crosser of frontiers, and thus surely of special value to growing young people the world over." Reviewing Bell's translation of Asterix and the Actress, Booklist's Francisca Goldsmith noted that Bell included a "liberal combination of Latin puns and contemporary social riffs." In another Booklist review of Asterix and Son and two other tales, Goldsmith noted that these stories "will please devotees as well as gather uninitiated readers with their mix of humor, history, and good storytelling."

After earning a degree in English language and literature from Oxford University in the late 1950s, Bell had the opportunity to read and report on some German books that a London publisher was considering for translation and publication. As she wrote in Horn Book, her "curious if mentally rewarding job snowballed from there." Bell continued to read and report on German and French books selected for possible publication in English, and she began to translate some of these.

Many of Bell's works are new translations or adaptations of familiar favorites. According to a critic for Publishers Weekly, Bell's translation of the beloved story The Golden Goose brings readers the "full flavor" of the original work by the Brothers Grimm. Bell has translated and retold several other tales from the Brothers Grimm. Her translation of The Brave Little Tailor is "lively and spirited," according to Connie C. Rockman in School Library Journal, while her translation of The Six Swans "is true to the original version," as Barbara Chatton noted in the same publication. Likewise, Linda Perkins, writing in Booklist, found Bell's work on Rapunzel "faithful to the original story." Joanna Rudge Long, writing in Horn Book, felt that Bell's translation of Hansel and Gretel was "clean and well paced," allowing "only minor abridgements of the dialogue and Hansel and Gretel's wanderings in the wood." Booklist critic Ilene Cooper described Bell's translation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Nightingale as "lyrical." Although it is a somewhat condensed version, Bell's adaptation of Andersen's The Little Mermaid "retains the beauty of the language," in the words of School Library Journal contributor Jean Bennetts. Bell has also turned her hand to classic tales by Charles Perrault. Her Puss in Boots was "particularly accessible to the youngest readers while maintaining the integrity of the story," according to Donna L. Scanlon in School Library Journal. Booklist's Linda Perkins likewise praised her "smooth translation" of Cinderella.

Bell has also brought English-speaking children works that are not well known outside Europe. Andersen's The Old House tells the story of a boy who gives an elderly man a tin soldier; after the man dies and his home is rebuilt, the boy (a man now) moves into the home and finds the toy. According to Karen Radtke, writing in School Library Journal, Bell's "judicial pruning of some visual details moves the action along." The Wise Queen, a traditional European tale, features a clever courtier's daughter who beats a king at his own game by solving his riddles. The king decides to marry her, but he makes her promise not to make decisions in the court. When she does exercise her own judgment, she is exiled from the palace. Yet the queen then asks the king for permission to take with her what she loves most: she selects the king himself to take away from the castle to her old home. School Library Journal contributor Cathy Woodward asserted that the story is "aptly retold," and "is as straight-forward and direct as the queen herself."

With Jack and the Beanstalk, Bell retells an old English fairy tale in "a shortened version . . . with unobtrusively modernized language," as John Peters noted in a Booklist review. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly found Bell's version, with its dog-like characters and Noh-like masks "downright eerie" and more "surreal than magical."

Bell has not confined herself solely to classic tales; she has also translated contemporary children's works, mostly from the German. In The Clown Said No, by Mischa Damjan, Bell translates the tale of an unhappy clown who runs away from the circus, while with Sarah's Willow, by Friedrich Recknagel, Bell presents to English-speaking audiences a picture book about a little girl who is saddened when her favorite tree is cut down. However, taking a cutting from the fallen tree, she is able to watch a new sapling replace it.

For young adults and adults, Bell has introduced a disparate cast of Central European writers—many of them German and many of them writing of the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust—to readers of English. Going farther afield linguistically, she translated the 1999 reprint of Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoir written in Polish, The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One When young Sarah's favorite tree is cut down, her father helps her plant a cutting so she can keep the spirit of the willow alive. (From Sarah's Willow, written by Friedrich Recknagel, translated by Bell, and illustrated by Maja Dusíková.) Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-1945. Later made into an award-winning film, the book is a "significant contribution to the literature of remembrance, a document of lasting historical and human value," according to Michael Frank, writing in the Los Angeles Times. Bell has also translated two of the works of the German author W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz and On the Natural History of Destruction. For the former title, Bell was awarded the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize. The prize jury commended Bell for her ability to "bring the richness of the German text into a correspondingly rich English," as was reported on the Goethe-Institut Chicago Web site. Barbara Walden, writing in Library Journal, found Bell's translation of On the Natural History of Destruction to be "felicitous."

