Anthea Bell – Illusionist par excellence and PUNdit extraordinaire

Gautham Shenoy October 20, 2018 6 min

“…in any debate between visible and invisible translation I am an unrepentant, unreconstructed adherent of the school of invisible translation,” writes Anthea Bell in her essay Translation as Illusion (The Translator as Writer, ed by Susan Bassnett & Peter Bush). She writes, “…I have called these remarks ‘Translation as Illusion’ because, all my professional life, I have felt that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion: the illusion is that the reader is reading not a translation but the real thing”.

It was this belief and passion – of making readers believe they were reading the real thing and not translation – that paradoxically rendered her not invisible. For Anthea Bell was a rarity in the world of literature. A celebrity – translator or otherwise – and considered by many to be a writer in her own right not just for her brilliant translations but also, in many cases in Asterix for instance, making the source text do more in the translation than in the original. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation describes her work on Asterix as ingenious and superbly recreated, displaying “the art of the translator at its best”.

Anthea Bell with a copy of Asterix and the Picts – the 35th and last book in the series she translated. (Photograph Felix Clay for the Guardian. Via: The Guardian)

Born in 1936, Anthea Bell’s father – from whom she said she picked up her aptitude for wordplay and lateral thinking – was Adrian Bell, the first setter of the Times Cryptic Crossword. Her tryst with translation happened by pure chance, when the children’s publisher Klaus Flugge asked Bell’s husband, Antony Kamm if he there was someone he knew who could translate Otfried Preussler’s The Little Water Sprite from the German. Needless to say, Kamm recommended Anthea Bell, and the rest, as they say, is history. Over the course of her long career, Bell would go on to translate classics of literature from across the spectrum, from Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and W.G. Sebald (most notably, Austerlitz) to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy, and in the process win a clutch of prestigious literary awards, be given Germany’s Cross of Merit, and in 2010 appointed OBE for her service to literature.

Cornelia Funke’s bestselling Inkheart trilogy, translated into English by Anthea Bell

But it was to be with René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s Adventures of Asterix that Anthea Bell would truly bring to the fore not just her translation skills but her depth of knowledge and wordplay skills, endear herself to the world and render herself immortal in the annals of literature. Beginning in 1969, working as the main translator of Asterix, Anthea Bell – along with the university lecturer and French expert Derek Hockridge – would bring the Asterix comics series to the English-reading world, translating 35 of the books into English with the final one being Asterix and the Picts.

‘Fluctuat nec mergitur’ because technically it didn’t sink: A selection of just some of Anthea Bell’s finest translations and wordplays in the Asterix series.

Says Udhay Shankar, consultant, Co-Founder of The Goa Project and Asterix fan, “The key aspects of the translator’s art is to retain the soul of the work being translated, not necessarily providing a literal translation. It is this that Anthea Bell excelled in. The jokes in the English editions of Asterix, especially the names, which are some of the best jokes in the series, are not literal translations, but retain the soul of the original work.” And so it was, that – at the hands of Anthea Bell – Asterix’s dog Idéfix would become Dogmatix, the bard Assurancetourix would become Cacofonix, Agecanonix become Geriatrix and – in quite possibly the best one-word translation in the history of literature – the druid Panoramix would become Getafix, making many wonder about the exact nature of the magic potion.

If god lives in the details, god must’ve laughed at the care and attention Anthea Bell gave while naming even the most minor of characters. Be it with the gauls such as a postman called Postaldistrix (Pneumatix in the original), or the Roman senators Veriambitious and Infirmofpurpus, or the legionaries, Sendervictorius and Appianglorius. The beauty of Bell’s puns is that the more you know, the more you catch the finer details. Perhaps the best example of this comes in Asterix and the Legionary, where the real name of the spy – codename: H2SO4 – is Vitriolix (vitriol being a word used for sulphuric acid whose molecular formula is, if course, H2SO4). The more detailed and difficult it was, the more welcome it was.

A few of the non-Asterix books that Anthea Bell translated.

One practice that Anthea Bell followed – unlike many other translators – is that she would agree to translate a book (or not) only after reading the text in question. Because as she said, “I want to feel sure that I consider it good of its kind.” Be it Kafka, Asterix or Sebald’s books, one cannot deny that they are the good examples of their kind, and Anthea Bell made them better. As she writes in the aforementioned essay, “…the role of the translated text is to expand the experience, broaden the mind, and obviously to give access to literature that one could not otherwise read.”

Says horror writer and comics fan, Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy, “From Asterix to Austerlitz, some of my favourite books spoke to me through Anthea Bell. Translators are usually invisible to the reader, but while being inducted into the gentle art of puns as a child, it was obvious that I owed as much to Ms. Bell as I did to René Goscinny. Later in life, I was thrilled to read Austerlitz and the other peripatetic, melancholy works by W.G. Sebald, though the intervention of Ms. Bell. She has been as much as part of my reading life as any writer and I know there’s a special place for her in literary Valhalla, setting off on a walking tour, perhaps, arm in arm with Goscinny and Sebald, coining witticisms in four languages.” The four languages being English, German, French and Danish, the last of which she taught herself over a single Christmas.


“He’s just serving a half-pint of mild & bitter’: From Asterix in Switzerland, amongst the best examples of a joke set-up

Anthea Bell’s lasting legacy is not just the scores of books she so ably translated to the great enjoyment of readers everywhere, but the many thousands of people across the world – this writer included – who trace their lifelong love of wordplay and puns to their reading of the English editions Asterix comics.

“Anthea Bell had a mastery of wordplay matched by few writers of this, or any other, age. The second page of Asterix in Switzerland, which ends with the line ‘He’s just serving a half-pint of mild & bitter’ is, in my mind, the textbook example of a joke setup” says Santosh Swaminathan, humour writing aficionado and Quizmaster of ‘Sense a Femur’, The Karnataka Quiz Association’s humour quiz. “The phrase ‘make God laugh’ is often used in farewells to comedians who have passed away. Right now, I bet God is groaning at some truly spectacular puns.”

If you’ve read Anthea Bell, you know that’s a safe bet to make.


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