Now read it in English

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Anthea Bell winner of a new award for translation, talks to Deborah Maby. As a child in the Forties, Anthea Bell remembers reading Heidi in its English translation. It never occurred to her that it wasn't actually written in English. "It was a story about a little girl, who was a country girl, as I was, though she lived in the Alps, of course. But the only thing that mattered was that it was fascinating."

For Bell and her generation, Heidi was as familiar as Christopher Robin. But it is a strange irony that in these days of the blurring of national identities, when you can watch Fawlty Towers in Portugal and buy chocolate digestive biscuits in Berlin, fewer and fewer foreign books for children are available in an English translation.

One cannot fail, therefore, to raise one's glass of Belgian beer in happy salutation at news of a new literary prize - the Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation, presented to Anthea Bell this week for her translation from German of Christine Nostlinger's fantastical comedy A Dog's Life.

That Bell should have translated a book whose central character is a dog is a further irony, for she lives surrounded by cats, in a small, comfortable house just outside Cambridge. But then, as she points out, one of the kindest actions of Nostlinger's splendidly altruistic beast is to foster 30 kittens in their hour of need.

The woman who has just co-translated the latest Asterix title for Hodder - she works in French too - became a translator almost by accident. "I read English at university but at Oxford you can concentrate on the language side. All the English grammars were still written in German at the time so I kept up my languages anyway. The moment I came down I got married and my then husband was working at the National Book League and somebody said, 'Is there anybody who could give me an opinion on a German book?' and he said 'I expect my wife could,' and that was that."

The bulk of her work then was in the field of children's books. "In the Sixties there was a lot of foreign literature for children being translated. At one point the University of London Press had a whole list devoted to nothing but prize-winning foreign children's books, which is not something you would find easily today.

"There's been an upsurge in the adult market; the Independent fiction prize has had quite a bit to do with it, and then there's the big boom in Latin American magical realism, but less and less is anybody willing to consider a children's book from another language."

Bell has translated about a dozen of Nostlinger's books, and has her Public Lending Rights statements to prove that they are read by British children. She enjoys the author's quiet, deadpan irony, particularly present in A Dog's Life.

"Nostlinger has two very different but related styles," Bell says. "For younger children she writes books with an element of fantasy, and then she has an older age-range. She reminds me immensely of E Nesbit with the two levels, and the same social concerns. And you can see that Nostlinger, like Nesbit, has not forgotten what it's like to be a child."

The decline in children's translation in this country began in the 1970s and has now truly set in. The small amount Bell does of it these days is for United States publishers. In Europe, of course, the position is vastly different, with a wealth of books written in English being published in translation.

"I know one reason given for so much being translated from English and so little being translated into English is that English is the classic language of children's literature, Alice in Wonderland is known everywhere and so forth, " Bell says. "None the less, there are classics in other languages. I have more [translating] to do now than ever. But very little of it is for children, alas. I particularly like translating for children because you feel you're giving them something they would never otherwise have had."

The success of the Asterix series, which Bell describes as "the free-est translation I've ever done" has proved that the readers of children's books in this country are less xenophobic than publishers would have us believe.

The series, which first appeared in France in 1969, was turned down by many publishers in this country who believed it could not cross the Channel. Bell believes the explanation for its eventual success is "one of the great storylines of all time, which is 'clever little fellow outwits great big brute'."

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