Michael Hamburger

Michael Peter Leopold Hamburger OBE (22 March 1924 – 7 June 2007) was a noted German-British translator, poet, critic, memoirist and academic. He was known in particular for his translations of Friedrich Hölderlin, Paul Celan, Gottfried Benn and W. G. Sebald from German, and his work in literary criticism. The publisher Paul Hamlyn (1926–2001) was his younger brother.

Life and work

Michael Hamburger was born in Berlin into a Jewish family that left for the UK in 1933, and settled in London. He was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford and served in the British Army from 1943 to 1947 in Italy and Austria. After that he completed his degree, and wrote for a time. He took a position at University College London in 1951, and then at the University of Reading in 1955. There followed many further academic positions in the UK and the US. Hamburger held temporary appointments in German at Mount Holyoke College (1966–7), the University of Buffalo (1969), Stony Brook University (1970), Wesleyan University (1971), the University of Connecticut (1972), the University of California at San Diego (1973), the University of South Carolina (1973), and Boston University (1975 and 1977). He resettled permanently in England in 1978, the year he became a part-time professor at the University of Essex.

Hamburger published translations of many of the most important German-language writers, particularly poets. His work was recognised with numerous awards, including the Aristeion Prize in 1990, and the Order of the British Empire in 1992. Hamburger lived in Middleton, Suffolk, and appeared as a character in W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn. A few months before his death he was visited by the artist Tacita Dean, whose poignant film Michael Hamburger focuses on the man and his home and the bonding of the man and his apple orchard.

Representative works included The Truth of Poetry (1968), a major work of criticism. His Collected Poems, 1941–1994 (1995) drew on around twenty collections. Hamburger himself commented unhappily on the habit that reviewers have of greeting publication of his own poetry with a ritualised "Michael Hamburger, better known as a translator...". Perhaps ironically, his original poetry is better known in its German translations, by the Austrian poet and translator Peter Waterhouse. He often commented on the literary life: the first edition of his autobiography came out with the title A Mug's Game, a quotation from T. S. Eliot, whom Hamburger greatly admired, and to whose sixtieth-birthday biblio-symposium he contributed an eponymous poem of four stanzas which tells its own story.

Michael Hamburger was honoured with the Johann-Heinrich-Voß-Preis für Übersetzung in 1964 and with the Petrarca-Preis in 1992. He died on 7 June 2007 at his home in Suffolk.


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