Anthea Bell (1936-2018): doyenne of German crime translation

The German and French literary worlds lost one of their most talented, versatile and beloved translators last month. Anthea Bell died on 18 October at the age of 82, and the number of obituaries and articles honouring her achievements – from The Guardian to The New York Times – testify to the stature and range of her output.

If you read Asterix in English as a child, as I did, then you had the luck of being introduced to Anthea’s skills early on. Who could ever forget her delightfully inventive translations of assorted villagers’ names – Getafix the potion-cooking druid, Cacofonix the tone-deaf bard, Vitalstatistix the generously proportioned chief, and of course Dogmatix, Asterix’s little sidekick?

And there was pretty much nothing that Anthea couldn’t or didn’t translate, from the luminaries of German literature and thought – Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Stephan Zweig, W. G. Sebald, Julia Franck, Saša Stanišic – to children’s literature – Cornelia Funke and Erich Kästner – to a surprising amount of crime fiction.

German crime novels from my bookshelf, translated by Anthea Bell

Here’s a list of all the crime novels Anthea Bell translated (I think…!)

  • Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015)
  • Kismet (Kayankaya #4) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • Brother Kemal (Kayankaya #5) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • A Crime in the Family (non-fiction) by Sacha Batthyany (Quercus 2017)
  • Silence (Kimmo Joentaa #2) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2011)
  • The Winter of the Lions (Joentaa #3) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2012)
  • Light in a Dark House (Joentaa #4) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2013)
  • The Snowman by Jörg Fauser (Bitter Lemon Press, 2004)
  • Berlin by Pierre Frei (Harper Collins 2005)
  • Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach (Bitter Lemon Press, 2005)
  • Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2013)
  • The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami (Arabia Books, 2010)
  • The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus 2014)
  • The Dark Meadow by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2015)
  • The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin XXX)
  • The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin 2015)
  • The Late Monsieur Gallet (Maigret #2) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2013)
  • Cécile is Dead (Maigret #20) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2015)
  • Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann (Doubleday 2006)

There’s every conceivable type of crime on that list: classic crime, police procedurals, private-eye novels, courtroom dramas, psychological thrillers, comic crime, historical crime and true crime. The novel below is one of my favourites (a German-Finnish hybrid police procedural and psychological crime novel).

The fact that Anthea was such a prolific translator of crime fiction isn’t really mentioned in her obituaries, and that’s a shame. Translating crime fiction requires a very special set of skills – you need an eagle-eye for plot shifts, for nuances of characterization, tone and pace, and for red herrings and clues that depend on precisely calibrated wording. And of course, as one of the bestselling genres, crime fiction reaches a mass audience, making it the perfect vehicle for getting German, Austrian and Swiss literature into the hands of eager crime fiction fans in the English-speaking world … and surreptitiously introducing them to multiple facets of German history, politics and society. Anthea played a huge role in making that kind of cultural exchange happen through the hundreds of the works she translated in her long career.

The loveliest thing is that Anthea was a genuine crime fiction aficionado. I had the good fortune of appearing with her on a Waterstones Piccadilly panel on German crime back in 2015, along with Barry Forshaw (our chair), Charlotte Ryland from New Books in German, and authors Sascha Arango and Bernhard Aichner. Aichner’s novel Woman of the Dead had just been translated by Anthea, and she gleefully recounted how much she had enjoyed translating the main character – the charming yet murderous anti-heroine Brünhilde Blum. Anthea turned out to be very knowledgeable about the early history of German-language crime, and put me onto a new source which I then included in Crime Fiction in German. She also took the time to tell me that she’d read and enjoyed this blog, which I thought was exceedingly generous and kind.

Later, without her knowing it, she became my crime translation mentor, when I was asked to translate a short story from Ferdinand von Schirach’s Strafe / Punishment for a publisher. His works always make copious reference to the German legal system, legal procedure and German law, and Anthea’s prior translation of courtroom drama The Collini Case was a hugely helpful and reassuring guide as I worked to get those details right.

A bit blurry, but here we all are after the 2015 Waterstones Piccadilly event. Anthea is seated in the centre.

Glancing through the list of titles above, I see there are a few I haven’t yet read. I’m intrigued by The Dark Side of Love (set in Syria) and by the sheep detectives of Three Bags Full – and look forward to enjoying Anthea’s talents and skills once more.

There’s a lovely interview with Anthea Bell here, conducted by fellow translator Ruth Martin for New Books in German, to mark Anthea’s 80th birthday.

Tribute posted on Twitter by Anthea Bell’s son Oliver Kamm

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