McFarlane went from Bede Grammar School, Sunderland, to St Catherine's College, Oxford, to read Modern Languages in 1939. His career there was interrupted by war service in the Intelligence Corps, and first-hand experience of the ravaged continent in the wake of the invading Allied armies in 1944-45 contributed much to the deep humanity that was to characterise all his future work. But McFarlane was an all-round man from the start: to his academic distinctions at Oxford was added a Blue for association football, at which he made a number of wartime appearances at centre half for Sunderland. On one occasion he had to mark the England centre forward Tommy Lawton. Asked what that had been like, he gave a reply that was brief but knowing: "Hard - all elbows!"
McFarlane completed his Oxford degree in 1947, and had intended to undertake research on the Austrian novelist Robert Musil and his great novel The Man Without Qualities; but no one in post-war Oxford seemed to have heard of Musil, and he was advised to choose a more promising topic. However, this loss to German studies was to be Scandinavia's gain for, following his first appointment at King's College, Durham, and subsequently at Newcastle University, where he encountered a gifted and energetic circle of young lecturers from Norway and Sweden, including Harald Naess and Ake Leander, his attention was drawn to Norway and Ibsen.
Following publication of Ibsen and the Temper of Norwegian Literature in 1960 McFarlane embarked upon his great edition of Ibsen in English translation, which occupied him for much of the following two decades. It is rare for an edition of an author's works in translation to occupy a place in scholarly esteem alongside (and in some respects even above) editions of those works in the original, but, where the Oxford Ibsen is concerned, this is undoubtedly the case.
Published in eight substantial volumes along with English versions of Ibsen's first drafts and much other material, this remains one of the major achievements of post-war European scholarship in Britain. For the most part the edition is all McFarlane's own work, although he did enlist the assistance of a very few co-translators as well as contributions from Christopher Fry and James Kirkup for the two poetic dramas Peer Gynt and Brand. But if the result is monumental it is also characterised by the deft, subtle and performable language into which McFarlane transposed Ibsen's dialogue, and this English Ibsen has been frequently staged.
The Oxford Ibsen should not obscure McFarlane's many other achievements as a scholar and translator including seminal work on Knut Hamsun and the Norwegian writers of the Modern Breakthrough and the co-editorship (with Malcolm Bradbury), of Penguin's influential Modernism (1976) - another of those pieces of monumental scholarship that seem now to belong to a vanished age. From 1974 to 1991 he was also Editor of Scandinavica, the leading British journal in the field.
But in the meantime he had moved to Norwich where, from 1964, he held the first Chair in European Literature and played a crucial part in establishing the reputation of the new University of East Anglia. As the Founding Dean of one of its major Schools, he was instrumental in defining the significance of European Studies as an academic discipline and his vision was central to the creation of the university's interdisciplinary structure.
He brought together a group of young lecturers who made the (then) new university a truly meaningful centre of excellence, and the fact that so many of the holders of these early appointments went on to head their own departments and hold chairs both in this country and abroad is testimony not only to McFarlane's perspicacity but to the great talent he had for encouraging those about him to fulfil themselves.
For the next two decades McFarlane's skills as an administrator and his foresight as a planner kept him involved at many levels in the development and growth of the UEA. But he was also active in a wider regional role as (variously) a member of Council for the Eastern Arts Association, Chairman of the BBC Regional Advisory Board and of both the Wells Arts Centre and the Hunsworth Crafts Trust, and a director of the Norwich Puppet Theatre. Through him the university thus forged many links with the local community.
When retirement came, taken early and selflessly in 1982 in the interests of his school and university, this meant renewed activity. Together with Janet Garton and (latterly) Michael Robinson, he founded, managed and edited Norvik Press, which over the last 12 years has published some 45 translations from the Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish and books on Scandinavia and its literature, including (with Harald Naess) his own two-volume edition of Hamsun's letters and a collected volume of his essays and introductions on Ibsen.
"Mac", as he was known to all his friends, was a humanist in the fullest sense of the word, and those who had the privilege of working closely with him were as deeply impressed by his warmth and humanity as by his scholarship. And to generations of undergraduate and postgraduate students he was a wise and understanding teacher, whose standards were never less than exacting but whose judgements were tempered with gentle and patient kindness.
He is survived by his wife, the artist Kathleen McFarlane, with whom he lived at Stody in north Norfolk (the one bit of the country that reminded them both of their beloved Northumberland), and their children.
James Walter McFarlane, scholar of European literature: born Sunderland 12 December 1920; Professor of European Literature, University of East Anglia 1964-82 (Emeritus), Founding Dean of European Studies 1964- 68, Public Orator 1964-68, 1974-75, 1978-79, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1968- 71, Professorial Fellow 1982-86; married 1944 Kathleen Crouch (two sons, one daughter); died Stody, Norfolk 9 August 1999.