John Whaley

Acclaimed translator of Goethe's poetry
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The Independent Online

John Whaley was one of those rare individuals who excel in two quite distinct fields. He pursued a highly successful career as a civil servant; and he came to be acknowledged as one of the finest translators of Goethe's poetry into English. He was the younger son of Jack Whaley, a driver and maintenance man at the Doncaster Transport Department who for two decades was also the local branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union. If his father shaped his early political and social values, his mother, Gloria, provided an artistic dimension.

Although she yearned for respectability and served dutifully as a church organist, she had in fact been brought up on the stage, her childhood overshadowed by the serial failures of her music-hall-troupe-directing father and his hopelessly ambitious singer-and-dancer wife. In their son John, this diverse mix of paternal and maternal heritage bore extraordinary fruit.

Educated at Doncaster Grammar School, John Whaley won numerous prizes, culminating in a scholarship to read German and French at University College London. There he quickly established himself as the leading student in his year, attracting the patronage of E.A. Willoughby and E.M. Wilkinson, perhaps the leading Germanists of the time. A short summer course at Zurich in 1946 strengthened Whaley's resolve to study in Germany itself and in April 1947 he set out with two friends to study at Tübingen as guests of the French commandant. For all three, this was a seminal experience, and each in due course married a German student encountered during that time.

Despite Whaley's winning the prestigious Heimann Medal for Proficiency in German in 1947, graduating with a First and being awarded a postgraduate scholarship, the academic career that his teachers and contemporaries thought was inevitable failed to materialise. He returned to University College in 1950 after two years' military service to embark on an MA thesis on Goethe's aesthetics. However, the scarcity of serious academic jobs and the need to provide immediately for his wife, Else Lore, whom he had married in 1951, and their first child forced him to abandon his studies.

Whaley took the Civil Service entry exam out of necessity. Yet he embraced the ethos and traditions of public service with deep conviction and he always retained an acute sense of its social ends. He was never an obfuscating Sir Humphrey, but capable of indignant rage at the misuse of public money or assets, or at the mistreatment of individuals by officialdom. One former colleague recalled him recently as "by turn outrageous, infuriating, challenging, hilarious, provocative, highly sensitive, and with a great capacity for kindness".

His diverse activities at the Board of Trade and the Department of Energy were recognised when he was appointed CBE in 1987. After his retirement he served for a few years as Assistant to the Lay Observer (now superseded by the Legal Services Ombudsman) and devoted his abilities to assisting the victims of abuse by the legal profession. There he both revelled in the Dickensian legal processes that he came into contact with and was outraged at the way some lawyers and officials rode roughshod over the rights of all-but-defenceless individuals.

Many might have been satisfied with such a career alone. From the early 1960s, however, Whaley had been working - on crowded commuter trains, late at night, in hotel rooms during his frequent business trips abroad - on what he came to see as his real life's work. A chance conversation with one of his wife's school pupils had led him to embark upon a metric translation of Goethe's West-östlicher Divan cycle of poems. Many have claimed that it is impossible to render the combination of trochaic and iambic measures that characterise Goethe's verse accurately into English. Whaley proved them wrong with a highly regarded translation, West-Eastern Divan, published in 1974.

Not content with one translation of the cycle, he published a wholly new version of what he called the "word-game" in 1998 (Poems of the West and East: West-Eastern Divan - West-östlicher Divan, with an introduction by Katharina Mommsen). In the same year, he also published his translation of numerous other poems by Goethe (Goethe: selected poems). At his death he left a mass of further manuscript drafts, including a nearly complete translation of all of Goethe's sonnets. His translations bring Goethe's verse to the English reader more authentically than any others have done. As Matthew Bell wrote in 1998, they "come as close to capturing the sound of Goethe's poems as English can".

His translations won Whaley considerable critical acclaim. He also won recognition from academics, many of whom became friends, notably in the English Goethe Society, on whose council Whaley served for over 20 years. Yet his restlessness and creativity were by no means fully absorbed. At the same time as he began his translations he also found time to compose his own (unpublished) verse, to write fragments of autobiography, to practise his skill at drawing and painting, and to develop his musical talents.

He had learned the violin in Doncaster and had played in both the school and the town orchestra. Now he took master classes with Sidney Humphries and brought himself up to concert standard. Lunchtime quartets and other recitals soon followed, as did regular performances with the Dartford Symphony Orchestra and other groups in south-east London. Characteristically, he believed passionately that all should have the opportunity to develop these skills and he became an active supporter of charities such as the Workers' Music Association and the Benslow Music Trust.

At times, the competing claims of all these interests and passions both conflicted with each other and all but overwhelmed Whaley himself. There was simply not enough of life to do it all. He was all the more deeply frustrated by his growing infirmity in recent years, although he faced it with considerable stoicism.

Joachim Whaley