Obituary: Michael Hamburger

Poet, translator and academic, more acclaimed in Germany than in Britain

The poet, translator, critic and amateur horticulturalist, Michael Hamburger, who has died aged 83, was a serious voice in an increasingly superficial age. He was out of tune with what a younger generation of poets were writing, and railed against the shallowness and commercialisation of the modern world, from his fastness: a farmhouse surrounded by orchards in Middleton, Suffolk. None the less, his work received much critical acclaim. He was revered at the various academic institutions at which he taught, though it rankled that he was better known to the wider British public as a translator, rather than as a poet. Perhaps the greatest irony of his life was that towards the end, his poetic standing was higher in Germany than in England, his English-language originals translated into German by the much younger Austrian poet of British parentage, Peter Waterhouse.

Like Waterhouse, Hamburger was born in Berlin, the son of a distinguished German-Jewish professor of paediatrics, Richard Hamburger. The Hamburger household was both cultured and disciplined, qualities which Michael to a large extent inherited. He was startled to be rounded on in his early adulthood by the proletarian poet Jesse Tor, who denounced him as "irredeemably bourgeois".

As befitted such a milieu, music played a significant role in the family. The boy Michael learned to play the piano well, with vague aspirations of a professional musical career, before accepting that he would never be quite proficient enough.

In 1933, as Adolf Hitler tightened his grip on Germany, the Hamburgers decamped to Britain, first to Edinburgh and then to London. Life was hard, until Dr Hamburger was able to retrain to acquire British qualifications. But Michael and his younger brother Paul, who would achieve fame and fortune as a publisher, philanthropist and Labour peer, under the adopted name Hamlyn (obituary, September 3 2001), settled relatively easily into British school life and the English language.

Michael did well enough at Westminster to win a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where he read modern languages (French and German). He was nearly sent down in his first term, when an inebriated Dylan Thomas started a fight in his rooms after a poetry reading.

Poetry had already become Michael's preferred artistic medium by this stage, and he was fortunate to be up at Oxford at the same time as other powerful young voices, such as Philip Larkin, John Heath-Stubbs (obituary, 29 December 2006) and Michael Meyer. One of his first forays into translating involved Baudelaire (Twenty Prose Poems, 1946). But he quickly carved out a niche, introducing to an English-speaking audience the works of German-language writers, notably Friedrich Hölderlin, but also Brecht, Rilke, Grass and others.

In 1943, before completing his degree, he was called up into the army, an experience he later claimed cured him of "monomaniacal literariness". He trained as an infantryman in Kent before being sent to Austria and Italy, where he taught himself Italian in order to be able to read Dante in the original. During one of his postwar leaves, he was able to visit Berlin and track down some of his surviving relatives. His understanding of what had occurred during the years since he had left his homeland marked him irrevocably.

Demobbed in 1947, Michael completed his studies, which enabled him to enter academe. He held a series of teaching posts, initially in Germanic studies, on both sides of the Atlantic, including University College London, Reading University, Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, and the University of California at San Diego. He built a fresh reputation as a literary critic, notably with his 1969 work, The Truth of Poetry.

Throughout his career of part-time teaching, his output as a poet was prolific, from Flowering Cactus (1950) onwards. His Collected Poems appeared in 1984, but the flow did not stop, most of it published by top-end-of-the-market specialist presses such as Anvil, Carcanet and Enitharmon. The translations also poured out, though he vowed that he would spend the closing years of his life focusing on his own work, with limited success. A volume of memoirs, A Mug's Game (1972), was revised and reissued as String of Beginnings (1991).

Hamburger's poetic voice was dark, sometimes tragic, which put him out of step with the post-Beat era. He could be immensely gloomy, as in the poem Lines on Brueghel's Icarus ("Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man."). And when he was being more light-hearted, he was less compelling, as in the couplet: "To Einstein as to Plato/Time was a hot potato." Even in his literary friendships, he gravitated towards other, serious minds, such as WG "Max" Sebald, whom he translated, and whose life was cut short in a car accident.

Michael shared with Sebald a passion for East Anglia, settling with his wife Anne File (the poet Anne Beresford, whom he married in 1951) into a bucolic existence surrounded by fruit rees, especially apple trees. He could temporarily push out of his mind the horrors of the depredations of the planet being carried out by big business, or the dumbing-down of people's minds through the mass media, and he could relish the cultivation of what he himself termed "obsolete and obsolescent" varieties of apple, such as Royal Russett and Orleans Reinette. These he propagated not from the normal method of grafting, but from pips, once triumphantly producing a particularly dark specimen from a core harvested in Ted Hughes's garden.

The British establishment recognised Michael Hamburger's contribution to literature with a somewhat lowly OBE, whereas the Germans gave him numerous awards, including the Goethe Medal, and the Austrians, the State Prize for Translation.

He is survived by Anne, one son and two daughters.
· Michael Peter Leopold Hamburger, poet and translator, born March 22 1924; died June 7 2007

Jonathan Fryer

The GuardianTramp

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