Bell has additionally introduced the works of German writers Michael Kumpfmüller, Reinhardt Jung, Cornelia Caroline Funke, Karen Duve, and Sybille Knauss to the English-speaking world. Jung's novella, Dreaming in Black and White, explores the Holocaust via the dream world of a contemporary young boy. Young Hannes Keller, the protagonist of the book, is studying the Third Reich for school and begins to dream of it at night, realistic dreams that take him into a separate reality. Hannes has a disability that not only affects his speech but also forces him to use a crutch to walk. In his dreams, the workings of Operation T4, in which disabled people in Hitler's Germany were simply eliminated, become all too real. A work for young adults as well as adults, the book and its translation won praise from Betsy Hearne in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Hearne noted that the "clean minimalist style that delivers this complex tale-within-a-tale is well supported by veteran translator Bell's practiced clarity." In a review of Duve's Rain, a contributor for Publishers Weekly felt that this "deftly translated dark comedy is a razor-edged treat." And writing on Knauss's Eva's Cousin, a critic for Publishers Weekly found that the "narrative is adeptly translated by prize-winning Anthea Bell." Here the author presents the fictionalized real story of the cousin of Eva Braun who became Hitler's wife at the end of World War II. Young Marlene joins her infamous cousin during the summer of 1944 at Hitler's mountaintop refuge, Berchtesgaden, and comes of age in surprising ways. Bell's translation of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's Where Were You, Robert? (published in the United States as Lost in Time) tells of young Robert, who rubs his eyes and is transported back in time, variously to Russia in the 1950s, Germany (to his own hometown) in the 1930s, Norway in 1860, Alsace in the eighteenth century, and Amsterdam in 1621. She won the 2002 Marsh Award for her translation of another work by Jung, Bambert's Book of Missing Stories. With her translation of Funke's Inkheart, the story of a book whose characters come to frightening life, she made available for American readers a "delectably transfixing fantasy," as a critic for Publishers Weekly noted.

Bell has provided aspiring translators with advice. In her Horn Book article, she explained that translators must have "a good command of English" as well as of the book's original language. "Dictionary knowledge . . . is far from enough." Also, a translator must "keep his or her mind as clear and as neutral as possible." The resulting translation, according to Bell, "should faithfully reflect the author's intentions without ever sounding like a translation, clumsy, or stilted." As Top of the News reported in 1976 when Bell received a Batchelder Award, Bell believes that "ideally translators ought to be entirely invisible. If a reviewer ignores the fact that a book is a translation, one takes it as a compliment, because bad translation will always call forth a comment." According to Bell in the same speech, "a translator is merely middleman or go-between, craftsman or interpreter." That Bell has accomplished this task is perhaps proven by the comments of the award committee for the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator's Prize, who declared she had done the "impossible" with her translation of Sebald's Austerlitz: she had created the illusion that "while we are reading English—real English—we are also reading German."

Disabled Hannes is profoundly influenced by a history assignment and relives in dreams what his countrymen would have done to him had he lived in Germany during the Nazi era. (From Dreaming in Black and White, written by Reinhardt Jung and translated by Bell.)

Biographical and Critical Sources


Atlantic Monthly, November, 2001, Michael Gorra, review of Austerlitz.

Bookbird, February 2, 1985, Anthea Bell, "Translating Humour for Children," pp. 8-13.

Booklist, December 15, 1984, Ilene Cooper, review of The Nightingale, p. 585; October 15, 1986, p. 346; January 1, 1988, p. 787; March 15, 1989, p. 1247; August, 1997, Linda Perkins, review of Rapunzel, p. 1903; October 15, 1997, Julie Corsaro, review of The Five Fingers and the Moon, pp. 415-416; August, 1999, Linda Perkins, review of Cinderella, p. 2066; October 1, 1999, Lauren Peterson, review of Albert & Lila, p. 363; September 15, 2000, John Peters, review of Jack and the Beanstalk, p. 231; December 1, 2000, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Jack and the Beanstalk, p. 692; August, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Asterix and the Actress, p. 2123; April 15, 2002, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Asterix and Son, p. 1400; December 15, 2002, Brendan Driscoll, review of On the Natural History of Destruction, p. 727; May 15, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of Dreaming in Black and White, pp. 1665-1666; February 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of The Princess Knight, p. 974.

