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Cohen, John Michael (1903–1989), translator and literary scholar, was born on 5 February 1903 at 58 Carlton Hill, St John's Wood, London, the son of Arthur Cohen, master upholsterer, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Abrahams. Born into an assimilated Jewish family, he was educated at St Paul's School and at Queens' College, Cambridge. After a short spell in publishing he worked for fifteen years, from 1925 to 1940, for the family firm of furniture manufacturers. He then made use of the wartime shortage of teachers to change profession. While teaching at a secondary school, he taught himself Spanish and Russian, and honed his already excellent French. In this he was fully supported by his wife, Audrey Frances, née Falk (1906–1995), daughter of Lionel David Falk, advertising agent, whom he had married on 23 October 1928 at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood. While Audrey brought up their four sons, her husband prepared his next career move.

In 1946 Cohen abandoned teaching to become a full-time literary translator, critic, and writer. He made his reputation as a literary polymath. He wrote across genres, from memoir to biography, literary criticism to literary translation. The literary forms he avoided in his own writing were the imaginative ones, staying well clear of composing either poetry or fiction. Rather, his priority was to make the great foreign classics of both genres accessible to contemporary Anglophone readers. Starting with the then unfamiliar poetry of Boris Pasternak (1946), he moved on to voices as diverse as those of Cervantes's Don Quixote (1950), Rabelais (1955), Montaigne (1958), and St Teresa of Avila (1957); Pascal's philosophical Pensées (1961) and Christopher Columbus's letters home (1969); and poetry from revolutionary Cuba (1967).

Cohen adopted a scholarly approach to his translations of major European classics, combined with a fresh simplicity of language. There was also a joyful commitment to bring the New to the Old World, particularly in riding the tide of the Latin American ‘boom’ that included Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Alejo Carpentier. The modesty that was the hallmark of his personality was demonstrated by his first prose translation, which opened with (effectively) an apology:
Some excuse seems necessary for reintroducing in a fresh translation a book that has been one of the world's best-sellers for three centuries, and which already exists in seven or eight English versions. But for all that, the modern reader would be hard put to choose a good Don Quixote. The best and raciest version, Shelton's, being almost contemporary with the original, is the nearest to Cervantes in spirit. (Don Quixote, 1950, introduction, 11)
He concluded his introduction with similar diffidence:
I have generally taken versions from the older translators, often adapting them, particularly when they are Shelton's: for I do not feel any confidence that my own attempts would be better. (ibid., 20)
Interestingly, in describing his practice, he paid homage to the original by saying that its drive and clarity obviated the need for extensive footnotes,
for I feel that the obscurities are few, and no attempts to explain them do much more than pile up indigestible historical references, that prevent the reader from getting along with the book; which is one of the best adventure stories in the world. (ibid.)
Although he approached his authors in a scholarly way, Cohen presented them in the Penguin Classics as essential—and essentially plainspoken—reading. His introductions explained how he tried to enter the spirit of both his authors and their times, but he was modest in his claims, describing his translations as ‘versions [that are] rough and ready, perhaps sometimes impressionistic, their only purpose to give the general purport of the passage’ (Michel de Montaigne: Essays, 1958, 21).

Anthologies followed, encouraged by E. V. Rieu (general editor of the Penguin Classics series), whose unofficial principal adviser on European literary classics he rapidly became; these included Comic and Curious Verse in four volumes for Penguin (1952–75). Meanwhile, the language of Iberia became that of Latin America, as he moved from La Celestina (by the fifteenth-century Jewish lawyer, Fernando de Rojas, published in Cohen's translation by the Folio Society, 1964) to the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. The reader is well into Cohen's biography of the latter (1974) before encountering a sentence beginning: ‘When I first met him in 1953, I asked him’ (Jorge Luis Borges, 14)—an experience that for many readers would be barely second to an encounter with God.

Cohen's earlier literary biographies included those of Robert Browning (1952) and Robert Graves (1960). More unexpectedly, he also wrote The Life of Ludwig Mond (1956), on the nineteenth-century German–British industrialist. English Translators and Translations followed in 1962, and, well aware that he was writing in the second Elizabethan era of lyrical translation, A History of Western Literature (1956); Poetry of this Age (1959); and The Baroque Lyric (1963). By way of further exploration of his new discovery, which grew into a lasting passion for Latin America, he compiled several anthologies: Latin American Writing Today and Writers in the New Cuba (both 1967); even Journeys down the Amazon: Being the Extraordinary Adventures and Achievements of the Early Explorers (1975). He also compiled, with his son Mark, the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations (1960) and the Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations (1971). All these books were written between the early 1950s and the 1970s, an exceptionally fertile literary period for Cohen.

In later years Cohen followed the path of the Buddhist author Christmas Humphreys. Unusually, Cohen linked his conversion to his politics, saying that ‘As a Buddhist, I would support any programme based on a caring attitude. So my sympathies are broadly on the Left’ (The Independent, 20 July 1989). In the 1980s he compiled two anthologies of mystical writings. His last years were afflicted by blindness. In 1988 a reviewer described him as ‘the late great translator’: ‘Both adjectives’, he quipped, ‘are exaggerative’ (ibid.). Having lived latterly in Pangbourne, Berkshire, he died on 19 July 1989 at Battle Hospital, Reading, of heart failure. His obituary in The Times described him as ‘the translator of foreign prose classics for our times’ (22 July 1989); that in The Guardian averred that he did ‘more than anyone else in his generation to introduce British readers to the classics of world literature by making them available in good modern English translations’ (20 July 1989). It was left to Terence Kilmartin, books editor on The Observer, to add a personal touch: ‘He was a man of letters to his fingertips, at home in half-a-dozen languages and cultures, and capable of reviewing anything from a translation of St John of the Cross to a history of Buddhism—though he was so modest that he would often advise me to get someone more high-powered to review a particular book’ (The Independent, 20 July 1989).

Amanda Hopkinson

Sources  

The Guardian (20 July 1989) · The Independent (20 July 1989) · The Times (22 July 1989) · WWW · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Wealth at death  

£440,434: probate, 23 Feb 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales