Professor John Weightman

French scholar, reviewer and translator
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The Independent Online

John Weightman had a distinguished career in two fields - at the BBC, as a translator and announcer with the French Service, and in academia, from 1963 as Professor of French Language and Literature at Westfield College, London University.

John George Weightman, French scholar: born Black Callerton, Northumberland 29 November 1915; translator/announcer, BBC French Service 1939-50; Lecturer, then Reader, in French Language and Literature, King's College London, 1950-63; Professor of French Language and Literature, Westfield College, London University 1963-81 (Emeritus); married 1940 Doreen Wade (died 1985; one son, one daughter); died London 14 August 2004.

John Weightman had a distinguished career in two fields - at the BBC, as a translator and announcer with the French Service, and in academia, from 1963 as Professor of French Language and Literature at Westfield College, London University.

In his teaching Weightman gave special attention to French thought in the 18th and the 20th centuries. He was particularly interested in the contemporary scene, being critical of Sartre and sympathetic to Camus, from whom he derived his concept of life as "the absurd", which he took to mean the futility of human endeavour.

So far as publication was concerned, Weightman queried the common academic habit of disdaining "journalism" as being inferior to "serious research" on writers of the past. He did himself write several books of thoughtful exploration on literature, language, translation, and even theology, but he was equally happy to write extended reviews for such journals as The Observer, the Times Literary Supplement, Encounter, and The New York Review of Books. His journalism was in fact not distinguishable from serious research.

Weightman's own most substantial book is The Concept of the Avant-Garde (1973). His thoughts about language and translation are to be found in On Language and Writing (1947) and The Cat Sat on the Mat (2002). Reading the Bible (2003) gives his provocative views on religion, and Memoirs of a Language Freak (2004) joins autobiography with final thoughts about language and about modern French thinkers.

In addition, John Weightman and his wife Doreen together did a number of carefully crafted translations, including some of the important anthropological works of Claude Lévi-Strauss and a book about Rousseau by Jean Guéhenno.

He was perhaps fortunate to have been introduced to the French language at school by a master whom he described as "the liveliest mind I had so far come across", but the most salient fact is that Weightman himself had a remarkably good ear. In his later life, French people often took it for granted that Weightman was French, for his use of their language was impeccable, while his English had a touch of an unusual intonation that seemed to them a sign of a non-native speaker. The intonation was a relic of his Geordie background.

In his last book, Memoirs of a Language Freak, Weightman wrote of oscillating in his childhood between two dialects of Northumbrian speech. His father came from the mining area of Newcastle upon Tyne while his mother hailed from the west of the county near the Cumbrian border. Consequently the speech of the two sets of grandparents differed markedly from each other, and young John was familiar with both when he visited his relatives. He first heard "southern standard English" when he reached grammar school at the age of 11. All this stirred his interest in language and linguistic differences.

His headmaster, a Cambridge man, urged this bright pupil to sit for a scholarship in History, but John thought he would be a fish out of water in Cambridge and chose instead to study French at King's College, Newcastle. The course included the option of going to France for the third year, and Weightman was persuaded to take this option, despite his qualms on grounds of expense: his father had died when John was 14 and his mother's means were meagre.

However, he went off to spend the year at the University of Poitiers. Back at Newcastle for the fourth, final year of his course, he applied for schoolteaching posts and also, on the off-chance, for a job that he saw advertised, translator-announcer in French at the BBC. Since schoolteaching applications had yielded no response, he was surprised to be called for interview and still more surprised when he was offered the post.

This was in 1939, when the BBC was preparing itself for the possibility of war. They no doubt appointed John Weightman in preference to French candidates because he had a pleasantly resonant voice as well as perfect French speech. It turned out, when the war came and France was occupied, that Weightman's voice got through the German jamming of news broadcasts from Britain to France, and so he was an especially valuable member of the BBC's foreign language service.

Apart from translating and broadcasting news items, his duties included the introduction of guest speakers, and in his memoirs he tells of feeling intimidated at first by the tall figure and remote attitude of General Charles de Gaulle, who came to issue clarion calls to the people of France.

At the end of the war Weightman and some of his BBC colleagues were sent round France on a goodwill tour, and a little later he went again to Paris, with his family this time, in order to report on events to the BBC. He began to feel, however, that since the war was over, there was no serious future for him at the BBC, and after a few years of informal teaching he was appointed to a lectureship at King's College, London. He was later promoted to Reader and then, in 1969, was appointed Professor of French Language and Literature at Westfield College, where he remained until his retirement in 1981.

D. D. Raphael