David Luke

Oxford German don and translator of Goethe, Kleist, Thomas Mann and the Brothers Grimm


Frederic Davey ("David") Luke, German scholar and translator: born Clevedon, Somerset 13 July 1921; Lecturer, Manchester University 1947-59; Lecturer in German, Christ Church, Oxford 1959-60, Student and Tutor in German 1960-88 (Emeritus); died Oxford 5 December 2005.

David Luke was internationally known for his fluent and sensitive English translations of Goethe, Kleist, Thomas Mann and the Brothers Grimm. His version of both parts of Goethe's Faust imitates the varied verse-forms of the original with considerable skill and will be difficult, if not impossible, to surpass. For nearly three decades, too, until his retirement in 1988, Luke was Student and Tutor in German at Christ Church, Oxford.

He was born Frederic Davey Luke in 1921 (but known as Derek by his family and David by everyone else), the son of a doctor who died young, leaving him to be brought up by his indulgent mother and an older sister. An older brother committed suicide at the age of 17, when David was still only a boy. From prep school in Melrose, he went to Sedbergh School and, in 1941, up to Christ Church, Oxford, as a scholar. He graduated with a First in 1944, and his DPhil applied the insights of psychology to the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. This was completed in 1947 and he was immediately offered a lectureship at Manchester.

That this lectureship was in German rather than French, ostensibly the more logical path for him to have taken, seems to have been pure chance. He was to be interviewed in Manchester by both departments; German was scheduled first and they wanted a decision on their offer before French had a chance to poach him. He became something of a legend in Manchester. It was said that he hardly needed to give friends his address, since all they had to do was listen out for Wagner's Ring played at full blast and trace it to its source in his flat - the largest speakers money could buy. Music, Wagner and Mozart especially, were of central importance throughout Luke's life and his respect for practical musicians was boundless.

Christ Church occupied a strong place in Luke's affections, and he returned to Oxford in 1959 as Lecturer in German, becoming an Official Student in June 1960 until his retirement in 1988. It was his contemporary and colleague Alban Krailsheimer, the Tutor in French, who had pressed hardest for his appointment. Their relationship was often tense and turbulent, Krailsheimer having little sympathy for Luke's eccentricities, but they were profoundly respectful of each other's intellectual gifts. Luke always acknowledged gratefully his colleague's decisive support.

Luke's large reputation was as a translator. His 1964 edition for Penguin Poets of Goethe's selected poetry with prose translations is still in print, still the set text for the study of Goethe's poetry in Oxford. His 1997 translation of Mozart's Journey to Prague by Eduard Mörike is due for reissue early in 2006. During the more than 40 years that separate these two publications he produced the definitive English versions of the Grimms' fairy tales, Novellen by Adalbert Stifter, the stories of Heinrich von Kleist and a selection of short prose fiction by Thomas Mann, including Death in Venice. He revisited Goethe often, translating selected poetry into English verse, all of the Roman Elegies and both parts of Faust. Part I won the European Poetry Translation Prize in 1989.

His verse translations all render into English not only the sense of the original with meticulous accuracy but make as close an approximation as is possible to the verse forms of the German, of which there are a huge range, even within Faust. All are remarkable achievements; the very best of them succeed magnificently in conveying the great beauty of the German language in the hands of the finest writers. For decades, reviewer after reviewer (including poets such as Stephen Spender and D.J. Enright), praised David Luke's acutely sensitive ear and his tremendous linguistic dexterity. In 2000 the German-British Forum presented him with a medal in honour of his contribution to cultural understanding between the two nations.

The introductions to his translations are themselves masterpieces of criticism. Alongside a small number of carefully crafted journal articles (amongst which is one of the cornerstones of 20th-century Kafka criticism), they constitute a fine academic legacy. His views were sometimes controversial, and he sometimes engaged in polemical debate with Oxford colleagues - most memorably on the combination of the hymnic and the censorious in Death in Venice - but his published work is always judicious and stimulating.

As a teacher, Luke was formidable but also inspirational. He was fluent or competent in most of the main European languages and his enthusiasm for literature of all periods was infectious. He was very effective, too: four of his final cohort of seven students took Firsts. For the German Sub-Faculty, he and Ray Ockenden were a memorable double act, lecturing on Goethe's Werther, and Luke displayed something approaching star quality. His usual scholarship and learning were supplemented by an unexpectedly lively, quirky wit and an ability to play effectively to what was always a packed house.

College tutorials rarely stuck to the matter prescribed for the weekly essay: an image in a text for translation might prompt the recitation - from memory and in the original language - of a cognate passage of Racine, or the quotation of a few dozen lines of Virgil. His very occasional failure to remember the passage precisely meant that he would fill in the gaps with some French, German or Latin of his own, tailored to scan perfectly. A near-photographic memory enabled him to read back considerable chunks of a student's essay without the paper in front of him. It was hard to say which was more disconcerting for the undergraduate - the realisation that the tutor could give chapter and verse for one's every slip and imprecision, or the returned essay itself, decorated with smears of breakfast jam, muddy paw-prints or canine drool.

Luke's prodigious memory barely declined: sprung from hospital some six weeks before his death, and comforted by lunch in his favourite Indian restaurant, he was able to entertain effortlessly with extended quotations from a novel by Evelyn Waugh that he certainly had not read for two decades or more.

David Luke was notorious both for his incapacity with machines - regularly jamming the college photocopier and writing enraged notes to the admin staff about the machine's deficiencies - and for the fascination that gadgets and technology held for him. Computers, dictaphones, mobile phones and fax machines were regularly upgraded, even when their complexity far outstripped his comprehension and led to rage and frustration.

He had a similarly tortured relationship with food. He was an excellent and adventurous cook, but worried obsessively about the preparation of food, cross-checking each recipe by ringing a handful of friends, at home or abroad. Eventually he ceased to cook even the simplest of dishes because variations in the ingredients or the equipment made the outcome intolerably unpredictable. He loved to dine out with friends, and was usually the host, but poor senses of smell and taste made much of what he looked forward to eating fairly bland. Mounds of salt helped (food, he often observed, was in any case merely an excuse to facilitate the consumption of salt), as did fiery curries; texture was important, but temperature was crucial.

If he was invited to lunch, his arrival was invariably preceded by a series of short calls made over several days: he wanted roast potatoes, with crispy edges, lamb cooked pink, piping hot gravy ("but why piping? I want it hot, not singing"), and ham was banned absolutely.

In raconteur mode, he could be wickedly funny. He was close friends with Iris Murdoch and W.H. Auden, and had a store of extremely amusing stories about the literary scene. He had got to know Auden during his time as Professor of Poetry, and was instrumental in persuading the Christ Church Governing Body to give Auden accommodation when he returned from America in 1972. There was much more to their friendship than the fact that they were both gay: Luke's professional focus, German literature, was one of Auden's abiding loves, and Luke was a connoisseur of Auden's poetry, especially appreciative of the poet's huge technical facility with language and the forms of verse.

Many will remember David Luke for his eccentricities, which were legion, for his extreme devotion to his pets, first cats, later dogs, or for his obsessive behaviour. He could be abrupt, thoughtless and very rude when frustrated by an individual's or the world's failure to live up to his expectations. But many more will recall how kind and generous he could be, especially towards keen students, male and female, with genuine intellectual curiosity.

Asked why he had tolerated Luke's awkwardness for so long, Alban Krailsheimer replied, "We'd have divorced long ago if it hadn't been for the children." David Luke had no children, of course, but he is survived by a large and grateful intellectual family.

Robert Vilain

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Joe Cocker performing on the Stravinski hall stage during the Montreux Jazz Festival, in Montreux, Switzerland in 2002
musicHe 'turned my song into an anthem', says former Beatle
News
Clarke Carlisle
sport
Sport
footballStoke City vs Chelsea match report
Arts and Entertainment
David Hasselhof in Peter Pan
theatreThe US stars who've taken to UK panto, from Hasselhoff to Hall
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
News
newsIt was due to be auctioned off for charity
News
Coca-Cola has become one of the largest companies in the world to push staff towards switching off their voicemails, in a move intended to streamline operations and boost productivity
peopleCoca-Cola staff urged to switch it off to boost productivity
Environment
Sir David Attenborough
environment... as well as a plant and a spider
Voices
'That's the legal bit done. Now on to the ceremony!'
voicesThe fight for marriage equality isn't over yet, says Siobhan Fenton
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'