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?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence