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Feature essay

The go-betweens: modern linguists in Britain

Professional scholars and teachers of modern languages had the scantest of places in the first, Victorian edition of the Dictionary of National Biography—and indeed in its twentieth-century supplements. One factor was no doubt that the establishment of the subject in British universities—or indeed in secondary schools—is for the most part a quite recent affair, going back less than 200 years, and mainly dating from the time when the original DNB was first published from the mid-1880s. But as mediators of foreign cultures, the teachers and scholars were preceded and then accompanied by an equally important group, the translators.

Before the university departments

In earlier periods there was plenty of interest in our European neighbours, their languages, societies, and cultures, and many people learnt to speak and read French, Italian, Spanish, German, and other languages. Often their teachers had come to Britain from mainland Europe. One such, John Florio (1553–1625), was the son of a former friar, a religious refugee from Italy; he was born in London, but on the accession of Queen Mary his father had to take refuge on the continent, where he lived until the age of twenty. On returning to England, he made his way by teaching the fashionable Italian language to upper-class patrons and university scholars, composed teaching manuals, and published his great A Worlde of Wordes, or, Most Copious, and Exact Dictionarie in English and Italian (1598). Most famously, though, he produced the first—and still classic—translation of Montaigne's Essays.

Expatriate teachers, scholars, and translators continued to play a crucial part in modern language teaching throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But there were also many British subjects who lived or travelled abroad and brought home news of European culture. One of the most prolific and active was Robert Southey (1774–1843), whose relatively short stays in Spain and Portugal laid the basis for his continuing involvement in Hispanic studies, the acquisition of a remarkable library, the authorship of journalistic and historical books on Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, and the translation of important medieval texts, above all the Chronicle of the Cid.

  George Henry Borrow (1803–1881) by Henry Wyndham Phillips, 1843 [replica] George Henry Borrow (1803–1881) by Henry Wyndham Phillips, 1843 [replica]
A rather different figure, also interested in old Spanish writing, was the merchant and politician John Bowring (1792–1872), who in the 1820s produced a plethora of poetic anthologies translated from Russian, Dutch, Spanish, Serbian, Polish, Hungarian, and Czech. Bowring wrote high-mindedly in the introduction to his Poetry of the Magyars (1830) that his ambition was ‘one of benevolence’ and that he ‘never left the soil of his native country but with the wish to return to it, bearing fresh olive branches of peace and fresh garlands of poetry’. He seems to have had a passion for lesser-known languages, but in the view of his rival, that other polyglot autodidact George Borrow (1803–1881), he was no more than ‘slightly acquainted with four or five of the easier dialects of Europe’. Borrow's name reminds us what a lot of myth-making goes into the figure of the master of innumerable languages.

Neither Southey nor Borrow were professional linguists, nor indeed were the principal writers, translators, and critics who contributed to the boom in German culture in the nineteenth century: Sir Walter Scott, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, John Gibson Lockhart, Robert Pearse Gillies, Sarah Austin, Catherine and Susanna Winkworth, and that great enabler William Taylor (1765–1836). Taylor was the centre of a Norwich group for the study of German language and culture, translating Lessing and Goethe, and inspiring Coleridge and Wordsworth to take an interest in German literature. The new periodicals helped to spread the word: founded in 1817, Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine devoted many pages to discussions and translations of German literature, and the copious Horae Germanicae were soon followed by similar Horae for Scandinavian languages, Spanish, Cornish, Welsh, and medieval French. The time was ripe for universities to start opening their doors to modern languages.

A new profession

At a time when Greek and Latin dominated the curriculum, living foreign languages were not entirely absent from universities. Oxford's regius professor of history had assistants who taught students to read French in the eighteenth century, and similar tutors could be found in or around Cambridge and the Scottish universities, while Trinity College, Dublin, actually had professors of modern languages. On the other hand, Hugh Blair (1718–1800), the first professor of rhetoric and belles-lettres at Edinburgh, regularly included modern French and Italian literature in his lectures, which prefigured what we now call comparative literature. Over the next two centuries foreign literatures were not infrequently brought on to university syllabuses by other departments; Old Icelandic, for instance, became the property of English departments, though one of its most prominent early champions was the Oxford historian Frederick York Powell (1850–1904), translator of sagas, who dressed in navy blue fisherman's clothing to associate himself with the Viking Age virtues he identified in deep-sea fishermen.

  William Ralston  Shedden-Ralston (1828–1889) by I. S.? Panov (after unknown artist, c.1875) William Ralston Shedden-Ralston (1828–1889) by I. S.? Panov (after unknown artist, c.1875)
But the true beginning of university modern language studies in mainland Britain was at University College, London. One of the college's founding fathers was Henry Crabb Robinson (1775–1867), journalist, friend of the Romantics, and champion of German culture, so it is perhaps not surprising that from the outset in 1828 its establishment included chairs in Spanish, French, German, and Italian. One of the initial appointments was the political exile Antonio Panizzi (1797–1879), of whom the Oxford DNB notes that ‘the professorship proved a great disappointment because Panizzi had very few pupils, and his financial prospects were worse than they had been in Liverpool [where he taught Italian to private pupils]’. He soon moved to the British Museum, where he had a notable career. One of his protégés there was William Ralston (1828–1889), friend of Turgenev, scholar, translator, and raconteur, who was nicknamed ‘the Russian Don Quixote’ and ‘saw his vocation as tilting at British ignorance about Russia’; Ralston's translations of Russian folk tales were later read by Arthur Ransome (1884–1967), who found them unduly literary and set about writing his own in Old Peter's Russian Tales (1916).

After University College came King's College, London, and then Oxford, which would probably have been first in the English field if legal delays over Sir Robert Taylor's will had not delayed the founding of the Taylor Institution for nearly half a century. The Taylorian's function in Oxford was to be ‘the teaching and improvement of the European languages’ and before the end of the century the university was teaching several European languages, being the first British university to appoint a lecturer in Slavonic studies, W. R. Morfill (1834–1909), who taught or wrote on Russian, Bulgarian, Czech, Polish, Serbian, and Georgian. But the star of the Taylorian was undoubtedly the formidable German philologist Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1930). Müller first came to Oxford in 1847, fell in love with the place, and stayed, becoming a much-visited lion of Oxford and London society. He was for many years Taylorian professor of modern European languages, lecturing on such subjects as the Nibelungen, Goethe, and Schiller, but his heart was in Sanskrit and comparative mythology and it was in this field that he made his name, master-minding the enormous collection, Sacred Books of the East (1879–1910).

Refugees and expatriates

By the end of the century modern languages were well established in a fair number of English and Scottish universities, as also in secondary schools. In so far as they were new subjects, without an existing pool of graduates to do the teaching, it was a natural opportunity for native speakers who for one reason or another found themselves in Britain. A historian of University College writes: ‘For the modern languages, the condition of Europe provided a plentiful supply of political exiles’, and this continued to hold true until the second half of the twentieth century (H. H. Bellott, University College, London, 1826–1926, 1929, 44). Take the case of the philologist Peter Felix Ganz (1920–2006), who became professor of German in Oxford. He had been forced to leave school in Mainz on the grounds that under the Nuremberg laws he counted as Jewish, and in 1938, after Kristallnacht, he was sent to Buchenwald. Released six weeks later, he joined his father in England and enrolled as a student of languages at King's College, London. He was interned for a period in 1940 on the Isle of Man, and then recruited by the Pioneer Corps. Subsequently he joined the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre, and at the end of the war he belonged to the team who eavesdropped on captured German nuclear scientists as they received news of the bomb at Hiroshima.

