‘Brilliant, black, moving’ – a word from the translator with Anthea Bell

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. First in the series is Anthea Bell, whose translation of Julia Franck’s novel Back to Back won an award in 2013

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What’s the matter? Don’t stand around like that, get undressed. Käthe turned her back to her adolescent son, cigarette in one hand, holding her chisel against the rotating whetstone with the other. She called through the noise, in her powerful voice: If you’re cold do some knee-bends. He could hardly hear her, and only guessed what she was saying. The screech of the chisel against the whetstone raised gooseflesh on Thomas’s arms and legs. It was a noise that seemed to flay him.

-Excerpt from Back to Back by Julia Franck, translated from German by Anthea Bell

Interview by Grace Hetherington

This novel has been billed as ‘not for the faint hearted’, with shocking scenes of abuse. How did you come across the book and how did you become its translator?

 I came to know Julia Franck, and her work, through her earlier novel Die Mittagsfrau, given a new title in English, The Blind Side of the Heart – a quotation from G.K. Chesterton’s long poem about King Alfred. The ‘mid-day lady’ of the German original refers to a character in Slav folklore from the area of former East Germany bordering on Poland where Julia was brought up. It’s a wonderful novel, and like Back to Back derives partly from her family history. Its central character abandons her small son on a railway station just after the Second World War. That actually happened to Julia’s own father as a little boy, and she set out to discover how a woman with whom we sympathize – and it is hard not to sympathize with Helene in the novel – brings herself to do such a thing. The novel won the 2007 German Book Prize, and I loved it when I read it, so I was delighted to be asked to translate it.

I was then invited to Straelen in North Rhine/Westphalia, near the Dutch border, where Germany has its European Translators’ Collegium. It organises events where an author meets and talks to his or her foreign translators, over a period of several days. These are excellent and very enjoyable occasions; I think there were about sixteen of us all at different stages of the translation of Julia’s novel. Several other translators couldn’t come. I myself had raced through a first draft so as to collect up all my questions and ask them at the time, but others arose later, and Julia kindly answered anything I asked her by email. I’m glad to say the book was well received in translation on both sides of the Atlantic.

 The material for the novel is based in part on the life of Franck’s grandmother, Ingeborg Hunzinger. How closely did you work with Franck when translating Back to Back? Did you feel it necessary to get to know her in order to translate her family’s story?

After exploring the theme of her father, whom she felt that as an adolescent she hardly knew before his early death, in The Blind Side of the Heart, Julia does indeed draw on incidents and characters on the other side of her family in Back to Back. I’ve partly answered this question above, I think – after those days in Straelen, and correspondence after the symposium there, I was able to feel I was translating the work of someone familiar. To my mind it’s always useful to be in touch with an author. And if you’re translating the work of someone dead, conversely, it is really annoying to be unable to ask questions. In Julia’s case, anyway, it was a real pleasure to get to know her.

You’ve translated a lot of children’s fiction and comic books, notably the Asterix series. Do you deliberately try to vary the type of writing you translate? 

The work that comes my way, I think, depends on the luck of the draw – but I do like variety, and you certainly get that in the field of translation. Here, by the way, is one of those odd little coincidences that come up in life: the first books I ever translated were children’s books by Otfried Preussler, who died only last year, and when I met Julia it turned out that Preussler’s books had been childhood favourites of hers. His finest book, Krabat (the hero’s name), draws on folklore themes from the same area of former East Germany as Julia’s potentially sinister ‘mid-day lady’, and is the story of a miller’s pact with the devil.

Asterix, of course, has been great fun to translate, but I would hate to have to specialise to the extent of a Finnish translator of his adventures whom I once met. All her work, she told me, was the translation of strip cartoons.

Back to Back depicts the harsh reality of the German Democratic Republic. What kind of research did you do before and during the translation of the book? Do you see translation as a learning process?

Anyone who translates from German inevitably collects a really depressing bookshelf full of World War II and Holocaust material, as well as the post-war history of West and East Germany, so I guess I had done my research already. But yes, I do see translation as a learning process, and I have been struck recently by the excellence of many writers who come, like Julia, from former East Germany. When I translated Willy Brandt’s last book of memoirs, its first edition was published in Germany in midsummer 1989. He said then that yes, the Berlin Wall would come down, ‘but not in my time’. He was very ill, but he had to write a new chapter in a hurry for the next German imprint later in 1989 – and then, as the rest of the communist bloc followed the East German example in a domino effect, yet another for the English translation that had just gone into production. Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist, comments in his The Better Angels of our Nature on the striking non-violence of those events, when bloodshed might have been predicted. Just possibly, perhaps, another learning process?

Describe Back to Back in three words.

Brilliant, black, moving.


anthea_bellAnthea Bell was born in Suffolk and educated at Somerville College, Oxford. She has been a translator from French and German for many years. Her translations include works of non-fiction, literary and popular fiction, and many children’s books, including from the German a number of works by classic authors, and from the French (with Derek Hockridge) the entire Astérix le Gaulois series by Goscinny and Uderzo. She has received a number of prizes and awards, and has served on the committee of the Translators Association and the jury panel of the Schlegel-Tieck German translation prize. She now lives in Cambridge.

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