Obituary: Callum Forsyth

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The Independent Online
Callum Kenneth Forsyth, linguist and computer specialist: born Speyside 6 August 1958; died London 26 March 1994.

CALLUM FORSYTH was a prodigy in the languages of northern Europe including Finnish and Russian and the Baltic languages, extending also to Magyar. He could interpret most romance languages and at the time of his death was considering Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.

Educated at Elgin Academy and Aberdeen University, in Stockholm and in London, Forsyth belonged by this backgound to northern Europe and its culture. Naturally musical from an early age he was briefly a disc jockey and began to develop also as a writer of vividly descriptive prose. I met him in the beginning of the 1980s at the Laban Centre for Movement and Dance in London. He had been recruited by Chris de Marigny, co-editor of Dance Theatre Journal and head of the centre's press and publicity, to help develop a card-index system. The work took place on the floor below where I was setting up research projects into Lewisham's youth leisure for the GLC, the influence of artists in international cultural relations for the Banff Centre, Canada, and a new department to train community dance artists. For this large mix we needed translation help. It was rumoured that the young man working temporarily below us could speak at least German.

He was dark, shy, very Celtic, with a soft Scottish accent and two striking characteristics - remarkable good looks and a dress sense which combined punk with an early form of grunge. Only later did I discover that his Scottish pride could translate visually into a kilt with full regalia. Desperately poor as he was, he hesitated before joining our team full time.

Time was his problem, partly from erratic health, partly from a way of life where he did nothing by halves. Therefore he didn't take easily to the centre's administrative practice and established a rebel reputation outside our circle. I was glad. His independence added personality to our projects but also skills of real worth. Computers did for him what they would not do for others. Our work was reproduced in graphs, charts and diagrams. No letter nor document nor visitor from Europe remained uninterpreted. He had an ear for languages as if they were music, an extraordinary linguistic command.

As his contacts expanded and his reputation grew, Forsyth moved to establish his own consultancy. He was engaged in the City, translated for the Guardian's European pages and used computer skills to create for me and others indexes for our books. Briefly he joined Kevin Mulhern's Link programme for the handicapped on the ITV network, helping development of a computer program which could translate into Braille. Every so often plans and progress were upset by health problems. He seemed to collect unusual illnesses. Cat scratch fever nearly killed him two years ago and meant he could keep no longer the three cats he loved.

Languages remained his genius. On holiday in Iceland for a fortnight last year he mastered Icelandic and insisted on speaking it to everyone he met. Voluntarily, he worked on the National Aids Manual, a standard text and directory to help sufferers and their carers throughout Europe. It is the bible of the Aids industry. For this he received a grant from the European Community to translate it into nine languages, proof-reading also in Greek and Spanish. It is his memorial and principal achievement. The problem now is to find a successor with his language ability to update it every six months.

Always pushing aside the thought of illness, he discounted even the heart failure from which he died. The novel he planned will not be written; the many tongues he spoke will be silent; his restless imagination is stilled; but the insights he gave to others remain. Obituaries should sometimes record lost genius and what might have been to balance the achievements of the famous. For Callum Forsyth, achievement in 35 years was prodigious, but the promise unfulfilled was much greater.

(Photograph omitted)