Obituary: Highgate MI6 translator who fought the Nazis remembered as ‘genius and saint’

A translator who worked for MI6 has been remembered as a “genius and a saint” following her death aged 91.

Dr Jean April Woodward, who lived in Hornsey Lane, Highgate, for nearly 50 years, spoke and translated 12 languages for the Foreign Office and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), where she worked throughout her career.

Her tasks included translating from Russian into English during the Cold War.

She died on December 20 at the Whittington Hospital of double pneumonia.

Her niece, Caroline Hargreaves, 63, remembered: “She loved her country, Queen, and church. She was very devoted.


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“She was very strong-minded, but sensitive as well,” added the former artist, who lives in France.

“She was a very small woman but she was the sort of person who would wait a long time for a bus and then climb up the hill with heavy shopping bags.”

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Born in 1923 in Cheshire, Dr Woodward read music at the University of Liverpool.

She went on to complete a masters degree in comparative literature at Sorbonne University in Paris and study for a PhD in Czech literature in the former Czechoslovakia for the University of London.

It was during her time in France and Czechoslovakia that she became involved in an underground movement fighting the Nazi occupation of Europe, in which she helped Jewish people flee from the continent to the US.

Straight from university, she joined M16 and the Foreign Office, where she put her ability to speak 12 languages to use as a translator.

Ms Hargreaves said: “I think of her as the power behind the throne. She was a little woman but always told the boss what to do.”

She added: “She is irreplaceable. I think of my aunt as a genius and a saint.”

She added: “Her mother said ‘They can’t retire Jean’ because nobody else had all those languages. A bright light has gone out.

“Jean’s humour, kindness, humility, and extraordinary intelligence leave a space that will never be filled.”

She continued to work for the Foreign Office as a consultant until shortly before she died but otherwise spent much of her time at St George’s Church in Bloomsbury.

She often bought and arranged the church’s flowers and accompanied the evensong service on piano.

She also served as the parochial church council secretary for many years.

Dr Woodward had few hobbies, but was a keen piano and organ player and often had two pianos in her home on which to practise.

She also helped to edit her close friend Joyce Collinson’s spy novel A Requiem for Oxford, which Ms Hargreaves believes the book partly reflects her aunt’s career.

She disliked travelling, and favoured public transport over driving.

She said: “Jean was much loved, and her ethics, erudition and level of culture were impressive.”

Dr Woodward is survived by her nieces Cathy, Caroline, Rachael, nephew Stephen and her friend Joyce Collinson. Her funeral will be held at St Michael’s Church in Highgate on Wednesday at 2pm.

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