Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 January 2012
Issue No. 1080
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Davies: translator of Arabic literature

Working as a professional translator of Arabic literature for only a little under a decade, Humphrey Davies has already staked up a number of literary prizes. He talked to David Tresilian in Cairo

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Humphrey Davies

"Translation is an intrinsically lonely task," says Humphrey Davies. The Cairo-based British translator has a list of translations from mostly modern Arabic literature that includes some 18 titles, all completed over the past ten years. No one could arrive at such a list without impressive industry and many hours spent alone surrounded by reference books and dictionaries. Davies confesses to loathe taking part in the kind of debates that animate the literary scene, which are sometimes "deeply depressing" he says.

The fact that this list contains the English translation of Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany's bestselling novel Imarat Yaqubiyan ( The Yacoubian Building ), selected by the British Society of Authors as one of the 50 outstanding translations of the past 50 years, and of Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury's novel Bab al-Shams ( Gate of the Sun ), winner of a British PEN Club award and of the UK Banipal Trust Prize for Arabic Literature in English Translation, makes Davies's achievement all the more remarkable. It also raises questions about how this prize-winning and remarkably industrious translator chooses the books he undertakes to translate and his philosophy of translation.

Meeting Davies to discuss such matters in Cairo recently, where he has lived for some years and keeps an attractive downtown apartment, he says that earlier translators of Arabic literature, and possibly even those working as late as the 1990s and after the 1989 award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, were often expected to play a proselytising role, recommending certain authors for translation to UK or US publishers in the absence of expertise abroad.

Today, however, Davies says, the situation has changed greatly, with foreign readers being more likely to recognise the names of Arab writers, and not only those with the highest profiles like al-Aswany or Mahfouz. Foreign publishers also have a clearer idea of the modern and contemporary literary scene in Arab countries and particularly of that in those countries that have thus far yielded the lion's share of titles for translation, such as Egypt and Lebanon. This has been due not only to the appearance of critically acclaimed and best-selling works on the English- speaking market, but also to the efforts made to bring British and US publishers into closer contact with the Arab literary world through book fairs and the like, Davies contends. There are also more translators and fewer mediocre ones.

"It may have been the case in the past that some foreign publishers, not knowing the Arab literary scene, would ask for a book that referred to women's issues or one that had the kind of political interest likely to appeal to western readers," Davies comments. "But today this kind of thing is less and less the case, and I have never agreed to translate a book that I didn't like or didn't think of as deserving of translation."

"In fact, today I am booked up for years in advance. Unfortunately this does not give me much time to proselytise on behalf of certain writers. Fortunately, the publishers I work with have a clear idea of what they want, and this tends to coincide with the works that I would want to translate anyway. However, even if I do not have as much time as I would like to do the necessary research to find out about new authors or write proposals for publishers, there are writers that I hope I will be able to work on in the future."

"These include the Egyptian surrealist writer Mohamed Hafez Ragheb, who used to work selling newspapers at Ramle Station in Alexandria. I also volunteered to translate, among older authors, Al-saq ala al-saq ( Leg over Leg ) by the 19th-century Lebanese writer Faris al-Shidyaq -- a massive, seminal work of the Arab renaissance with overtones of Sterne's Tristram Shandy. It has never been translated into English before, and I am doing it for a new series of Arabic classics being put out by New York University Press in parallel English and Arabic versions."

English-language publishers today, Davies adds, are more likely than they once were to accept Arabic literature as part of world literature, following the intuitions of western readers. While this has meant that Arabic literary works that consciously rehearse certain political or social issues, notably regarding women's rights, for example, or anything having to do with the private sphere, are less likely to be translated now than they once were in the absence of proven literary value, Davies is less sure than some that there is anything reprehensible about wishing to read Arabic literature for information about Arab culture and society.

"It can be a case of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't,'" he says, explaining why he tries to keep out of controversies over which authors or which books should be translated. "If works are not translated, then the criticism is that Arabic literature is being overlooked in the West, and if they are, then it is that they are being translated for the wrong reasons. Moreover, what is wrong with wanting to read literary texts as a way of learning about a given society? More intense exposure to the Arab world creates in the minds of English-speaking readers not just a political space but an imaginative space, and what better to fill that space than literature?"

