Obituary:David Barrett

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AT THE time of his death David Barrett was Consultant in Caucasian and Central Asian Studies to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University, from which he had retired in 1981 as Senior Assistant Librarian. In his spare time he excelled as a translator of Aristophanes.

In 1965, he was "head-hunted" by the then Keeper of Oriental Books, Norman Sainsbury, a friend and colleague of Second World War days, during which they were both involved in cable censorship for the Foreign Office, to fill a new position which had been specially created with him in mind. The brief for this was to bring under bibliographical control the library's extensive holdings relating to the languages and literatures of the Caucasus, for the most part in Georgian and Armenian, of which the Wardrop Collection is the crowning glory. This brief was later extended to include responsibility for the upkeep and cataloguing of the library's materials in Tibetan and the Turkic languages.

Born in 1914, Barrett attended the City of London School, and subsequently became a Scholar of Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he read for the Classics Tripos. While at university he was active in the Methodist interest and used to preach in the villages near Cambridge.

In 1936 he went as a cataloguer to the British Museum, where he was encouraged to work on the Finnish collection and bring this up to date. He would regale his friends with hilarious accounts of how the museum provided him with a revolver with which to guard consignments of its treasures in transit to safe storage in South Wales away from war-threatened London. He had not the slightest idea how to fire it.

A more active involvement in Finnish matters dates from his appointment as Lector in English at the University of Helsinki, in which capacity he served for two spells, from 1946 to 1950 and from 1956 to 1964, separated by two years as lecturer at the American University of Beirut and four years at the Foreign Office, where, during the war he had worked in the Balkan division, holding also the rank of captain in the British army.

His recollections of his very first visit to Finland, in August 1937, appear in the periodical Books from Finland (1995). A number of translations of learned articles or items of creative literature featured there, particularly during the 1980s.

In the earlier absence of any practical grammar of Finnish for English speakers, Barrett produced his own, which was widely circulated in typescript but never published. While in Finland his interest in Georgian studies was evoked by a collection of 500 works in that language received at Helsinki University under the copyright legislation of the former Tsarist government and he helped to catalogue this.

At the Bodleian his major achievement was the publication of his Catalogue of the Wardrop Collection and of Other Georgian Books and Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, which appeared in 1973. He collaborated closely with Vrej Neressian of the British Library in the production of a Catalogue of Early Armenian Books 1512-1850, to which he contributed the chapter devoted to Bodleian holdings. Again, in the Armenian field, he produced what is the only listing of the Carlo Minassian collection held by Wadham College, Oxford, which, for the moment, only exists as a typescript.

He was held in particularly high esteem in Georgia, which he visited in 1975. Both in Georgia and without he was recognised as something of an authority on the work of its national poet Sota Rustaveli, and spoke at a number of symposia on such subjects as "Vepxistqaosani: a few notes and queries" and "Vepxistqaosani: making sense of the prologue". He did a translation of Akaid Shanidze's grammar of the ancient Georgian language which, sadly, never saw publication. In view of his scholarly attainments he was uniquely well qualified to assist Olavi Linnus with his Finnish translation of the Rustaveli classic, since Linnus was unconversant with Georgian.

He also translated Aristophanes. The Frogs and Other Plays (1964) and The Knights, Peace, The Birds, The Assemblywomen, Wealth (with Alan H. Sommerstein, 1978) were published as Penguin classics. A further translation, of the Lysistrata, remains unpublished, although it received a public performance at Westminster School.

All his translations are remarkable not only for their accurate rendering of the original, but also for their readability, and his versions of Aristophanes have gained wide acceptance for school and college performances. The metre he uses has echoes of his earlier activity as a chapel organist in that it is based on hymn tunes then known to him.

David Barrett was a skilled amateur pianist with a wide-ranging knowledge of music, his favourite composers being Bach, Mozart and Haydn. A companionable man, he loved to invite his friends to the family home in Wembley, where they would be hospitably entertained by his mother, a lady with a comprehensive knowledge of the history of London, in particular, of its Wren churches.

Adrian Roberts

David Barrett, librarian, translator and Finnish and Georgian scholar: born London 9 May 1914; Assistant Librarian, Bodleian Library 1965-78, Senior Assistant Librarian, 1978-81, Consultant in Caucasian and Central Asian Studies 1981-98; married 1948 Marjorie McPhee (three sons); died Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire 30 April 1998.

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