He attended the University of Edinburgh, where he studied Russian and German. He married mathematician Dusa McDuff, but they separated in around 1975. After living for some time in the Soviet Union, Denmark, Iceland, and the United States, he eventually settled in the United Kingdom, where he worked for several years as a co-editor and reviewer on the literary magazine Stand. He then moved to London, where he began his career as a literary translator.
McDuff's translations include both foreign poetry and prose, including poems by Joseph Brodsky and Tomas Venclova, and novels including Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot (all three in Penguin Classics). His Complete Poems of Edith Södergran (1984, 1992) and Complete Poems of Karin Boye (1994) were published by Bloodaxe Books. McDuff’s translation of the Finnish-language author Tuomas Kyrö’s 2011 novel The Beggar and the Hare was published in 2014.
Among literary awards, he has received the 1994 TLS/George Bernard Shaw Translation Prize for his translation of Gösta Ågren's poems, A Valley In The Midst of Violence, published by Bloodaxe, and the 2006 Stora Pris of the Finland-Swedish Writers' Association (Finlands svenska författareförening), Helsinki.
From 2007 to 2010, David McDuff worked as an editor and translator with Prague Watchdog, the Prague-based NGO which monitored and discussed human rights abuses in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.
- Osip Mandelʹshtam Selected poems, Writers and Readers, 1983, ISBN 9780863160530
- Edith Södergran Complete poems, Bloodaxe Books, 1984, ISBN 9780906427385
- Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, 1987, ISBN 9781852240257
- Ice around our lips: Finland-Swedish poetry, Bloodaxe Books, 1989, ISBN 9781852240110
- Tua Forsström, Snow leopard, Bloodaxe, 1990, ISBN 9781852241117
- Isaak Babel (1994). Collected Stories. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-018462-4.
- Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, Rudin: On the eve, Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 9780192833334
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky (27 February 2003). The Brothers Karamazov. Penguin Books Limited. ISBN 978-0-14-191568-5.
- Fyodor Dostoyevsky (31 August 2004). The Idiot. Penguin Group US. ISBN 978-1-101-16055-8.
- Tua Forsström, I studied once at a wonderful faculty, Bloodaxe, 2006, ISBN 9781852246495
- Albers, Donald J.; Alexanderson, Gerald L. (2011), "Dusa McDuff", Fascinating Mathematical People: interviews and memoirs, Princeton University Press, pp. 215–239, ISBN 978-0-691-14829-8.
- David Mcduff Honoured With State Translators Prize, Yleisradio News in English
- Byatt, A S (25 June 2004). "Prince of Fools". The Guardian.
I had known, without fully understanding before I read this excellent new translation, that the idea of death in this novel is peculiarly pinned to the idea of execution - what I had not thought through was that in a materialist world the dead man in the painting is an executed man, whose consciousness has been brutally cut off.