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Some personal memories of Peter Newmark

Jeremy Munday, University of Leeds

I first came across Peter as an MA student of Applied Linguistics and as a trainee translator studying for the Diploma in Translation, when I studied his books Approaches to Translation (Pergamon 1981), A Textbook of Translation (Prentice Hall 1988) and Paragraphs on Translation (Multilingual Matters 1993). He was a renowned name at a time when Translation Studies was just beginning to develop. In September of that year (1993), I encountered him in person in the middle of my first conference paper, on translation equivalents in bilingual lexicography. It was a conference on translation theory and practice, held in Birmingham, and half way through the gentleman at the back intervened to ask a question. Not realising the stature of my questioner, I replied to say I would prefer if he would please wait till the end. Thankfully, he did. Imagine my surprise, and embarrassment, to discover that it was Peter. His question, by the way, was whether I thought that the word ‘middleman,’ which I had used in an example, was always negative. My answer was “Normally it is.”

Peter was always interested in language and languages, always fascinated about translation. Perceptive and generous in his insights. Tireless, unbelievably so, in his activity, his lectures, his writing. Insistent in his fight for language learning. And always very interested in people. Three years later, at the Transferre Necesse Est conference in Budapest in September 1996, I was amazed that he should be so kind as to remember me, shake my hand and congratulate me on my paper. Four years after that, in the summer of 2000, when I was appointed to a lectureship at Surrey, he took the trouble to write to me directly, congratulating me on my appointment and offered advice on settling in at Guildford. This care which he directed to people is something I shall never forget.

During the six years I spent at Surrey, we would meet for lunch at the University about once a month. In the five years since I moved to Leeds, we continued to meet, though less frequently, either in the centre of Guildford or, more recently, in London at meetings of the editorial board of The Linguist (the publication of the Chartered Institute of Linguists), for which he had proposed my name. They were always very special moments that I would look forward to and savour. Peter was a major figure in translation theory but very down to earth. A fascinating person, willing to speak, when prompted, about the historic events he had witnessed, delighting in talking about his family, his hometown of Brno, classical music (chiding me for not sharing his tastes), always asking after my own young family and my own career. Palestine, the Labour Party, justice, fairness, truth, topics which he expressed passionately but also with an impish sense of humour.

I know I am far from the only one whom he received with such warmth and support. In his lectures at the university he would give out his phone number and encourage students to contact him to talk about translation. He willingly accepted the invitation to write a chapter on linguistic translation theory for The Routledge Companion to Translation Studies (Routledge, 2009) that I was editing. He accepted suggestions I made for its revision, discussed enthusiastically over lunch, and then, once the book was published, he sent a detailed letter of suggestions for improving it. He had clearly read every word. Rereading the letter today, written in his inimitable and almost indecipherable writing, I have to smile at its cover note: “Jeremy, here are my notes on the Companion. Are they legible?”

Peter’s position in the field of translation studies is a slightly controversial one. I think it is important to remember that the works by which he is best known were published in his 60s and 70s after his formal retirement from his role as dean of languages at the Polytechnic of Central London (now, Westminster University).  His leadership had seen the development of vocationally oriented language degrees and the launch of the first postgraduate diploma in technical and specialized translation in the UK. He was a pioneer in that field and his writings reflect this practical orientation. They abound with examples and apply linguistic theories to real-life translation situations. For this reason, he is held in very high esteem by students and translators around the world. For instance, international postgraduates writing their theses on the translation of cultural items still make use of his classification of cultural categories – ecology, material culture, social culture, social organization, gestures and habits (Newmark 1988: 94-104). Likewise with his analysis of the translation of lexical metaphors (ibid.: 104-114). He is also one of the few in translation studies to have worked on the important theory of functional sentence perspective, promoted by his colleague and friend Jan Firbas (1921-2000) in Brno.

It is no secret that he disliked some of the more recent developments in translation studies and was not reticent in broadcasting this, sometimes less than sensitively, at conferences and in writing. I recall his telling me that the summary of his work in the first edition of my Introducing Translation Studies (Routledge, 2001), where I had focused on his terms semantic and communicative translation and their relation to Nida’s dynamic and formal equivalence, was deficient. He was keen to remind me that, for him, the truth-seeking nature of the translator’s work was paramount. This ethical stance appears again and again in his writing, for example in his five ‘medial translation factors,’ which appeared original in his Paragraphs on Translation (1993) and were revisited in his ‘Translation now’ column of The Linguist (42.6, 2003, reproduced in the tribute to him in 50.5, 2011). These factors are the logical, truth, aesthetic, ethical and language. In this concentration on ethics, Peter chimed with the concerns of other theorists, although his own view was often very prescriptive.

I feel fortunate to have had the chance to discuss ideas with him so often. At our last meeting, at the end of April 2011, I was pleased to see he was still very active, perceptive and probing, despite his evident tiredness. I shall miss him very much.