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James Grieve (1934–2020)

by Chris Mann

The reading public may know him best as a translator of a wide range of titles from Lacour-Gayet's Concise History of Australia, Laurent Keller's The Lives of Ants, André Tchernia's The Romans and Trade, Laurent Danon-Boileau's Children without Language and Jean-Louis Dessalles Why We Talk to Madeleine Colani's Megaliths of Upper Laos.

He also translated two books for children, The Battle of the Vegetables and Patacloc. However, it is as a translator of Proust, a challenge if ever there was one, that Grieve is probably best known. Most people, after realising that the initial translation of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past by Scott Moncrieff in the 1920s had problems, would have noted them and left it at that, or at best edited a revised edition, as was done in 1981 by Kilmartin.

Grieve's solution was more radical: he did a completely new translation of Swann's Way, the first part of Proust's novel, in 1982, following it by Part 2, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, for the Penguin edition of 2002. He had strong views on how one should translate, with the guiding principal being to render the original work in a way that captured all its nuances in an English devoid of strangeness. An important application of this occurs when translating how people speak.

Proust had a tendency to push this characteristic gently in the direction of pastiche, so that any translation which gave a rendition in a neutral way risked losing the fun. The trickiest problem occurred when handling illiterate speech, of which the servant Francoise, with "her uneducated speech forms, her below-stairs malapropisms, her ungrammatical peasantries", was a good example. Grieve chose to rework her giving her Cockney idioms: "Oh, good 'eavens! Dear me! sighed Francoise".

Readers of The Canberra Times will remember Grieve as a reviewer of books. He wrote some hundreds of reviews over a period of 47 years, on subjects which included general literature mainly from the UK and the USA, history, biography, the Orr Case, atheism, the history of ideas, the vulgarisation of science and philosophy, civil rights, voluntary euthanasia, censorship, feminism and homosexuality. They were always entertaining, sometimes excoriating — reviewing a book about Paris under the Nazi occupation which concludes with a series of interviews, Grieve says: "If one thought (as one did) that the bulk of the text is futile (which it is), one would need a newly-minted adjective to measure the uselessness of these."

But again, Grieve did not stop at book reviews. He wrote two young adult novels, A Season of Grannies and They're Only Human, and a novella, Something in Common. As one would hope, their characters' dialogue contributes greatly to giving them an identity and is often very funny, Something in Common in particular being hilarious.

But the author is also the champion of causes as suggested by the book reviews he did, and each of his books has its social conscience edge, treating subjects such as euthanasia, animal rights, grooming, the blended family, incest, homosexuality...

Grieve was also a teacher. In late 1961 he was appointed Senior Tutor in the Department of French in the School of General Studies at the Australian National University. He spent his whole academic life at the ANU, being appointed Lecturer in 1964, Senior Lecturer in 1971 and Reader in 1998.

When he was "retired" in 1999 he stayed on as a Visiting Fellow. He finished second semester 2019 still in full teaching fettle, and died a few weeks after.

Under "Kantian and other distinctions", his CV states: "Having taught at ANU from 1962 to 2019, broke the record set in the late 18th century by Immanuel Kant, of teaching at the same university for 55 years." He is affectionately remembered by generations of students for the time he always gave them, the enthusiasm his classes engendered and the knowledge he transmitted.

Grieve taught students how to write French for all of the 57 years he was at ANU. Here he did not stop at correcting students' work to help them attain the lexical and grammatical skills they needed, but created two major learning tools, a Dictionary of Contemporary French Connectors (1996), connectors being words used in French to order and structure an argument, and the online One-Stop Fiche-Shop (2019), a guide to writing sentences in French. The latter is a work of astonishing scholarship, running to over 3000 pages, with a wealth of illuminating examples which are also stimulating by their intellectual content and which are brilliantly translated. It deals with an enormous range of aspects of the French language, from relatively simple lexical problems to intricate grammatical ones.

If after 1999 Grieve continued to teach discursive writing, he also taught in the Translation Studies course. A colleague says of him: "James was a wonderful source of assistance, inspiration and support. [...] The fact that the postgraduate Translation Studies programme has been so successful, with able students taking the Masters, and some good PhDs, is in no small measure thanks to him."

Lastly Grieve did not stop at giving moral support to causes such as Amnesty International, Save the Children and women's breast cancer research, but also made substantial donations to them. His generosity extended into philanthropy with his sponsoring of various works put on by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, such as Beethoven's Leonora Overture.

Voltaire was one of Grieve's favourite authors, so much so that he wrote a dramatisation of Candide and produced and acted in it several times in the series of French plays he put on over the years at the ANU. It concludes: "l faut cultiver notre jardin". No one put this into action more than Grieve. He will be much missed but his achievements will live after him.

Our condolences go to Stephen, Christina, Ruth and Juliet who were with him in his last weeks.

Original publication

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Citation details

Chris Mann, 'Grieve, James (1934–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1934


15 January, 2020 (aged 85)
Campbell, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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