There were many other political refugees active in German departments from the 1940s, including the two influential friends and colleagues Erich Heller (1911–1990) and Peter Stern (1920–1991), both originally from Czechoslovakia, who met for the first time on the quayside at Gdynia in 1939. Other refugees came from further east, one of the most notable being Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk Mirsky (1890–1939), scion of an ancient Russian family whose father was briefly minister of the interior. After the revolution Mirsky fought in the White Army, then emigrated, becoming a lecturer in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, where his students included Elizabeth Hill [see below]. A formidable figure, he was the author of a pioneering history of Russian literature and a source of information about Russian culture for many writers and poets, including T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Hugh MacDiarmid. In 1932, however, having joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, he returned to a tumultuous life as a literary critic in Moscow, only to be arrested in Stalin's purges and die in a labour camp in Siberia.

  Robert Priebsch (1866–1935) by unknown photographer Robert Priebsch (1866–1935) by unknown photographer
Not all the native speakers employed in Britain were refugees. Some were already living in Britain, and for many it was a good career move, while also providing an essential impetus for the launching of new subject areas. It is clear from the Oxford DNB entries for Karl Hermann Breul (1860–1932), Hermann Georg Fiedler (1862–1945), and Robert Priebsch (1866–1935), professors respectively at Cambridge, Birmingham and Oxford, and University College, London, that the establishment of German studies in Britain was in very large part the work of German nationals. In the early days, such expatriates tended to dominate; the 1918 Leathes report on ‘modern studies’ noted that of fifteen professors of French, ten were foreign nationals. Many of these were conspicuous personalities, such as the Belgian Charles Sarolea (1870–1953) in Edinburgh, an indefatigable book collector, political lecturer, networker, and eventually fascist sympathizer. Not a few ran their departments in a dictatorial way. One of the most influential was Gustave Rudler (1872–1957), the faithful disciple of Gustave Lanson, the father of positivist literary history in France; from his post as the first Marshal Foch professor of French at Oxford, Rudler inculcated in generations of students (and they in their students) a simplified version of his master's method—often rejected and derided by later generations.

Amateurs and professionals

One of the difficulties of modern languages was the problem of academic respectability. Where were the qualified teachers for this new university discipline? At the outset, those who were not native speakers of the language in question would have no specialist training, and were likely to depend on chance to bring them the necessary exposure to the language and culture. Amateurs, in a word (though in the days before doctorates it was normal enough for university professors to have rather scanty or unorthodox qualifications).

Thomas Okey (1852–1935), described in the Oxford DNB as ‘basket-maker and Italian scholar’, is a case in point: the son of a basket-maker, he worked in this craft industry until his forties, but he was also a passionate reader, largely self-taught, and in 1896 abandoned his original trade to become a full-time adult education teacher, mainly in Italian. He translated Italian literature (being responsible for Purgatorio in the Temple Classics Dante), wrote many books on Italian and French subjects, but also on basket-weaving, and was unexpectedly called at the age of sixty-seven, in spite of his ‘complete absence of formal qualifications’, to be the first holder of the Serena chair of Italian at Cambridge. More often, it was people qualified in other subjects who moved into the new modern language departments. The Canadian-born William John Rose (1885–1968) was intending to undertake a doctorate in classics when he moved to Leipzig in 1912, but he quickly transferred to Prague as a representative of the World Student Christian Movement; caught in Silesia by the outbreak of the First World War, he devoted the war years to the study of Polish language, culture, and history, and during the 1920s lived for many years in Poland. It was his status as an expert in the field that led to his appointment in 1935 as professor of Polish and subsequently director of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. He was the author of some 300 published works, devoted, as he saw it, to explaining the Polish point of view—a prime example of the role of go-between often adopted by teachers of modern languages, particularly the lesser-known languages.