Looking at the list of works that Davies has translated, it is notable that many of them are by Egyptian authors, and in addition to two works by al-Aswany, he has also translated works by Mahfouz ( Thebes at War and a new translation of Midaq Alley ), Ahmed Alaydi ( Being Abbas El Abd ), Bahaa Taher ( Sunset Oasis ), Gamal al-Ghitani ( Pyramid Texts and The Mahfouz Dialogues ) Hamdy el-Gazzar ( Black Magic ), among others. Yet, in addition to living in Cairo Davies also has firsthand knowledge of several other Arab countries, including Palestine, where he worked for the US charity Save the Children, and Sudan, where he worked for the Ford Foundation. Does he plan to translate more works by non-Egyptian Arab writers?

In reply, Davies points to his award-winning translation of Lebanese author Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, as well as of other works by Khoury, including Yalo, winner of the 2010 Banipal Prize for Arabic Literature in English Translation, and, most recently, of As Though She Were Sleeping, which appeared in 2011. He also notes that his translation of Palestinian poet and novelist Mourid Barghouti's I Was Born Here, I Was Born There has just been released in the UK and Egypt.

"I tend not to initiate decisions about what should or should not be translated, since today publishers are more likely to know what they want translated and I am often happy to agree. One factor in my choices is geographical: I would need more support were I to agree to translate works by, say, Moroccan, Algerian or Iraqi writers, since lurking behind the standard language there is always the shadow of the dialect spoken in the countries from which Arab authors come. I have lived and worked in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt and know the dialects of these countries, which makes it easier for me to translate their literature."

Sometimes such works present formidable technical demands on translators, with Khoury's As Though She Were Sleeping, for example, containing "several long monologues in Lebanese colloquial Arabic" that would be impossible to translate by anyone not having a firsthand acquaintance with the country or the assistance of the author. The same is true of the same author's Yalo, where research was needed to understand such politically sensitive and linguistically thorny issues as the correct translation of words relating to the Assyrian (or Syrian, or Syriac, or Suryoyo) community in Beirut, to which the main characters belong and its historical background.

Davies says that he makes a point of calling on living writers whose work he translates for advice, among them Ahmed Alaydi, whose novel Being Abbas El Abd ( An takun 'Abbas al-Abd ) is written in a mixture of styles, including parodies of the standard language, the Cairene vernacular, the speech of the country's young people, and the langue de bois of the Egyptian national press. In this work in particular the challenge for the translator lies in finding apt equivalents for these styles in contemporary English, bearing in mind that the readers of the translation may in themselves be used to different varieties of English vernacular. Similarly, in Khoury's case, he has traveled twice to Beirut to consult the author.

The most important thing for any literary translator, Davies explains, is to find a "voice" that can represent the work in English, a process that can only come about through intuition combined with the hard work necessary to ensure that the translator understands the full range of meanings packed into the author's idioms.

The intended audience may also influence the choice of register. "If it's a modern sensibility, then that will tend to push the translation into one box, whereas if it is a historical work, that will encourage the translator to give the translation a period flavour, though clearly one doesn't want to overdo it. The main thing is never to underestimate the intelligence of the reader of the translation. I found myself writing a long introduction to my translation of Mahfouz's novel Thebes at War ( Kifah Tiba ), explaining all the historical references and so on. And then I thought, why am I doing this? No one is asking me to do this -- this is a work of literature, not something to be read by an academic."

It is not that Davies, the holder of a PhD in Arabic from the University of California, as well as of a first degree in the subject from Cambridge, does not have impeccable academic credentials, and occasionally his speech bears traces of a previous, or parallel, scholarly career. This comes out, for example, when he discusses his translation of the gloriously titled Hazz al-Quhuf bi- sharh qasid Abu Shaduf ( Brains Confounded by the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded ) a 17th- century text that "is one of the richest sources for the Egyptian colloquial language of the period," or when he comments on his ongoing translation of the work of Faris al-Shidyaq, scholarly, rather than popular, translations both. Davies is also a consultant to the School of Humanities at the American University in Cairo, an institution he first came into contact with as a student in the University's Centre for Arabic Studies Abroad (CASA) programme in the late 1960s.

However, for the time being, after a career spent in the Arab world, though in sometimes very different capacities, Davies has decided to settle down as an almost exclusively literary translator and as a translator of modern and contemporary work in Arabic for English-speaking readers wanting to have greater access to the literature of the Arab world.

"I have translated historical and classical works and works of non-fiction that seemed to me to be valuable, such as a work on Ottoman culture in Egypt," he says. "However, for the time being I think I am the only translator who makes his living exclusively from literary translation. Fortunately, there is enough demand for that to keep me very busy."

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