Professor John Weightman

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The Independent Online

John Weightman, born and bred in the working class of the North-east, was imbued with the work ethic, writes Anne Symonds [further to the obituary by D.D. Raphael, 25 August].

John Weightman, born and bred in the working class of the North-east, was imbued with the work ethic, writes Anne Symonds [further to the obituary by D.D. Raphael, 25 August].

In the last two years of his life he wrote three books; in his retirement he learnt Russian, translated the English translation of Dr Zhivago back into Russian and became an authority on Russian broadcasting, acquiring an astonishing knowledge of contemporary Russian politics. He intended to go on to Chinese if time allowed. As part of his obsession with language, the problems of translation concerned him deeply.

In the first of his final trilogy of books The Cat Sat on the Mat: language and the absurd, he admits the impossibility of translating in its full simplicity and atmosphere this famous phrase. He asks, just for starters, "Is the cat male or female?" Most English think of cats as female but the translator into French needs to know exactly. Then, what sort of mat? The French seem to prefer " la descente de lit" (a bedside rug), but for the English, the cat is seen sitting in front of a glowing coal fire, which does not exist in France; and no translation can capture the bang-bang rhyme which makes the English so memorable. Nor can it recognise the warmth of the copybook phrase with its memories of childhood. The mystery of language remains with all its nuance.

Weightman seeks to define language as a sort of prosthesis, an artificial aid to communication. Indeed, in keeping with his own belief in the absurd, he dedicates his book to his dentist, under whose treatment for false teeth he was when the idea first came to him. So language is a tool - invaluable, but to be used with care. It calls in equal measure to trust and distrust and can exist even in its own right: the language of Ecclesiastes and Homer has its own reality quite apart from its authors, of whom we know nothing.

The second volume in Weightman's trilogy is Reading the Bible in the Run Up to Death. The book is perhaps revenge against all the hours he spent as a child in Methodist Sunday School. It is also a scholarly study in translation, in which he uses not only the authorised version and the revised version, but the French Bible De Jerusalem and a Franco-Canadian translation, the Bayard Edition. Dealing with the Old Testament he ruthlessly attacks the sadism of Jehovah and in the New, true to his work ethic, he opts for Martha rather than Mary and spurns the Lilies of the Field.

In his final volume Memoirs of a Language Freak, he takes issue with the great French language theorists Derrida and Foucault. Nevertheless, he had many admirers on the other side of the Channel. Olivier Todd dedicated his monumental André Malraux: une vie (2001) to Weightman.

In spite of his attacks on the great patriarchs, John Weightman became a patriarchal figure himself, at the head of a huge, loving extended family stretching through four generations. There was also a faithful following of female admirers, always welcomed with champagne, and latterly with fish and chips as well.

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