Prof. Emeritus Kenneth Northcott lived a vibrant existence, which was often filled with drama—in the classroom, on the stage, and in the British Intelligence Corps after World War II.
A renowned University of Chicago scholar of Germanic studies, actor and translator of significant authors, Northcott passed away June 4 in Chicago at age 96.
“Northcott stood out for his brilliance as a teacher, translator and actor and for his warmth and outgoing personality,” said Françoise Meltzer, the Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature, the Divinity School and the College. “His translations from German to English of important writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Siegfried Unseld are an immensely significant contribution to the humanities and scholarship.”
His inspired translations of Thomas Bernhard’s The Voice Imitator (1997), Walking (2003, 2015), Three Novellas (2003) and Histrionics: Three Plays (1990) remain in print. “Kenneth was always the first translator we approached when considering a work in German,” recalled Alan Thomas, editorial director of the UChicago Press. “Although he was a medievalist by training and translated several specialized studies for us, Kenneth’s greatest achievement was his brilliant translations of the 20th-century writer Thomas Bernhard. Kenneth’s linguistic resourcefulness, sly humor and experience with the theater made him a perfect match for Bernhard.”
For 28 years, Northcott taught medieval German scholarship to UChicago students. “I know his expertise in both Old German and Middle High German won him international respect,” said colleague Bernard McGinn, the Naomi Shenstone Donnelley Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School. “He was particularly interested in Middle High German poetry, especially of the Minnesingers, the lyric poets of the 12th and 13th centuries. Kenneth was extremely generous with his time and sharing his knowledge with students because I sent him several students from the Divinity School who needed to get basic knowledge of High Middle German for their dissertations.”
As an actor and occasional director, Northcott had roles in plays at diverse venues, including the Court Theatre, University Theatre, Hull House, Pegasus Players, National Radio Theatre, Wisdom Bridge, City Lit, Chicago Theatre on the Air and NBC TV. Like the late Nicholas Rudall, who directed him in several plays at Court Theatre, Northcott lived as a scholar by day and an actor by night.
“I first saw Kenneth when I was in high school in a TV production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter,” Meltzer said. “The play only has two actors, and Kenneth made a profound impression on me. I never imagined that he would later become my close friend.”
‘A shoo-in as an interrogator’
Northcott was born Nov. 25, 1922, in London. At the age of 12, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital School, which advanced him on the path toward becoming a professor. During World War II, Northcott served in the British Army’s Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers from 1942 to 1945 and later in Germany as an interrogator in the Intelligence Corps from 1945 to 1946.
“Kenneth was a shoo-in as an interrogator because he spoke fluent German and French—there were plenty of French collaborators to deal with,” said his wife, Patricia John Northcott. “He interrogated lower-level people suspected of war crimes—mostly crimes against Jews. The methods he used were much more timid than the ones favored by the U.S. military today. The stick was using bright lights and waking suspects up at 3 a.m. and marching them around the compound. The carrot was cigarettes.”
After the war, Northcott earned his bachelor’s degree in 1950 and master’s degree in 1952 from King’s College, University of London. Following teaching positions at the University of Glasgow and University of Sheffield, he arrived at the University of Chicago, first as a visiting assistant professor in 1958 before permanently joining the faculty in 1961. During his tenure, Northcott held varied administrative positions, including the dean of students in the Division of the Humanities, resident-master of Pierce Hall, and three terms as chair of the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures.