Translator and poet who wrote about his Scottish heritage

Born: October 13, 1932;

Died: November 3, 2018

ALISTAIR Elliot, who has died aged 86, was distinguished both as a poet and as a translator. In the former capacity, he was widely recognised for his articles in the likes of The Spectator while as a translator he adapted a hugely successful stage version of Euripides’ Medea (1993) which starred Diana Rigg and enjoyed a long run in both the West End and on Broadway.

One of his most admired translations was his 1984 version of Horace’s epic poem On The Appian Way which told of the poet’s journey from Rome to Brindisi in 37BC. A critic wrote that it was an object lesson in how to tell a tale in verse.

Elliot combined writing and translating (from Greek, Latin and French) with his day job as a librarian at Newcastle University and was much respected as a fine wordsmith.

One of his last books was a reconstruction in 2008 from fragments of Euripides’ play Phaethon. With scrupulous scholarship Elliot translated the surviving 327 lines of the Euripides play and reconstructed the rest. Elliot had the knack of capturing the essence of the original with a musical flair that enlivened the fragmented text. The result was widely praised by classicists for its honesty and his linguistic virtuosity.

Alistair Elliot was the son of a Scottish GP and his mother was a nurse. He was brought up initially in Liverpool but during the Second World War he was evacuated with his sisters to the Palm Beach home of the industrialist Charles Merrill.

After the war he attended Fettes College (1946-50) where he played in the school orchestra, sang in the Chapel Choir and won the Governors’ Prizes for Latin and English Verse. In his last year he presented a paper entitled Evolution, God and Music. He won a scholarship to read classics at Christ Church, Oxford.

On coming down from Oxford he took various temporary jobs – as an invoice clerk at Covent Garden market, waiter, film critic, supply teacher and actor. He then became a librarian in London, Shiraz in Iran and finally at the Philip Robinson library at Newcastle University which has an outstanding collection of rare books and manuscripts. He retired from that position in 1982 as head of special collections.

It was the range of Elliot’s output that many colleagues so admired. The great classical translations (notably Vigil’s The Georgics) earned him much renown with fellow classicists. A lighter side was seen in his verses about a Roman hostess whose luncheon arrangements are interrupted by the invasion of Alaric’s Goths in The Roast Pig.

Elliot had the ability to translate about everyday subjects – Italian Landscape Poems, French Love Poems, Roman Food Poems and his translation of Paul Valery’s complex poem La Jeune Parque won widespread praise. He made the difficult verse accessible, “Enough” one critic wrote “for bafflement to turn into admiration.”

But he never lost sight of his Scottish heritage. Elliot often revisited the west coast – especially the Outer Isles. In Telling the Stones he included a poem he wrote when his father died and which appeared in The Herald - it beautifully captured life in Sutherland a century ago.

His poems range far and wide and combined the everyday with a clear insight into Highland living. There were tales of an uncle who returned from Gallipoli to the Highlands where there was “nothing to shoot but bottles on the shore /and deer” and The Lochmore Fragment, which lovingly traces Elliot’s own Scottish background. In Christine’s Sitting Room the poet reads Greek poems to friends in the Outer Isles which tell of his own mortality and gently muses that what’s new "will disappear/like the old stuff". There was also Elliot’s vibrant enthusiasm and love of Scottish traditions in Highland Hospitality.

In 1992 the director Jonathan Kent asked Elliot to translate Euripides’ grisly play Medea. Diana Rigg was thrilling in the title role and Elliot’s understanding of the drama was widely admired. A New York critic said that the production proved that great theatre still exists and that Elliot’s translation was “straightforward, achieving an easy naturalism instead of the usual highflying poetry. It also renders the material easily accessible.”

Elliot was a keen supporter of Northern Poetry Workshop for many years. He is remembered by other members as modest and encouraging to other poets – especially the young. One member recalls, “Alistair was a warm, astute, courteous presence, insatiably curious and with a sense of mischief.”

His awards included a Cholmondeley Award from the Society of Authors in 2000.

He is survived by his wife, Barbara (nee Demaine), an Oxford contemporary who taught at Central Newcastle High School who he married in 1956 and by their two sons, Matt and Will.