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

Arts & Entertainment
Ricky Gervais at a screening of 'Muppets Most Wanted' in London last month
tvAs the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian on why he'll never bow to critics who habitually circle his work
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
News
news
Life & Style
Going down: Google's ambition to build an elevator into space isn't likely to be fulfilled any time soon
techTechnology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
David Cameron sings a hymn during the enthronement service of The Most Rev Justin Welby as Archbishop of Canterbury, at Canterbury Cathedral last year
news
Life & Style
From long to Jong: Guy Pewsey outside Mo Nabbach’s M&M Hair Academy in west London before the haircut
fashionThe Independent heads to an Ealing hairdressers to try out the North Korean dictator's trademark do
Sport
Vito Mannone fails to keep out Samir Nasri's late strike
sportMan City 2 Sunderland 2: Keeper flaps at Nasri's late leveller, but Black Cat striker's two goals in 10 minutes had already done damage
Extras
indybest10 best smartphones
News
peopleRyan Gosling says yes, science says no. Take the A-list facial hair challenge
Arts & Entertainment
tvCreator Vince Gilligan sheds light on alternate endings
News
Paul Weller, aka the Modfather, performing at last year’s Isle of Wight Festival in Newport
people
Arts & Entertainment
Play It Forward: the DC Record Fair in Washington, US
musicIndependent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads on Record Store Day
Sport
video
News
Supermarkets are running out of Easter Eggs
Deals make eggs cheaper than normal chocolate
Life & Style
Wasp factory: 1.3 million examples of the Vespa scooter have been sold in the last decade
motoringIconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Senior Infrastructure Consultant

£50000 - £65000 Per Annum potentially flexible for the right candidate: Clearw...

Public Sector Audit - Bristol

£38000 per annum + Benefits: Pro-Recruitment Group: Do you have experience of ...

Day In a Page

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
10 best smartphones

10 best smartphones

With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
The pain of IVF

The pain of IVF

As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal
Supersize art

Is big better? Britain's latest super-sized art

The Kelpies are the latest addition to a growing army of giant sculptures. But naysayers are asking what a pair of gigantic horse heads tells us about Falkirk?
James Dean: Back on the big screen

James Dean: Back on the big screen

As 'Rebel without a Cause' is re-released, Geoffrey Macnab reveals how its star perfected his moody act