Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 August - 6 September 2006
Issue No. 810
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A translational friendship

By Denys Johnson-Davies

Naguib Mahfouz I got to know during the time I spent in Cairo between 1945 and 1949. We would meet at one of the cafés he frequented, and early on I translated a story from his very first volume, Hamas al-junun, to be broadcast on the English programme of radio Cairo.

In about 1947 I read his novel Zuqaq al-Midaqq and felt immediately that nothing like it had ever been written in Arabic. I remember going to one of Taha Husayn's weekly soirées with Louis Awad, and mentioning the book, to find that no one there had heard of Mahfouz or the novel. Fatma Moussa, one of Egypt's leading critics -- and the mother of the novelist Ahdaf Soueif -- recently reminded me how, when she was a student of mine at Fouad Al-Awwal University, I had spoken to the class with enthusiasm about Naguib Mahfouz and Zuqaq al-Midaqq. Although I had certain reservations about it, I started to translate it and finished about a third of it before giving up, feeling that I would never find a publisher for it. However, the Canadian Arabist Trevor Le Gassick translated the book and published his translation in Beirut.

I know that Naguib Mahfouz entertained hopes that, as I had translated some of his short stories, I would in due course translate one of his novels, as he knew how much I admired his writing. Meeting in one of the cafés he frequented, we would often discuss his work, never imagining that I was addressing a future Nobel prizewinner, I would criticise his novels, insisting, for instance, that a novel such as The Thief and the Dogs was lacking the degree of both sex and violence that English readers would expect from a novel with such a plot. I believe it is a sad reflection on British publishing that had Naguib Mahfouz not won the Nobel prize for literature in 1988 he would not have found a mainstream publisher for his work in English translation.

On one of my frequent visits to Cairo when I was living elsewhere in the Arab world in the 1980s, I learned that Naguib Mahfouz had signed a contract with Mark Linz, the director of the American University in Cairo Press, for the rights to translate his work into English. When I next met Naguib at the café, I asked him about this and expressed the hope that he had concluded a good deal with the Press. He told me that, in fact, he had entrusted his translation rights without any advance payment, and that he had also included the translation rights in all other languages. I was flabbergasted -- and showed it. "And how many of my books have you published?" he asked with a smile. "At least this way I shall get some of my work translated and published in English and other languages." To this I had no answer, and his wisdom in concluding the foreign rights agreement was shown when, unexpectedly, he was awarded the Nobel prize -- due in the main to nine of his novels having appeared in translation through the AUC Press, while one or two other titles appeared in the Arab Authors series that I had started with the British publishers Heinemann Educational.

The story of Naguib Mahfouz and the Nobel prize is an interesting one. During one of my visits to Cairo during the years when I was living in France or Spain, I received a call from a friend to say that the Swedish wife of the French ambassador to Tunisia was in Cairo and wished to see me. We met at the unlikely venue of the Cleopatra Hotel, where she told me that the committee was looking into the possibility of the Nobel prize being awarded to an Arab writer. She had with her a list of names of possible candidates, including the Syrian poet Adonis, the Egyptian short story writer Yusuf Idris, the Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih, and Naguib Mahfouz. She first asked me whether I felt there was any other writer from the Arab world who deserved to be considered, and, feeling that the list was complete, we discussed at length the relative merits of these possible candidates. Adonis could not be called a popular poet, and his decision to give up his actual Muslim name in favour of 'Adonis' did not endear him to many Arabs, quite apart from the fact that his poetry was above the heads of many readers; Yusuf Idris, though highly regarded as the leading exponent of the short story in the Arab world, did not have sufficient material available translated into either English or French, the two languages known to the members of the committee; Tayeb Salih at that time had only his novel Season of Migration to the North, the novel l a The Wedding of Zein, and some three or four short stories available in English and French, and this meager output ruled against his being awarded the prize -- having been his translator into English, I would of course have been delighted if he were to win it. Discussing the merits of the various contenders, it was clear that Naguib Mahfouz was the favorite, not only because of the high quality of his writing but also because of the extraordinary number of novels and volumes of short stories he had produced. Though I was intrigued that consideration was being given to the possibility of an Arab writer, I thought nothing more about my meeting with the Swedish lady and was as surprised as Mahfouz himself was reported to have been when he was first told that he was to be awarded the prize.

