I. Kenneth H. Ober: A Life in Literature
This issue of Gemano-Slavica, thanks to the gracious encouragement and cooperation of its editor, Professor Paul M. Malone, serves as a commemoration of the life work of Kenneth H. Ober (1930-2003), whose lifelong passion was the study of European languages and literatures and whose researches focused on aspects of translation and translation studies.
After receiving a BA in French and Spanish from the University of Arkansas, Ober served in the US Army and was assigned to study Russian at the Army Language School, Monterey. After his discharge, he studied at the Goethe University in Frankfurt, becoming one of the first "study abroad" students in postwar Germany. He went on to earn an A.M. in Russian from Indiana University and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois, with emphasis on Russian, Scandinavian, and German. (1) He was also among the first group of Americans to study in Moscow, participating in a course of study for university teachers of Russian at Moscow State University in 1963.
After working with various US government intelligence units, Kenneth Ober began his academic career in the early 1960s at Kansas State College in Pittsburg, Kansas. In 1962 he became head of the Russian section at Illinois State University, and later he taught and researched at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he was a Killam Fellow in Comparative Literature, and at the University of Michigan, where he was Director of the Program in Scandinavian Studies. He ended his academic career as Graduate College Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Over his academic life he held a number of grants and awards from such bodies as the Canadian Killam Foundation; Fulbright; American Philosophical Society; National Endowment for the Humanities; Royal Library, Copenhagen; and Niels Pasko Foundation, Odense, as well as a number of research grants from the Program for Jewish Culture and Society and the Research Board, University of Illinois.
An extraordinarily productive scholar, primarily of nineteenth-century European literatures and languages, Kenneth Ober published nine books independently and two with the late P.M. Mitchell. His various publications, involving many aspects of Western and Eastern European languages and literatures, appeared in English, French, German, Danish, and Icelandic; and he is to date the only foreigner to have edited a major work of Danish literature, the diaries of the Danish-Jewish writer Meir Aron Goldschmidt, published by the Society for Danish Language and Literature. (2) Geographically, his research focused on Scandinavia, Russia, and Germany; thematically, it focused on poetry, translation studies, and Judaica. He was also for many years an MLA bibliographer and published extensively on translations of Icelandic, and also Faeroese, literature into world literatures. (3)
Ober translated two book-length Russian studies of the Icelandic sagas that are today considered milestones in the field. His translation of M. I. SteblinKamenskij's The Saga Mind opened to the West the path-breaking scholarship of this preeminent Russian scholar of Old Norse, thus enabling new directions in research. (4) An anecdote may here suffice to illuminate the importance of scholarly translation in its international context. While a visitor at a German university, Ober introduced himself to the resident German linguist and runologist, who, noting his new acquaintance's overlapping interests in Old Norse and Russian, advised him to consult the excellent English translation of this important Russian work by Steblin-Kamenskij. The academic was flabbergasted when it became clear that Ober himself was the translator of the book from which the insights of so much of the German's own research were gleaned. Kenneth Ober's lifelong study of Scandinavian and Russian literatures and cultures continued with the publication of his translation from the Russian of Eleazar M. …