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Barrett, David (1914–1998), Finnish and Georgian scholar and translator, was born on 9 May 1914 at 13 Fleetwood Road, Dollis Hill, London, the son of Frank Piggott Barrett, a stationer's commercial traveller and later a coal merchant's clerk, and his wife, Lilian, née Crouch, a woman with a remarkable knowledge of London's Wren churches. He was educated at City of London School and read classics at Cambridge, where he was a scholar of Peterhouse. Apart from his eclectic linguistic interests, he was also a good classical musician (chapel organist and amateur pianist), and an active Methodist preacher. In 1936, immediately after graduation, he was appointed a cataloguer at the British Museum (which then included the British Library) and worked on its Finnish holdings, rapidly becoming an expert on Finnish. He visited Finland in August 1937 and gained entry into Finnish literary and graphic artists' circles. At the outbreak of the Second World War he was first entrusted with helping to remove the British Museum's collection, under armed guard, to Wales. Then he was employed first by the Foreign Office, then as a captain in the British army, in intelligence work, specializing in the Balkans as well as Finland.

In 1946 Barrett became a lector in English at Helsinki University, and produced translations from Finnish verse and prose (some included in Voices from Finland, 1947, edited by Elli Tompuri), and a widely used, but still unpublished ‘Notes for a Finnish Course’ (now in the archives of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, London, and, unfortunately, lacking some thirty pages). On 11 December 1948, on a visit to London, he married Marjorie Anne McPhee (b. 1912), daughter of Vincent Joseph McPhee, medical practitioner, but continued working in Helsinki until 1950. Thereafter he spent two years as a lecturer in the American University of Beirut, and four more years in the Foreign Office, acquiring a formidably wide, and in the case of Armenian and Georgian deep, knowledge of a number of oriental languages, including Turkish and Tibetan. From 1956 to 1964 he again taught at the University of Helsinki, before being headhunted by a wartime colleague, Norman Sainsbury, by then keeper of oriental books at the Bodleian Library, to organize and catalogue the Bodleian's Caucasian holdings, notably the Wardrop collection of Georgian books. (While in Helsinki University, whose library had been a depository library for the Russian empire, Barrett had taken a keen interest in Helsinki's uniquely well-preserved collection of Georgian books and periodicals, taught himself the language, and helped catalogue them.) His work over the next decade culminated in his widely admired publication, A Catalogue of the Wardrop Collection and of other Georgian Books and Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library (1973), and he then contributed a Bodleian section to the Catalogue of Early Armenian Books, 1512–1850, compiled by Vrej Nersessian of the British Library. Barrett's catalogue of the Minassian collection of Armenian books in Wadham College, Oxford, remained unpublished.

Barrett's work on Georgian made him an internationally recognized authority on the pride of Georgian literature, Shota Rustaveli's The Man in the Panther's Skin, on which he wrote a number of seminal conference and privately circulated papers, one of which for the first time used stylistic analysis to distinguish stanzas by an anonymous ‘poetast’ from the authentic text of this thirteenth-century romance. He also gave extensive advice to Olavi Linnus, the Finnish translator of the poem, but, with his typical diffidence, kept his light under a bushel. (Typically, his translation of Akaki Shanidze's grammar of Old Georgian remains unpublished.) The Georgian authorities recognized his work by inviting him to visit Georgia in 1975. Unfortunately, the KGB belatedly recalled his war-time intelligence role, and sent a Karelian Finn who had once worked under Barrett to intercept him on a beach near Sukhumi. To the dismay of his Georgian hosts, the KGB then interrogated him and confined him to his hotel room before deporting him.

At the same time, Barrett became one of the best-known British translators of Aristophanes, several of his translations (The Wasps, 1964, The Birds, 1978, and others) remaining in print ever since publication by Penguin Books. Inexplicably, his version of The Lysistrata, though performed publicly at Westminster School, was unpublished. His translations of Aristophanes were unique in their combination of meticulous scholarship, stageability, and metrical ingenuity. His interest in Finnish was maintained, with two publications in 1963 and 1970 in Helsinki on Finnish crafts and design, and subsequently a number of articles in the periodical Books from Finland.

In 1981 Barrett retired from the Bodleian as senior assistant librarian, but remained a lifelong and indispensable consultant in Caucasian and Central Asian studies. His presence in the Bodleian was always audible, for in the 1990s he was the last librarian to use a manual typewriter. He served on the committee of the Marjory Wardrop Trust, set up to support postgraduate study in Georgian, and with unlimited patience and geniality allowed scholars and would-be scholars of Georgian to pick his brains. In 1983 the Finnish government made him a knight of the White Rose, first class. He lived latterly at Woodlands, Ticknell Lane, Charlbury, Oxfordshire. His wife, Marjorie, died in 1994. He died on 30 April 1998 at the War Memorial Hospital in Chipping Norton, of cancer. He was survived by the three sons of his marriage.

Donald Rayfield


The Independent (16 June 1998) · Books from Finland, 3 (1995), 114–20; 3 (1998), 168 · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


obituary photograph, repro. in The Independent (16 June 1998),

Wealth at death  

under £180,000: probate, 19 June 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales