Obituary: Professor Colin Smith

Gareth Alban Davies
Friday 28 February 1997 00:02

Colin Smith was one of Britain's leading authorities on medieval Spanish literature, and the compiler of the best and most widely used Spanish-English/ English-Spanish dictionary, the Collins dictionary. His unusually wide range of interests included archaeology and entomology, and led him to joint authorship of The Place-Names of Roman Britain (1979).

Smith was a big man: his height and large frame immediately conveyed energy and purposefulness. Possessed furthermore of remarkable physical and mental co-ordination, he walked faster, and thought faster, than anybody else. His powers of organisation were fearsome, as was his attention to detail. When a university colleague remarked that Colin Smith was capable of reorganising the Civil Service in a week, another challenged this view, saying that Smith could achieve this on a Friday afternoon. He was a man who redeemed time by the minute and second.

Born in Brighton, he was very much a Sussex man, and never lost that burr, so sweet on the ear. He was born in 1927 into a family that appreciated learning and the arts. His formal education was received at Varndean School, Brighton, but his father's interest in archaeology, and the chances thereby given a young lad to take part in digs, left a more permanent mark. In Chichester, Roman Britain lay just below the surface, and along that coast the contours often shrouded earlier civilisations. He was haunted by a desire to know how things have come to be as they are.

He was lucky too in that the educational divide between arts and sciences did not apply. Despite his choice of languages as his professional field of study, not only did he retain his interest in biology, but he remained for all his life an ardent field entomologist. Indeed, in the first days of retirement he discovered a new moth in his native Sussex, the Southern Chestnut. A sense of the unity of all knowledge perhaps lay behind his love of lexicography, since words are a way of laying fleeting hold on the world entire. He certainly became a polymath, a rare breed in the present age of rigid specialisation. With his sentimental fondness for Renaissance scholars, he might have identified himself with an Aldrete, or a Nebrija.

He went to Cambridge, and took a first class degree in 1950 from St Catharine's College. First, life led him northwards, to Leeds University, where he worked for some 15 years in the Department of Spanish. The period of 1953- 68 was one of expansion, a time when British universities were still universities. He belonged to a young department, where people had time for each other, could learn by argument and exchange of opinion; a time also when teaching was an enjoyment, and you got to know your students. Smith was a good colleague, a fine scholar, warm-hearted, humorous, earthy, irreverent. The respect felt for his qualities was shown in his appointment as Sub- Dean of Arts (1963-66), and his promotion (in 1964) to a senior lectureship.

He had arrived there in 1953 as someone working in Golden Age studies, an expert in that most abstruse and challenging of subjects, the poetry of Luis de Gngora. But his PhD thesis on Gngora's poetic language led him back to the 15th century, and thereby to an old favourite, philology. The inner, and often invisible, logic of any scholar's career now took over: he became a medievalist, with a particular interest in epic theory, and in one of the great European epics, the Poema de mio Cid. He was not afraid of controversy: his 1972 edition of the Poema broke decisively with the prevailing Spanish editorial practice, and a stream of articles threw up provocative ideas (some worked, some did not). His anthology Spanish Ballads (1964) was the standard for many years.

In 1968 he returned to Cambridge as a university lecturer, and was soon given a fellowship at Cath's. In 1975 he was appointed to the chair of Spanish, a position he occupied until his early retirement in 1990. Also in 1975, he become professorial fellow at his old college. He was a "good college man", having been both tutor and director of studies. Outside college he was chairman (1973) of the board of the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, and served his stint on the General Board, which gave him a wider perspective on university policy-making. But his main interests lay in teaching and research.

His involvement in dictionary-making came by accident. The Berlin publishers Langenscheidt wanted a dictionary, and Smith, along with two colleagues, volunteered. Soon his organisational skills and clarity of mind put him in the driving seat. Langenscheidt's Standard Dictionary of Spanish and English appeared in 1966, a second and revised edition in 1988. In a lecture in 1993 Smith reflected bitterly on the lack of proper recognition still being suffered by lexicographers. In fact, this had not deterred him from accepting the challenge of a more ambitious project, where he was more or less given free rein. With the help of colleagues in Leeds, Cambridge, New York and elsewhere, his Collins Spanish-English English-Spanish Dictionary appeared in 1971, a formidable achievement that provided a blueprint for any future bilingual dictionary.

Its main qualities were its comprehensiveness, its clarity of arrangement, the attention given to prepositional usage, and the naturalness of its renderings of foreign phrases. Smith was proud too that, taking advantage of a greater liberalism of outlook in both Spain and England, he was able to include many taboo words. However, the coverage of South-American usage was still inadequate, a weakness greatly remedied in the revised edition of 1988, and in even greater degree in the magnificent third edition of 1992. By the time of his 1993 lecture this indefatigable lexicographer was at least contemplating a future version on CD-Rom.

Whilst articles by him were still appearing on the epic and on ballads, the focus of his main research was moving elsewhere. His knowledge of the evolution of Latin in the Iberian peninsula into various derivative languages or dialects made him aware of a distant parallel. What had British Latin been like, as it developed under the influence of another, and Celtic, substratum? And what of those Latin place names with which he had become familiar during his adolescent explorations into the British past? Such musings gradually developed into an ambitious plan. He knew he was in for trouble: the material was deemed intractable, there were interests and reputations to take account of, but above all he was an outsider, with a Romance philologist's way of looking at things, a mere vulgar-Latin in a Celtic craftshop. His co-author A.L.F. Rivet's status as a proper classicist afforded him a little protection. Together they persevered, and indeed were greatly assisted by leading Celtic scholars. The result was their book The Place-Names of Roman Britain. This appeared in 1979, was reprinted in 1981, and at the time of his death Smith was planning a revised edition. He rightly considered this outstanding study to be his lasting memorial as a scholar.

He eschewed formalities, but recognition came, nevertheless with his Cambridge LittD (1985), his appointment in 1988 as Commander in the Order of Isabel la Catlica, a great honour indeed; and in 1996 came an honour of a different kind, for he was made president of the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA), in part a recognition of his contribution as Hispanic editor (1974-81), and General Editor (1976-81) of the Modern Language Review.

He would, nevertheless, prefer to be thought of as a family man, at home with his wife and three daughters; a private man, not given to talking about the breadth of his activities; a man who liked to grow his own vegetables, one who loved opera (his MHRA Presidential address was "On Opera and Literature"). Even in retirement, however, he had to till new ground - translation this time, and a new love, Galicia and some of its authors. His translations of two novels, by Alvaro Cunqueiro and Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, have been published in the Everyman Library; one of them won him a distinguished literary prize in Galicia.

Christopher Colin Smith, Hispano-medievalist, lexicographer: born Brighton, Sussex 27 September 1927; Assistant Lecturer, Department of Spanish, Leeds University 1953- 56, Lecturer 1956-64, Senior Lecturer 1964-68, Sub-Dean of Arts 1963-66; University Lecturer in Spanish, Cambridge University 1968-75, Professor of Spanish 1975-90; Fellow, St Catharine's College, Cambridge 1968-97; Hispanic Editor, Modern Language Review 1974-81, General Editor 1976-81; married 1954 Ruth Barnes (three daughters, and one son deceased); died Cambridge 16 February 1997.

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