  Austin Gill (1906–1990) by James Johnston Rough, c.1939 Austin Gill (1906–1990) by James Johnston Rough, c.1939
The two world wars played an important part in the career of many modern linguists. Often, as with the Hispanist Sir Peter Russell (1913–2006) or the French scholar Austin Gill (1906–1990), it was their existing expertise that led to war-time assignments that were some way from the calm of the academy—Russell with MI5 in Jamaica, West Africa, and Ceylon, Gill with the British Council in newly liberated Algiers and Paris. In other cases, as with Rose in the First World War, it was the war experience which brought them to a new field. Eric Ditmar Tappe (1910–1992), for instance, learnt Romanian on a crash course at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies with a view to being parachuted into the country to link up with the anti-German resistance. In the event, Romania's volte-face in August 1944 meant that he was sent to the British military mission in Bucharest; while there, he witnessed the imposition of communist rule, to which he remained fiercely hostile, but also gained a knowledge of the culture that allowed him to become an influential champion of Romanian studies. Somewhat differently, Ned Goy (1926–2000) was one of the 5000 linguists to profit as a national serviceman from the Russian courses that were organized in the cold war period; many of these servicemen went on to teach Russian, but Goy moved to Serbo-Croat, in which he became a leading expert.

In the second half of the twentieth century the profession stabilized, and most scholars and teachers had appropriate degrees, increasingly doctorates (once seen as the Germanic kiss of death). For these professionals, there was a new struggle. It was not enough to be a go-between to achieve academic respectability. Since the subject centred on the written language, not all non-native university teachers were necessarily fluent speakers—Oxford students of French were entertained by the strange accent of Enid Starkie (1897–1970). But oral proficiency came to count for more as the century progressed, and this brought with it the danger of their departments appearing to colleagues in other disciplines too much like a Berlitz School. A history professor in Edinburgh reportedly referred to his French colleague as the ‘Oo la la professor of French’.

  Enid Mary Starkie (1897–1970) by Norman Parkinson, 1951 Enid Mary Starkie (1897–1970) by Norman Parkinson, 1951
What was needed was a demonstrable disciplinary coherence in a notoriously baggy subject, which had always included language, literature, history, thought, and social studies. In the early part of the century a kind of philology which combined historical linguistics and the history of literature was the usual solution. This did not prevent struggles. In German, for instance, Jethro Bithell (1878–1962) was one of a ‘generation of scholars who sought to liberate literary studies from the positivistic and philological approach of their German-born teachers’ (Oxford DNB). One could find similar examples in most modern languages, most of all perhaps in French, where the discipline expanded rapidly in the late twentieth century to encompass cinema, art history, post-colonial studies, women's studies, and much else, most notably the French ‘theory’ that had at first been taken up more enthusiastically by English departments. For reasons of age, these developments are not yet strongly represented in the Oxford DNB, but the entries for Donald Charlton (1925–1995) and Malcolm Bowie (1943–2007) show how the tide was running.

A glass ceiling

But why so many men and so few women in a field which seemed to many quintessentially feminine? Modern European languages—notably French and Italian—were, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, supposedly female accomplishments, along with drawing and piano-playing. More and more women became active in the nineteenth century as translators, and when modern languages came to the universities the majority of students were women, whose admission to university study roughly coincided with the opening of language departments. But academic power structures and entrenched social attitudes meant that these students rarely went on to become scholars and university teachers, still less professors, and few of them figure in the Oxford DNB. Even in 1983, when women students of modern languages outnumbered men by at least three to one, only 29 per cent of university teachers of French were women, and these were mostly in junior posts. It was only in the last decade of the century that things began to change more dramatically.

There were, of course, some exceptions, even quite early on, and we can recognize the achievements of figures such as Mildred K. Pope (1872–1965), Elsie Butler (1885–1959), or Dame Elizabeth Mary Hill (1900–1996), all of whom had unusual trajectories. When Pope arrived at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1891, there was no honours school in modern languages, and she had to serve her apprenticeship as a romance philologist by correspondence course. A fighter for women's suffrage and volunteer relief worker in the First World War, she became a highly popular tutor at Somerville (portrayed by her most famous student, Dorothy L. Sayers, in Gaudy Night, 1935) and established medieval French studies at Oxford. Her authoritative and relentless From Latin to Modern French overshadowed the long vacations of generations of students.

