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Pomerans, Arnold Julius [Arno] (1920–2005), translator, was born in Königsberg, Germany, on 27 April 1920, the son of William Pomerans, accountant. Antisemitism was a precipitating factor in the family's relocations during his childhood, first to Berlin and then to Yugoslavia. His father's profession meant he could practise wherever they settled. By the time Arnold was sixteen, this was South Africa. He remained there until the nationalist regime introduced apartheid (in 1948) and his militant opposition put him in direct danger.

On arriving in Britain in 1948, Pomerans became a science teacher for seven years, first at the Hasmonean Grammar School, Hendon, and later at the New Sherwood School, a progressive school in Epsom. His subjects were primarily physics and chemistry although students recalled him as a polymath with strong interests in the arts as well as the sciences. In 1955 he turned to full-time translation and on 28 July 1956 he married his second wife (his first marriage having been dissolved), Erica Mary Aubone White (b. 1937), daughter of Raymond Maurice White, fire brigade official. They had met while living in Hampstead, but moved out to Polstead Heath in Suffolk the year after their marriage, where their two sons were born. A lifelong working partnership developed, whereby Erica's literary role migrated from being his ‘editor’ to ‘co-translator’ and, in some instances, finally a translator in her own right.

Pomerans brought much more than basic translation skills to his profession. He always researched and annotated his translations in the most scholarly fashion: typically, that of Pieter Geyl's Orange and Stuart, 1641–72 (1969) listed his contribution to the ‘preface, references at the end of each chapter, conclusion, genealogical tables, list of abbreviations, index’ (abebooks.co.uk). At least one author referred to the quality as well as the quantity of his contribution. Marianne Krull's foreword to the American edition of Freud and his Father (1986) opened:
My special thanks go to Arno Pomerans, whose brilliant translation is a pleasure to the eye and to the ear. I only wish he had also been the translator of Freud's works, letters etc., in which case he would have saved us so much of the trouble we had to take in retranslating the Standard Edition. (p. xv)
That edition may, in Krull's opinion, ‘have been totally incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the German original’ (ibid.). Pomerans's translated excerpts did indeed lead him to translate many more core psychoanalytic works, including Jean Piaget (from the French) on child psychology (1969), The Sigmund Freud–Ludwig Binswanger Correspondence, 1908–1938 (2003), and Douwe Draaisma's Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past, (from the Dutch) (2004).

While veering consistently towards classic texts, the breadth of Pomerans's choices was phenomenal. Perhaps understandably, given his times and background, he appears to have been drawn to wars—and to the Second World War in particular. Histories such as The History of Jews in the Netherlands, edited by J. C. H. Blom (2001), or The Great War and the French People by Jean-Jacques Becker (1985) linked to period fiction, such as Hugo Claus's The Sorrow of Belgium (1990), almost a War and Peace for the Netherlands. The most daring variant was his translation of Rudi van Dantzig's For a Lost Soldier (1991), the tale of a Dutch boy seduced by a Canadian soldier at the close of the Second World War. The book caused a furore, with demands for the soldier to be prosecuted for rape, thirty years on, although the subsequent film softened the tale. Women's voices were foregrounded, particularly as Erica Pomerans collaborated for the Dutch translations. Together they translated Etty Hillesum's diaries (1983) and letters (1987) and the critical edition of Anne Frank's diary (1989), the latter a long-running global best-seller that underwent numerous re-editions. Other lives include George Grosz's autobiography, A Small Yes and a Big No (1982), and The Life and Death of Leon Trotsky (1975) by Victor Serge and Natalya Sedova Trotsky (also the collaboration of a married couple). Memory was a recurrent theme, presumably one of particular interest to Pomerans: not only Professor Draaisma's scientific investigations but also Grosz's ruminations fed into this. Grosz's self-styled ‘attempt at an autobiography’ freely admits that: (‘I have forgotten a great deal, but that is not necessarily a sign of a poor memory: the veil drawn over the past is kind and well suited to the face of the times’ p. 9.)

Pomerans declared his dislike for teaching, and was grateful to the publisher who recommended he put his linguistic skills to good use by getting paid 10s. per 1000 translated words. Yet he had started by translating mathematics and chemistry textbooks and always retained an interest in the sciences. In 1971 his translation of Werner Heisenberg's Physics and Beyond was published, and in 2005, the year of his death, that of Jelto Drenth's The Origin of the World: Science and Fiction of the Vagina. At the time of his death he was still working on the correspondence between Anna and Sigmund Freud. In total he translated nearly 200 works spanning a wealth of genres and languages, from fiction to biography, history to psychology, principally from his native German, then Dutch, French, and Italian—although he reckoned he could turn his hand to most European languages. Among such diverse interests it is hard to select one signature book; but few are more characteristic of his style and interest than the Letters of Vincent van Gogh (1996). He died at his home in Polstead Heath, Suffolk, on 30 May 2005, of cancer, and was survived by Erica. One obituary described him as ‘a prolific translator of literary and non-fiction works’ (The Times, 5 July 2005), and another raised the bar in hailing him as ‘one of Britain's finest translators’ (The Independent, 16 June 2005).

Amanda Hopkinson


The Independent (16 June 2005) · The Times (5 July 2005) · m. cert. [1956] · d. cert.