Anthea Bell is a translator who has won many top awards, and whose work has appeared on many bestseller list, yet many outside of the publishing industry don’t know her name. Most recognizable in the U.S. for her translations of Cornelia Funke’s novels, she recently translated the German book Ruby Red, the first in a time-travel trilogy by Kerstin Gier. Bell spoke with Bookshelf by phone from her home in England.
It feels like most translators languish in obscurity, doing immense amounts of work for little to no credit or appreciation, or even a good wage. You’ve managed to become well-known and won several awards for your work. Do you think the value of good translation or translation as an art form is becoming more visible?
I hope so! On the other hand, I don’t mind. Other translators mind if nobody ever mentions that a book is a translation, but I think if it’s not mentioned the reviewer hasn’t seen anything that’s the matter with it! There was a period where not many foreign books were translated at all, but in recent years I think it’s become more open. Especially in the children’s market – with authors like Cornelia Funke becoming popular in the United States, publishers are more willing to look at foreign children’s books.
How many languages do you speak or read fluently, besides English?
German and French, about equally, but I’m thought of more of as a Germanist these days. Though I’m translating a French novel at the moment. I can translate Danish on the page, though I don’t speak it. Wikipedia credits me with a Polish translation, but I actually translated a Polish book from the German edition at the express request of the author. That’s the only time you would ever translate from a translation!
In an era of monolingualism, how did you manage to become so fluent in multiple languages?
My degree is in English actually, and I had to decide at that date whether to apply for modern languages or English. There was a special English course at Oxford about the development of the language that I wanted to do very much. I had no idea I was going to become a translator, but I just went on and on reading books and meeting French and German people and fell into the career by accident.
By accident? How did you get started?
I was married at 21 and went off to be a secretary like a good little girl. One day somebody said “Anybody know anyone who can read a German book and give us an opinion?” This publisher sent me several books and I read a lot for other people, and eventually I started translating. It was a children’s book – Otfried Preussler’s The Little Water Sprite. It was his first book, it was my first translation, and I translated it with my first baby in a cot beside me. [This translation has just been re-released and made available through print-on-demand.]
Did you imagine this would turn into a career?
No, I had no idea! As a little girl, I always wanted to do something with books, with words, and just by accident I fell into a fascinating job. There’s so much variety in translating!
Could you give us an idea of the process involved in producing the translation of a novel? Do you read the book through in the original language before you begin translation, or begin translating as you read?
Though I know some who do, I will never translate a book without having read it through! I like to do a full rough-draft first, because assuming the author is alive and I can ask him or her questions, I’ve then gathered up everything I want to ask. If the author’s dead of course, you can’t do that! But mostly my authors have been alive and are usually very happy to answer questions. After that, I revise and revise. In the end I read through the finished thing in English only, without referring to the foreign original unless something I read pulls me up. Then I think, “Now what did I mean here, what did the author mean,” and then I go back to the original. In my view, it needs to read as though it had been thought and written in English in the first place.
Approximately how long does it take you to translate a standard-length novel?
It depends on whether there’s research involved. If you translate from German, you get a lot of material to do with the Nazi period and the Holocaust and sometimes you have to do a bit of background research for that. I translated the memoirs of Hitler’s last secretary, one of the books on which the film Downfall was based, and you need to look into the background for that kind of thing. As far as speed, I consider myself quite slow, but everybody else thinks I’m quite fast. I’ve been polishing up about 30 double-spaced A4 pages this morning, but that’s the polishing stage.
Do you tend towards a literal translation style or if not, how do you choose a style for a particular book?
I choose a style for each book as it comes – you’re always looking for the author’s voice. It’s like acting.
How do you work with metaphors, cultural references, puns, jokes, and slang? And do you translate differently for American vs. English-speaking European readers?
Puns and jokes are always challenging. I love them, actually, because they’re difficult. One of the things I like about Kerstin Gier’s trilogy is that it’s funny. I love to translate dialogue. Kerstin and I did discuss with Kate Farrell, the American editor, whether the British characters should keep their terminology, like not a cell phone, but a mobile. We decided that they should, as it feels more authentic. If I say something when I’m translating for the States, I may be asked to explain it. It’s so valuable to be in touch with good editors – I rely on there being an American editor who will put right anything that I’ve not got quite right, and I’m sure it’s the other way around with American translators working for British publishers! I’ve translated three books of a German writer, and bless him, he’s said it’s nice to see German culture translated to English because he was pleased about that, he thought I’d got the cultural background right as well as simply translating the words. You don’t want to lose the foreign feel of a book entirely, but for me the prime requisite is to get it sounding good in English. If it sounds clumsy, readers will pounce on it of course.