Dame  Elizabeth Mary Hill (1900–1996) by unknown photographer, c.1980Dame Elizabeth Mary Hill (1900–1996) by unknown photographer, c.1980
Elsie Butler, on the other hand, ‘became a German scholar in spite of herself’ (Oxford DNB). Sent by her industrialist father to study in Hamburg, she acquired there ‘a lifelong preoccupation with German literature and a lifelong scepticism about the Germans’. She might have preferred to specialize in French or Russian, but this did not prevent her becoming professor of German successively in Manchester and Cambridge. Her magnum opus, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935), shows the modern linguist as a scholarly critic of a foreign culture; if the translator is a literary creator as well as a mediator, in the same way the academic modern linguist needs to go beyond the role of go-between.

Lisa Hill (as she was known) belonged to the ranks of the political refugees. Born in St Petersburg of a Russian mother and British father, she was one of the flood of Russians leaving their country in 1917, in her case to settle in Britain and study Russian in London. She did her doctorate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies with another émigré, Mirsky, and became a Slavonic lecturer in Cambridge, and head of the newly created Slavonic department in 1948. She was remembered by her students as ‘a legendary figure, black-suited, piercingly blue-eyed, and with hair swept back’ (Oxford DNB), a quite outstanding teacher and inspirational force; among other things, she was largely responsible for the creation of the military Russian courses which marked the life of so many young men in the post-war years.

Teachers and translators

This essay has concentrated on modern languages in the universities. Arguably, though, the most important go-betweens were two other groups, teachers of modern languages in the schools, and translators. Among the former was Harry Rée (1914–1991). A French teacher before the war, in 1942 he was parachuted into France to join the Maquis, where ‘his exploits read as if lifted from The Magnet or Bulldog Drummond’. After the war he showed a similarly adventurous spirit as a teacher at Bradford grammar school, sending boys off to France on treasure hunts which brought them into close contact with many aspects of French society. He later became a head teacher and a professor of education, only to return to the chalk face in the last years of his career.

Some of the translators were also scholars and teachers, figures such as David Luke (1921–2005), translator of Goethe, Thomas Mann, and many others, or the remarkable Max Hayward (1924–1979), a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, who was reputedly locked up by his publisher with a supply of whisky to complete the translation of Doctor Zhivago at double quick speed. Many other translators, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century, had little connection with university once they had graduated, but arguably did more for the understanding of European culture than their more scholarly contemporaries. Magnus Magnusson (1929–2007), writer, broadcaster, and environmentalist, was also the co-translator (with Hermann Pálsson) of five sagas; he was described in his funeral oration as having ‘transformed the way the world saw Icelandic culture and civilisation’. More of a full-time translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff (1889–1930) managed in a period of just ten years to translate (and translate well) almost all of Proust's great novel sequence, several novels by Stendhal, Beowulf, and the Song of Roland, and a variety of works by Pirandello, Abelard, Bloch, and others. Even greater was the contribution of Constance Garnett (1861–1948), who, starting from classical studies, gave the English-speaking world almost all of Chekhov, Turgenev, and Dostoyevsky, as well as the major works of Tolstoy. All translations are liable to be criticized and eventually superseded, but in bringing the Russians to the English-speaking world, Garnett was one of the greatest of go-betweens.

Peter France


J. Johnston Rough, pastel, c.1939, priv. coll.; Austin Gill [see illus.] · N. Parkinson, photograph, 1951, NPG; Enid Starkie [see illus.] · photograph, c.1980, Girton Cam.; Elizabeth Mary Hill [see illus.] · I. S. Panov, engraving (after photograph or sketch, in or before 1875), Novostí Press Agency, Moscow; repro. in Alekseyev and Levin, Vil'yam Rol'ston, frontispiece; William Ralston [see illus.] · H. W. Phillips, oils (after his oil painting, 1843), priv. coll.; George Borrow [see illus.] · photograph, UCL; Robert Priebsch [see illus.]