Excited? Moi? Only hyperventilatingly so! Well, it’s not every day you get to meet the person with more words in my library than anyone else (I have about 30 Anthea Bell translations) talking about the author with more volumes in my library than any other (about 20). What a way to end a festival!
Now my book bag is a legend in the making …. it is, really …. it would have held all 30 Bell translations … but my shoulders aren’t that strong. In the end I settled for a modest dozen to take for signature: All the Pushkin Press titles, so a goodly collection of Zweig, Schnitzler and Hoffman plus my copy of Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart, signed by the author in Edinburgh. The question was would the translator sign them all?
The event had been assigned to the Roberts Burn Library (an honour in Scotland surely) and I was heartened to find that it was busy. It’s not often I’ll take a front row seat but I wanted the best seat in the house for this event. The lady was waiting for us as we took our seats, immersed in her translation of Zweig’s memoir of The World of Yesterday. I was prepared – books for signing, check. Camera charged, check. Notebook and pen ….. notebook and pen ….. scrabbling frantically to bottom of book bag ….. notebook and pen. Nope. Lizzy, you numbskull!
All notes from here on in are from memory, so I listened extra carefully as Bell talked without pause and without a manuscript for 45 minutes.
Bell’s interest in Zweig was triggered when she translated a volume of Freud for Penguin. It sparked a fascination with the period and led her to the works of Stefan Zweig. The World of Yesterday is the most recent of her Zweig translations for Pushkin Press and it’s more memoir than autobiography. In fact she said it’s quite a shock when Zweig mentions his wife on page 300-and-something. In it he captures the prudery of pre-WWI Viennese society – she read the experience of Zweig’s aunt, who on her wedding night returned home to her parents because that horrible man she had married had wanted to take her clothes off! Zweig captures that prudery in his novellas Burning Secret and The Governess. (Latter to be published later this year.) Zweig had a privileged life, he had money and he used it to travel extensively, for education. During his lifetime he was a literary phenomenon – one of the most famous and beloved authors on the planet. He was a gentleman and a Jew by blood but not by practice. This, however, did not protect him and he left Austria for the UK when he fled from the Nazis. The separation led to the breakdown of his first marriage. His exile eventually led him to Brazil where he and his second wife famously committed suicide only 1 week after delivering the manuscript of The World Of Yesterday to his publisher.
Why? No one really knows – there was no suicide note. Bell’s theorises that Zweig knew that his world – the European world of gentlemanly privilege – had disappeared forever. It wasn’t his realisation of the extent of Nazi atrocity against his fellow Jews. That hadn’t come to light in 1942 and that was, she said, a mercy for Zweig.
Her discourse was peppered with literary tangents in which she recommended Salley Vickers’s When Three Roads Meet, in her opinion I (and mine) the best of the Canongate myths series and unsurprisingly, Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters. She was whooping to herself as she read it.
The most important thing is not a literary translation but capturing the voice of the author and ensuring that the English flows naturally – even when the translation involves a 9-page Selbaldian sentence! To finalise the translated text, she always reads through her translation without recourse to the original. Translating living authors is easier – you can always ask them when you get stuck! Zweig often challenges her with his favourite adjective, dumpf which can mean vague, hollow, dull, gloomy, sombre. Which one had he in mind this time? (It’s usually sombre.)
The hour flew by and it was time to haul my book bag to the signing area. I didn’t push to the front – I waited patiently until the queue had died down. . Anthea Bell very patiently signed them all ……
and chatted to me further about German literature in general and other Zweig-related trivia. Here are a few book-signing additional extras:
– she hasn’t (yet) translated her favourite Zweig novella – 24 Hours in the Life of A Woman – but there are plans to do so
– she has been commissioned to translate Julia Franck’s first novel
– she was translating Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart and Rami Schafik The Dark Side of Love at the same time and got the papers mixed-up
– she loves E T A Hoffman
– and, finally, she is incredibly gracious. I just had to ask her what she thought of Michael Hoffmann’s infamous vermicular dithering. (Zweigites will understand.) I promised not to reveal on the blog and I won’t but her answer did her enormous credit.
I came home and, as you do, immediately dived into another Anthea Bell translated Zweig