How closely do you work with the author on a translation?
It depends how interested the author is. Some are very interested, some are just ready to answer questions. The late W.G. Sebald, for whom I translated Austerlitz, had lived in England for 30 years but still preferred to write in German; he took an intense interest in his translations, and we worked closely together on two of his books.
In addition to your fiction work, you’ve translated many nonfiction works, including books on art history and musicology and even works by Freud. Do you find one genre (fiction vs. nonfiction) harder or more enjoyable than the other?
The musicology and art history are quite relaxing actually. I love music, and I have enjoyed translating musicology very much. With Freud, I was terrified at first when I was asked to do one of his books in the new Penguin series of all his works. But I found I liked Freud much better at the end of that book than before, and I had really enjoyed it – it changed my view of Freud. I’m about to do a new translation of his first case history, Fragment of a Study in Hysteria for Oxford University Press, and I’m really looking forward to embarking on that. I translated Kafka’s The Castle for Oxford recently.
You’ve translated both adult and young adult fiction, but seem more drawn to young adult...
I am, yes. I’ve got twin granddaughters – they’re not far off the young adult readership and I’m looking forward to when they get there!
Are there differences in the work required?
I don’t approach them any differently, it’s finding the voice from each book. I do think you should never, ever write down to children, let alone translate down to them.
How has technology and the Internet influenced or helped your work?
Speeded it up! I couldn’t get the amount done that I do without modern technology. For example, if you’ve got the name in a foreign language of a bird or animal and the dictionary doesn’t give it to you in English, you can look it up on Google in its own language and find the scientific Latin name and track it down in English.
What have been some of your favorite books to work on?
All of them! It was a privilege to work on Austerlitz – I loved it. Of older books, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s last novel, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. As a matter of fact, I have just done last year the full Hoffmann Nutcracker story, which is almost never translated and published in full, only in shortened picture book versions. I love Hoffmann. And I enjoyed Cornelia Funke enormously. I’m enjoying Kerstin Gier a great deal – she is so lively and funny and on purpose over the top.
Do you ever look back on your work later and think of things you might have done differently?
Oh, everything – you can always tweak. You can go on and on tweaking, and in the end you’ve got to let it out of your hands. And then of course the editor is going to tweak, and then you’ll discuss it all.
You have won more Milded L. Batchelder awards (four awards and three honors) than anyone else in the history of the award. What are your thoughts about this award and would you like to see more prizes given for translation?
I think the Batchelder Award is a wonderful institution, and I’m very, very pleased indeed with the honors that I have won. In England, there’s the Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation that’s given every other year, and that was set up to emulate the Batchelder Award. I don’t think we get as many entries as you do in the States for the Batchelder Award, but we are a smaller country. These days the situation is slightly brighter, and continues to improve, with the prize now given biennially and a greater number of books being submitted for each successive award.
What are you working on now?
I am translating a trilogy by fantasy writer Kai Meyer for HarperCollins, and I’m immersed in Kerstin Gier at the moment and enjoying the final volume in her trilogy.
You’re much further ahead than the rest of the English-reading world with what’s happening in that story!
Oh, yes! The second book [Sapphire Blue] went through the copyediting process quite recently, so they’ve read it in the editorial office. The editor will be making a few tweaks in that, and then in due course I’ll get the proof stage. I’m finishing off the translation of the third in the trilogy, which brings everything to a very satisfying conclusion.
Was there anything in particular that struck you as interesting about translating this series?
Yes, it’s the fun of catching the comedy of it. And there’s some very nice characters coming along in the second book. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say there is a gargoyle who has fine arguments with James the Ghost, the ghost who never believes he’s dead, poor chap!
Ruby Red is a fast-paced story with a bit of a cliffhanger ending. Do you let yourself become engrossed in the story as a reader?
I do! Kerstin is really a born storyteller, and I was at the edge of a cliff at the end of volume one, and even worse at the end of volume two! When volume three [Emerald Green] finally arrived at Christmas time I could hardly wait to get into it and see how it was all going to work out. Our friend Gwyneth has a lot of adventures and joys and sadness ahead of her.
What has it been like to be involved with Kerstin’s world for so long?
It’s been enormous fun! I’ve really enjoyed it. In some books you’re sorry when you get to the end, and when I get to the end of volume three I think I shall feel quite deprived of the company of those characters.
Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, translated by Anthea Bell. Henry Holt, $16.99 May ISBN 978-0-8050-9252-3