Obituaries: Brian McCluskey: Scot who headed EU translation service

Brian McCluskey, director-general EU translation service. Born: June 11 1937 in Glasgow. Died: April 2 2022 in Bordeaux, aged 84

Brian McCluskey, who died recently in Bordeaux, achieved the highest rank of any Scot ever to work for the European Union. A committed European and gifted linguist, he became director-general of the EU’s translation service, managing a staff of around 2,000.

After Brexit, which he found immensely distressing, Brian and his wife Maureen took French citizenship. Ode to Joy was played at the funeral in Bordeaux, where their son Stephen gave the eulogy partly in French. Describing Brian as “the Kenny Dalglish of translation,” Stephen described how as part of the post-Second World War generation, Brian was passionately committed to the work of building understanding and cooperation between European nations.

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

A committed European, Brian McCluskey found Brexit extremely distressing

Brian was Dux of Holy Cross and 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 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, feeling he had found a direction that suited him better.

While doing National Service, Brian returned to his old University for a dance, where he met Maureen, a student at the time. Maureen refused his offer of a dance, 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 Maureen 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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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 Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris.

But Brian had decided his destiny lay outside his homeland and that translation was his vocation. Brian and Maureen 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 for 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.”

When Britain and Ireland both joined the Common Market in 1973, Brian was excited and full of optimism for the future. He grasped the chance to move to the EU’s new English language department. 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 retirement in 2002. Brian was a kind, courteous man, and a considerate manager of his team.

Brian’s 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. David inquired of Maureen, fearing a mid-life crisis, “Does he do that often?” “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's brothers Dominic and Christopher predeceased him, as did one son, Kenneth. He is survived by wife Maureen, son Stephen, daughter Karen, sisters Phil and Angela and ten grandchildren.


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