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News > The House > Michael Hamburger OBE (1924-2007): translator, poet, critic, memoirist, academic, refugee

Michael Hamburger OBE (1924-2007): translator, poet, critic, memoirist, academic, refugee

Michael Hamburger OBE (1941, Modern Languages) was a translator, poet, critic, memoirist, academic, and refugee, whose family fled Berlin for Britain in 1933, "translated from Germany to Britain".
9 Nov 2022
Written by Olivia Tan
The House
Michael Hamburger (Credit: Fotostudio Gezett)
Michael Hamburger (Credit: Fotostudio Gezett)

Michael Hamburger OBE (1941, Modern Languages) was a translator, poet, critic, memoirist, academic, and refugee, who came up to the House in 1941 to read French and German.

Born in Berlin, the Hamburger family fled from Berlin in 1933 to Edinburgh, and subsequently London, Michael describing in 2000 that the family had been otherwise “condemned to death”. Michael’s father, Richard Hamburger, was a distinguished Professor of Paediatrics in Berlin, described by fellow paediatrician Käthe Beutler as “a great doctor, simply nice as a human being, open.” But the 1933 Law of the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service revoked his license to teach, and Richard was forced out of the Civil Service, prompting the family’s emigration. Michael later recalled being 9 years old in Edinburgh and seeing his father studying “in a language he didn’t know and in branches of medicine he hadn’t touched since his first student years... sitting from morning to late night over his textbooks and English dictionaries, so as to qualify as soon as possible for medical practice in Britain,” as the 21 years of practice and associate professorship in Germany were insufficient to qualify in Britain. Richard did successfully requalify and opened a private practice in St. John's Wood, London, but Michael would describe his childhood in the United Kingdom as facing “no end of money pressures at the best of times.” Nevertheless, the Hamburger family life was filled with culture. Michael learned the piano, his “first love”, and his father returned to the cello in the final years of his life, which had been necessarily put aside for decades.

This childhood, once described by a fellow poet as “irredeemably bourgeois,” would equip Michael to win a scholarship to Christ Church, where his love of both poetry and translation flourished. In 1946 Michael published a translation of Twenty Prose Poems by Charles Baudelaire, but found his strengths in transcribing his native German tongue, including the Poems of Hölderlin and the personal writings of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Michael’s time at Christ Church was, however, disrupted by war in 1943, as he was drafted into the military. He served in both Austria and Italy, where he taught himself Italian in order to read Dante in its original tongue. Yet, his wartime experience was not devoid of poetry. Following his 1943 publication of Hölderlin, and in spite of an instinctive reticence, he accepted an invitation to read from the poems at the company’s Poetry Society – albeit following a direct order from his company officer. Ultimately, a friend read aloud for him, as he found himself unable “to talk about a German poet, in my new uniform, in the middle of a war against Germany.”

War in Europe and Michael’s displaced childhood and adolescence stayed with him throughout his life, evidenced in his 1973 collection Ownerless Earth and 1991 memoir entitled A String of Beginnings. The 1950 poem From the Notebook of a European Tramp describes a narrator traversing a devastated Europe, stating “I still tried/ To live like other men and not to know/ That all we lived for had already died.” Michael’s poetry betrays a loneliness and conflicted sense of identity, hidden by his seemingly frictionless transition into the ‘stiff upper lip’ nature of British life and schooling. By his own admission, Michael was a “survivor from a different culture,” to whom translation came naturally, having been himself as a child “translated from Germany to Britain.” But his poetry explores not only rootlessness, but an acceptance and open exploration of a fractured identity. The 1962 poem Conformist may begin “Branded in childhood, for thirty years he strove/ To hide the scar,” but it ends “Come late into the freedom his from birth/ To breathe the air, and walk the ownerless earth.”

Michael is best remembered in Britain for his career as an academic, translator, and critic in the University of Reading and the United States. In later life he married fellow poet Anne Beresford, had three children, re-married Anne following a breakdown in their marriage, and retired to an orchard in Suffolk where he was often depicted amongst his apple trees, including in Tacita Dean’s 2007 film Michael Hamburger. Although celebrated by contemporaries in Germany, his poetic legacy is largely overlooked in Britain, where he is better known for his work highlighting other German writers. Michael’s poetry was nonetheless a significant contribution to the post-war exploration of modernity and identity.

“Everything I saw and heard and felt did something to me, though I’ve forgotten most of the details. That’s one reason why one writes: sooner or later almost everything about a life is forgotten, by the person who lived it and by the others.” – Michael Hamburger, String of Beginnings


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