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Obituary: Brian McCluskey, fluent linguist who became head of the EU’s translation service

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BRIAN McCluskey, who has died in Bordeaux, France, at the age of 84, achieved the highest rank of any Scot ever to work for the European Union as director-general of the EU’s translation service, managing a staff of around 2,000. For Brian, translation was a calling, a gift he used to foster understanding and co-operation between nations.

As part of the post-war generation, he played his part in building peace and unity across Europe. In 1973, the year in which the UK and Ireland joined the Common Market, Brian seized the opportunity to join the nascent English-language unit. In 1980, he became director of the English department and in 1999 was named Director General of the directorate of translation, a position he held until his retirement in 2002.

With his wife Maureen, also a Scot, Brian retired to Bordeaux. They watched Brexit unfold with great sadness and took French citizenship in response. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was played at the funeral in Bordeaux. Brian’s son, Stephen, gave the eulogy partly in French but also drew on Scottish references, calling Brian “the Kenny Dalglish of translation”.

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Although born in Glasgow, Brian moved to Edinburgh midway through high school and attended Holy Cross Academy. Along with his classmate, the environmental artist David Harding, Brian was chosen to represent the academy as part of a friendship exchange between the city’s schools and Munich in 1955. Brian learned Latin, Greek and French at school – German wasn’t offered. But he taught himself to speak fluent German in advance of the two-week trip. Harding recalled: “We went to the ballet and the opera, we went to the Alps. It was life-changing for both of us.”

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Harding remembers spending evenings at the family’s warm and welcoming family home. But Brian’s parents died young – his father while he was still in his teens. Brian studied even harder in response to his loss.

After being made Dux of Holy Cross, he came top of his year at Edinburgh University, graduating with a First and a gold medal in English in 1959. A member of the university’s Dialectic Society, he was deputed to look after W H Auden, and enjoyed recounting how he had to repel the advances of the famous poet.

Brian resisted family pressure to study law; there were many lawyers in the family, including his uncle John, Lord McCluskey. Brian’s brother Dominic qualified as a lawyer first in Scotland and then in France, where he was called on to assist the British Embassy the night Princess Diana died in Paris.

After graduation, Brian sat exams for the Foreign Office and did extremely well but was not offered a job. A Professor at Edinburgh University accused the authorities of anti-Catholic discrimination. This was reported in the press at the time, but Brian rarely referred to it in later life, feeling that he had found a direction that suited him better.

While doing National Service, he returned to his old University for a dance, where he met Maureen, a student at the time. Maureen refused to dance with him, because she was about to leave. But, having friends in common, they soon renewed their acquaintance. In an attempt to impress her, Brian donned his full uniform to visit her when she was in hospital with appendicitis. The couple soon found they were on the same wavelength. Both were keen to travel the world and, as it turned out, Maureen also had an ability for languages.

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They left Scotland on the day they got married, after their wedding breakfast in 1962, never to live there again. While living in London, Brian taught himself Dutch and got a job with Shell in the Netherlands as a translator. Maureen also learned the language fluently.

“When Brian spoke Dutch, people thought he was Dutch. Being Scottish, it was easier for him as some of the sounds are similar.” Maureen said. Brian spoke around 16 languages, several of them with total fluency. “He loved languages. He was fascinated by the different ways they find solutions to the problems of communication.” Brian was also a kind and courteous man, and a considerate manager.

His lifelong friend David Kemp, a classmate at Edinburgh University, was a frequent visitor and after Brian retired, the pair made annual trips to Berlin to attend operas and concerts. Brian and David also loved art, and they visited art galleries together all over Europe.

Once when they were in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with Maureen, two young women walked past, and Brian followed them. “Does he do that often?”, David inquired of Maureen, concerned about a mid-life crisis.

“Oh, it’ll be a language”, she replied, and when he returned after half an hour she asked him, “What was it?” “Albanian, he replied. He rarely came across Albanian speakers at home in Bordeaux and had grabbed the opportunity for some conversation.

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Brian was predeceased by brothers Dominic and Christopher and his son Kenneth. He is survived by two sisters, Phil and Angela, as well as by his wife Maureen, son Stephen, daughter Karen, and ten grandchildren.

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