Bookseller, February 21, 2003, "Marsh Award Winner," p. 34.

British Medical Journal, April 5, 2003, Fred Charatan, review of On the Natural History of Destruction, p. 769.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 2003, Betsy Hearne, review of Dreaming in Black and White, pp. 19-20.

Entertainment Weekly, November 9, 2001, Troy Patterson, review of Austerlitz, p. 104.

Horn Book, October, 1978, Anthea Bell, "Translating Books for Children," pp. 548-553; May, 2000, review of Anne Frank, p. 337; January-February, 2002, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Hansel and Gretel, p. 88; September-October, 2003, Joanna Rudge Long, review of Dreaming in Black and White, p. 612.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2001, review of Austerlitz, p. 1159; June 15, 2002, review of Eva's Cousin, p. 830; November 1, 2002, review of On the Natural History of Destruction, p. 1599.

Library Journal, August, 1999, Marie Marmo Mullaney, review of The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man's Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45, p. 116; January, 2003, Barbara Walden, review of On the Natural History of Destruction, p. 134.

Los Angeles Times, January 16, 2000, Michael Frank, "No Why Here," review of The Pianist, p. 5.

Nation, March 31, 2003, Hugh Eakin, review of On the Natural History of Destruction, p. 31.

New York Times Book Review, November 5, 1989; November 16, 1997, Maud Lavin, review of Rapunzel, p. 54; September 1, 2002, Alan Riding, review of Eva's Cousin, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly, December 14, 1984, p. 54; October 30, 1987, p. 70; September 9, 1988, review of The Golden Goose, p. 134; April 28, 1997, review of The Brave Little Tailor, p. 75; September 1, 1997, review of The Five Fingers and the Moon, pp. 104-105; October 12, 1998, review of The Six Swans, p. 77; June 28, 1999, review of The Pianist, p. 60; October 18, 1999, review of Peter and the Wolf, p. 82; February 14, 2000, review of Anne Frank, p. 201; February 21, 2000, review of A Tiny Tale, p. 89; September 4, 2000, review of The Deserts of Africa, p. 98; October 9, 2000, review of Jack and the Beanstalk, p. 90; November 13, 2000, review of Lost in Time, p. 105; November 27, 2000, review of Many Happy Returns, p. 78; April 16, 2001, review of Once Upon a Time, p. 67; July 1, 2002, review of Eva's Cousin, p. 51; December 16, 2002, review of On the Natural History of Destruction, p. 58; March 17, 2003, review of Rain, p. 55; July 7, 2003, review of Dreaming in Black and White, p. 73; July 21, 2003, review of Inkheart, p. 196; January 26, 2004, review of The Princess Knight, p. 253.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 2001, Philip Landon, review of Austerlitz, p. 196.

School Library Journal, February, 1985, Jean Bennetts, review of The Little Mermaid, p. 70; November, 1986, Cathy Woodward, review of The Wise Queen, pp. 71-72; March, 1987, Karen Radtke, review of The Old House, p. 139; July, 1997, John Peters, review of Gold at the End of the Rainbow, p. 68, and Connie C. Rockman, review of Brave Little Tailor, p. 83; December, 1998, Barbara Chatton, review of The Six Swans, pp. 102, 104; December, 1999, Donna L. Scanlon, review of Puss in Boots, p. 125; December, 2000, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Lost in Time, p. 143; October, 2001, Barbara Buckley, review of Hansel and Gretel, p. 140; May, 2002, Gay Lynn Van Vleck, review of Sarah's Willow, pp. 125-126; July, 2002, Amy Lilien-Harper, review of The Clown Said No, p. 87; August, 2003, Delia Fritz, review of Dreaming in Black and White, p. 161; October, 2003, Sharon Rawlins, review of The Princess Knight, p. 164.

Times Literary Supplement, August 4, 2000, D. J. Enright, review of Where Were You, Robert?, p. 212.

Top of the News, June, 1976, Anthea Bell, "Translating Children's Books."


Goethe-Institut Chicago, http://www.goethe.de/uk/chi/ wolff02.htm/ (August 26, 2003), "Wolff Translator's Prize 2002."*

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer to Don Berrysmith Biography - Grew up in the Pacific NorthwestAnthea Bell (1936-) Biography - Awards, Honors, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Member, Writings