While living in Beirut between 1970 and 1974, I was approached to join the team engaged in translating the novels of Naguib Mahfouz into English for publication by the AUC Press. It was felt that most translators did not possess a sufficiently good knowledge of both Arabic and English, and that therefore an initial translation should be undertaken by a native speaker of Arabic and that the translation should then be handed over to one or more persons who would 'iron out' the initial text. I refused to be part of this team, believing that, just as a book cannot normally be composed by a committee of several people, so too the translation of it should be left to one person. A look, for instance, at the title page of the Mahfouz novel Miramar reveals that no less than four names have participated in its translation -- which is not to say that the end result is not perfectly acceptable. Whereas in my opinion not the ideal method of translation, the AUC press project to translate works by Naguib Mahfouz did produce a number of translations of his novels, and it was due to the fact that there was a sizeable body of his work available in English that he won the Nobel prize.

I was responsible for recommending to the translator Philip Stewart the controversial novel Awlad haritna ('Children of our Alley'). He wished to find a work that he could translate for, I think, an MA degree at Oxford; I told him that if he translated the novel I would include it in the Arab authors series, where it was published under the title The Children of Gebelawi. Little did I realise that the novel I had recommended for translation would later become, like Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, the subject of so much uproar and an attempt on the life of the author. previously, when the novel was being serialised in al-Ahram, pressure was put on the newspaper to stop printing the rest of the book, which the religious authorities claimed was blasphemous. At the same time, the writer himself was being asked by the authorities to explain what the book was about and who the various characters inhabiting the alley in fact represented. I happened to be on one of my periodical visits to Cairo at the time and was told by Naguib Mahfouz of the predicament in which he found himself. I said that he should stick to his guns, state that it is not up to the author to start explaining his work, and refuse to answer any question that might jeopardise him with the religious authorities at al-Azhar. However, it became common knowledge that al-Ahram had stopped publication of the novel, and the book was no longer available in Egypt (though an edition, printed in Beirut, could always be bought at one of the better bookshops in downtown Cairo). The English translation was also banned in Egypt and the matter culminated in 1994 (more than thirty years after the book had be serialised in al-Ahram ), when an extreme Islamist, believing the book to be blasphemous (though it was said he had never read it), attacked the writer and badly wounded him by stabbing him in the neck.

When, following the award of the Nobel prize to Mahfouz, it was decided to produce a uniform edition of most of his work, Philip Stewart was invited to have his translation included among the official translations being produced by the AUC Press and Doubleday in America, but, having seen that other translators of the book had been subject to attack, he decided to allow some other translator to make a new official rendering of this contentious novel into English. I was offered the job, but declined, and it was then offered to the American translator Peter Theroux, brother of the well-known travel writer Paul Theroux. His translation was published under the title Children of the Alley in New York in 1996, and with the AUC Press's twenty-volume anniversary edition at the author's ninetieth birthday in 2001....

When Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1988, I suggested to the American University in Cairo Press that they should set up an annual prize under his name for the best novel in Arabic. For some years nothing was done about this until Mark Linz, who had been the director of the Press for three years in the mid-1980s, returned to Cairo in 1995 to take up the same post. I put the idea to him and he was enthusiastic about it. He decided that the prize, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, would consist of a silver medal plus one thousand dollars, ad would also include the novel being translated into English and being published by the AUC Press. He and I paid a visit to Naguib Mahfouz, who welcomed the idea and expressed the wish that I should be on the committee that would be set up to choose the winning novel. Later, however, thinking the matter over, I decided to withdraw, as I felt that the committee should be composed solely of Egyptians, or at least Arabs. The prize was first awarded in 1996, and since then it has achieved a certain eminence: the quality of the translations has been good and the standard of the production and marketing of the finished product as professional as any books published in the west. Even so, only one of the prize-winning novels in translation has found a separate publisher in London or New York, and so the AUC Press established its own sales agreements there to distribute the book directly in Europe and North America.

While I was the first person to translate Naguib Mahfouz -- a story from his very first volume -- I later translated a much more mature story by him entitled "Zaabalawi," which I included in the Oxford University Press volume of Modern Arabic Short Stories and which then found its way into the Norton anthology, Masterpieces of World Literature, where it is the only example of writing from modern Arabic literature. Before he was awarded the Nobel prize I had not translated a complete book by Mahfouz, but after the prize and once the AUC Press had entered into a contract with Doubleday to jointly publish the greater part of his work in English translation, I was given the opportunity to translate some of his work, on favourable terms. I chose first of all to produce a selection of his short stories, feeling that such a volume should do reasonable well and that, along the years, stories would be taken from it for publication in anthologies. This has in fact proved to be the case, and the short story "Zaabalawi" has been republished several times, particularly in the United States.

From Denys Johnson-Davies, Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2006)

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