Helen Zimmern was born in Hamburg, Germany, the eldest of three daughters of Hermann Theodore Zimmern, a German Jewish merchant, and his wife Antonia Maria Therese. Her youngest sister Alice Zimmern also became a writer. When Helen was about four years old, the family emigrated to England, settling in Nottingham. She made her debut in print with a story for Once a Week, and soon was contributing stories to Argosy and other leading magazines. A collection of her children's stories, first published 1869-1871 in Good Words for the Young, was published as Stories in Precious Stones (1873) and Told by the Waves (1874). She also collaborated with Alice on two volumes of translated selections from European novels, published in 1880 and 1884. The real work of her career was commentary, translation, and advocacy for European literature and art. Through her works, she introduced many English speakers to European writers, artists, and culture previously unknown to them. She wrote reviews and articles for the Examiner, Fraser's Magazine, Blackwood's Magazine, the Athenaeum, the Spectator, St. James's, Pall Mall Magazine, the World of Art, the Italian Rassegna Settimanale, and various German papers. She lectured on Italian art in Britain and Germany, and translated Italian drama, fiction, and history. She also wrote biographies of Arthur Schopenhauer, G.E. (Gotthold Ephraim) Lessing, and Maria Edgeworth. She befriended Friedrich Nietzsche, two of whose books she would later translate, in the mid-1880s. By the end of that decade she had settled in Florence, Italy, where she wrote for the Milanese newspaper Corriere della Sera and also edited the Florence Gazette.