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

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