David McLintock

German scholar who retired from university life at 51 to be a translator
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The Independent Online

David Robert McLintock, German scholar and translator: born Barnsley, Yorkshire 17 November 1930; Reader in German, Royal Holloway College, London 1967-82; married (one daughter); died London 16 October 2003.

At the height of a distinguished career in university teaching, first in Oxford, then in London, David McLintock, translator and scholar in German studies, availed himself of an opportunity afforded by the Thatcherite squeeze on university funding to take early retirement in 1982 and seek fresh challenges.

After a short-lived venture running a small employment agency, he set himself up as a freelance translator. For a time he even worked in the Civil Service, in the Department of the Environment, translating EU documentation. Dull as this sounds, he enjoyed the companionship of working in an office, for the life of a translator can be very lonely. Eventually, however, he returned to his true love: literary translation. His greatest achievement in this field was to acquaint the English-speaking world with the work of the virtuoso but controversial Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard.

His translation of Beton appeared as Concrete with Dent in 1984, but when copyright in this passed to Alfred A. Knopf (New York) a long and fruitful collaboration with American publishing houses began. By 1995 he had published a remarkable series of elegant and sensitive translations of Bernhard's Woodcutters (1987), Wittgenstein's Nephew (1989), Extinction (1995), and the five-volume autobiography Gathering Evidence (1994). These, and his rendering of Heinrich Böll's Women in a River Landscape (1988), twice earned him the coveted Schlegel-Tieck Prize, as well as the Austrian State Prize for translation.

His range was immense: besides works of fiction he translated Christian Meier's The Greek Discovery of Politics (1990) and Caesar (1996), Martin Warnke's The Court Artist (1993), Samuel Wittwer's A Royal Menagerie: Meissen porcelain animals (2001), and Sigmund Freud's Civilisation and its Discontents (2002) and The Uncanny (2003) for Penguin, as well as the catalogues of a number of major art exhibitions.

David McLintock was born in 1930 in Yorkshire. From Scarborough High School for Boys he gained a scholarship to the Queen's College, Oxford, in 1949. As an undergraduate he was awarded Heath Harrison travelling scholarships for German and French, and in 1952 he obtained a First in these languages. He then embarked on the notoriously demanding Diploma in Comparative Philology under Leonard Palmer and C.L. Wrenn, specialising in Greek and Gothic, and qualifying in 1954.

Next he studied at Münster, where he encountered the (to him) rebarbative etymological approach of Jost Trier. Whilst recognising Trier's brilliance, McLintock never embraced what he called his etymological fanaticism. For him etymology remained "a ragbag that rightly fascinates the layman, but can never amount to a discipline". More congenial was a period of study in Munich under the distinguished Indo-Europeanist Wilhelm Wissmann.

Already by the 1960s, McLintock was considered one of the foremost comparative Germanic philologists of his generation in Britain. Undeterred by prevailing fashions in linguistics, he remained profoundly sceptical of Chomskyan linguistics, dismissing generative phonology, for example, as a "load of nonsense". But he was no mere old-style philologist. He appreciated the insights of de Saussure, Sapir and Bloomfield, greatly respected Hjelmslev, and was fully conversant with the work of American structuralists in the field of comparative Germanic linguistics.

At Oxford he became a lecturer in Germanic Philology and Medieval German Literature, first at Mansfield College, then at Wolfson. He proved to be a kind and ever patient teacher who, even years later, seemed to remain youthfully amazed at what one could find out about language. The details of word stress and poetic rhythms fascinated him, and he would lovingly elaborate such points in earnest conversation. One learnt scholarly integrity and a sense of good taste from him, which were totally transferable to other aspects of life. In his pupils he could inspire a great love for his subject, and his lightly worn erudition and his skill as a tutor earned him the affection and admiration of generations of students (who, he proudly recalled, included John le Carré).

In 1967 he left Oxford to take up a Readership in German in Ralph Tymms's department at Royal Holloway College. Here, in the federal London University, he quickly established himself as a committed teacher and popular colleague who combined excellent scholarship with an urbane approach to administration - it was characteristic of his generosity and his style as chairman that he would conclude meetings of examiners by offering wine to celebrate even impending royal marriages. In private his colleagues found in him an engaging raconteur, with an inexhaustible supply of wit and benevolent anecdote.

His major achievement in the field of scholarship was to complete the revision, begun by his London colleague Kenneth King, who died in 1970, of his Oxford tutor J. Knight Bostock's Handbook on Old High German Literature (1976), still the most comprehensive guide to the field in any language. In addition he contributed a number of perceptive articles on linguistic and literary topics in medieval German literature, notably the Lay of Hildebrand, the Nibelungenlied, and the courtly lyric.

In the 1980s his publications earned him the degree of Doctor of Letters of London University. He could have aspired to a professorial chair - after all, he had even written on word formation in Gothic, an extinct language, mastery of which was once deemed essential to academic preferment in London - but instead, to the amazement and consternation of his colleagues, he chose to retire at the age of 51.

The loss was the university's rather than his own, for his decision to devote himself to translation turned out to be the right one. For, although he had long been primarily concerned with historical linguistics, he had always been fascinated by the developing contemporary language, whether German or English. He now wrote perspicuously on the complexities and subtleties of modern German tense usage, sensitively analysing Thomas Bernhard's linguistically complex prose, which he was already beginning to translate.

During the 20 years of the "retirement" that proved in fact to be a second career, he maintained his contacts with his former colleagues, taking a keen interest in academic matters and in learned societies, serving on the council of the Philological Society and helping to found the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas. His lively scholarship, congenial company and endearing personality will be missed by his many friends and colleagues.

John L. Flood