Found in translation: My mother’s role in Jewish culture

The translator Anthea Bell died last week. Her son, Oliver Kamm pays tribute


Stefan Zweig, then among the most popular novelists in Europe, fled his native Austria in 1934. Eight years later, in exile in Brazil, he and his wife Lotte took poison. In a suicide note, Zweig reflected that with the rise of Nazism “the world of my own language sank and was lost to me and my spiritual homeland, Europe, destroyed itself”.

Zweig’s works have never lost popularity in many of the 40 languages in which they were translated in the author’s lifetime but his reputation in Britain and America fell into abeyance until recently. New translations by Anthea Bell of Zweig’s spare and haunting prose have reintroduced a giant of German-language literature, and an exemplar of the learning and ethical humanism of Central European Jewry, to readers in the English-speaking world.

Bell was not Jewish, and (though she admired the country’s pluralistic ethos) she never visited Israel. Yet she occupies a significant place in Jewish literature. The reason is simply that she was one of the great translators of the 20th and 21st centuries.

She died last week at the age of 82 after a long illness. She was my mother.

A bit like George Eliot, an author she revered, my mother was a philo-Semite who contributed to public understanding of modern Jewish culture and history. It falls to me, a lay admirer, to explain the importance of her work on Jewish themes and much else.

Newspaper obituaries have stressed Bell’s work, celebrated by readers of all ages, in transforming the Asterix books replete with esoteric classical allusions and French wordplay into small masterworks of English comic fiction. The shrewd Gaulish warrior Asterix, with his inseparable friend Obelix, falls recognisably into the tradition of Jeeves and his “mentally negligible” young master Bertie Wooster. Perhaps less well-known is that Rene Goscinny, the co-creator (with the artist Albert Uderzo) of the indomitable Gauls, was part of the Jewish diaspora. Born in Paris in 1926, he was the son of Ukrainian and Polish Jewish immigrants. By emigrating to Argentina in the late 1920s, the family avoided the catastrophe of the Vichy regime under Nazi occupation.

Look closely at the Asterix volumes and you will find invocations of Jewish tradition. The village banquet that concludes every adventure recalls the yearly feast of the shtetl. You’ll also see subtle indicators of the delusions of ethnocentrism. In Asterix and the Normans, Obelix discloses with much guffawing that the invaders from Scandinavia have “got ever such funny names”, all ending with the suffix -af. Vitalstatistix, the Gaulish chieftain, hollers: “Ha, ha, ha! Did you hear that, Getafix, Cacofonix, Operatix, Acoustix, Polyfonix, Harmonix?” General hilarity ensues.

More obviously “literary” works in Bell’s oeuvre include translations of Kafka, Freud and WG Sebald. It’s a matter of scholarly debate to what extent Kafka, among the greatest novelists of the 20th century, anticipated the Holocaust in his writings even though he died in 1924. On my reading, he was prescient in conveying that a lunatic’s perceptions are the true logic in the world.

Bell’s translation of Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, published in 2001, was her greatest achievement. The book dramatised the fate of Jewish children who travelled on the Kindertransport from 1938-40. It won the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize, and many others. It is unforgettable in its depiction of the plight of Jewish refugees in Central Europe who had thought of themselves as assimilated yet who “in what they probably knew was the false hope of keeping their heads above water in a foreign country … went from door to door as itinerant pedlars, offering for sale hairpins and slides, pencils and writing paper, ties and other items of haberdashery, just as their ancestors had once walked the countryside of Galicia, Hungary and the Tyrol with packs on their backs”.

And then there’s Zweig. His finest work is the novel Beware of Pity (1939), depicting the unintended emotional exploitation of a young disabled woman by a cavalry officer, set amid the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It’s a magnificent achievement, described by the historian Antony Beevor as “the most exciting book I have ever read”. As a young man, Zweig was close to Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, yet he eventually lost faith even in so humane a variant of nationalism as the cause of Jewish statehood. His reputation languished unjustly for decades and is now being restored.

The world becomes a strange place when a parent departs it. The bonds we retain with those we love make permanent separation bearable. I have at least the literary legacy, in the books she translated, of my mother’s work. The tragedy, survival and flowering of Jewish culture through the darkest period of modern history will be illuminated by them for generations to come.


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