Ewald Osers: Poet, translator and stalwart of the World Service

Ewald Osers was primarily a translator from the Czech and German into English

"Ewald epitomised the translator," his fellow translator Ros Schwartz recalled.

"Boundless intellectual curiosity, acquiring new languages as easily as catching a cold. He embraced new languages and was at his desk until the very end of his extraordinarily productive life".

A naturally talented linguist, he rapidly acquired further languages to add to those of his childhood. Though he was born in Prague his first language, and that of his education, was German. Typically for then, his mother was Austrian and his father (who died when Ewald was six) apparently "spoke Czech badly". Both were non-practising Jews.

Ewald brought the rigour of a scientific training to bear on his acquisition of a half-dozen Slavonic languages as well as French and Italian, all largely self-taught from grammatical first principles. English was acquired of necessity when anti-semitism led to his move to London in 1938.

Most of his translations were from German into English and incorporated textbooks (including Physics for You and Me and Fun with Physics); history (Merchants make History; Hitler's War on Russia) and geography (two dozen books on everywhere from the Aegean to the Sahara); literature – poems by Rudolf Langer, Ondra Lysohorsky and Reiner Kinze, among others – and Armenian love poetry and Chinese folk tales; art books (including two on Klimt); biographies of Einstein and Heidegger; and "most importantly", the correspondence between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He also translated from the Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Armenian, and rendered volumes of poetry by Gavin Ewart, Seamus Heaney and Wendy Cope from English into Czech.

Oser's autobiography, Snows of Yesteryear – a Translator's Story, appeared in 2007. Its opening paragraph takes 13 lines to list the extent of the Austro-Hungarian empire into which he was born and whose languages he was to pursue. From Stepanska gymnasium he studied chemistry at the German University, and also started translating Czech poetry, joining a left-wing literary group called Blok. He published both translations and his own verses in the radical quarterly U but in 1938 moved to London. He would not see his homeland again for 27 years; he met his mother for the last time in spring 1939.

At the outbreak of war he joined the BBC Monitoring Service. In 1940, he enrolled at UCL to study Russian and extend his coverage for the BBC. Russian, however, was not a language he chose to translate, much as he enjoyed working in different sections of the World Service until his retirement in 1977. The Central European community he found at Bush House was mirrored in his social circle. He was married in 1942 to a classically English woman, Mary Harman. In London, and then when the family moved to near Reading, he gravitated between the host community and what his daughter, Margaret, described as "that community of refugees who circulated between Caversham, London and Reading". They – and the local delicatessen, called Schmidt's – were the mainstay of many parties in the 1950s.

At the publication of his autobiography, Osers announced: "I have no intention of stopping working. I enjoy literary translation. I enjoy the intellectual, artistic and linguistic challenge. No other activity, and certainly not leisure, would give me the same satisfaction. It would be nice to bring the total of my published books up to the round figure of 160: but time will tell".

He was not far off. His final (incomplete) work was a collection of what he called his "medallions": part-way between an aphorism and memoir, each of the 50 or so inserts recounted a short memory, such as that of his first university examination, when he was shocked to see two young nuns hoik up their overskirts and extract some bits of paper from their waistbands to copy.

Increasingly in his latter years, Osers acquired prizes and admirers, including the European Poetry Translation Prize in 1987. He held more Royal Fellowships and lay Orders of Merit than perhaps even he could count. As he gave more time to the Arts Council and the Translators' Association, so he became unofficial mentor to a rising generation.

Ewald Osers, poet, author and translator: born Prague 13 May 1917; married 1942 Mary Harman (died 2011; one daughter, one son); died Reading 11 October 2011.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrator - IT - Fixed Term, Part Time

£17340 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Come and join one of the UK's leading ca...

Recruitment Genius: Property Sales Consultant - Chinese Speaking - OTE £70,000

£18000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity for a Fluent Chines...

Recruitment Genius: AV Installation Engineer

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to business growth, this is...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent