Thursday,25 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-
Thursday,25 April, 2019
Issue 1123, 22-28 November 2012-

Ahram Weekly


Denys Johnson-Davies, translator, Homecoming, Sixty Years of Egyptian Short Stories, Cairo: AUC Press, 2012, pp359

When veteran translator Denys Johnson-Davies, one of the world’s leading translators of Arabic literature, first started translating the modern literature of the Arab world into English few, if any, western publishers were willing to include it on their lists.
As he writes in the introduction to his latest book, Homecoming, Sixty Years of Egyptian Short Stories, a panoramic overview of the development of the genre since the 1940s,  “having studied Arabic at both the newly set-up School of Oriental Studies at London University and then at Cambridge, this just before the beginning of the Second World War, I came across no one in academic circles who seemed to be aware that a revolution had occurred in Arabic literature” with the introduction of western genres like the novel and the short story into it.
Western academics were oblivious of modern Arabic literature, and western publishers were reluctant to take the risk of publishing it. Having produced a translation of the short stories of pioneering Egyptian writer Mahmoud Teymour in 1946, Johnson-Davies writes, “I began working on a volume of short stories that was to represent the genre as practiced in the Arab world” as a whole.
The only western publisher interested in publishing it insisted that it be presented as a work for specialised academic audiences. “I understand that not a single Arab government or institution purchased a single copy [and] the first edition was remaindered and the copies sold off to a publisher in Beirut.”
How things have changed since then, notably as a result of Johnson-Davies’s work in presenting the literature of the modern Arab world to English-speaking audiences. Today, he writes, the AUC Press, publisher of the present anthology of Egyptian short stories, “publishes some fifteen translations of Arabic fiction in English a year. Many of these titles then find their way into other languages such as French, Italian and Spanish, as well as into such non-European languages as Korean and Japanese.”
Moreover, works of fiction by contemporary Arab writers have become international bestsellers in translation, foremost among them those by the Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany, and then of course there was the 1988 award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the late Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.
“The position of translations of modern Arabic literature has completely changed since the middle of the last century,” Johnson-Davies concludes. “It is now recognised that an Arab writer can produce a book that proves itself to be a bestseller when translated into another language.”
The present volume contains some 50 short stories by almost as many authors, each being represented by one, rarely two or three, works. All the translations are by Johnson-Davies himself, with many having been culled from previous collections and some appearing here for the first time. The oldest piece is by Mahmoud Teymour, born in 1894 in Cairo and a pioneer of the Arab world’s modern literature, and taken from the volume Johnson-Davies published in the 1940s. Among the most recent pieces are those by contemporary writers like Ahmed Alaidy, Youssef Rakha and Hamdy al-Gazzar.
Johnson-Davies appears to have known most, if not all, of the writers personally, and in some cases he seems to have been responsible for introducing their work to international audiences. In the introduction he recalls a conversation he once had with Mahmoud Teymour, in which the latter expressed the view that “in 50 years all Egyptians will be speaking the classical language.” That prediction has not come to pass, but since it was made Johnson-Davies has proselytised on behalf of authors from several subsequent generations.
His translations of the works of important sixties writers, such as Sonallah Ibrahim, represented here by a story entitled “Across Three Beds in the Afternoon”, and Yahya al-Taher Abdullah, represented by “Grandad Hassan”, have become the standard versions in English, and Johnson-Davies also helped to make the work of Alifa Rifaat, whose story “Another Evening at the Club” is included in this anthology, and Mohamed al-Makhzangi, represented by four of that author’s “very short short stories”, much better known.
What conclusions might be drawn from reading these short stories together? Johnson-Davies says in his introduction that his aim has been to represent the development of the genre in Egypt since its appearance towards the beginning of the last century and until the present day. During that time, he notes, the development of a public, whether reading in Arabic or in English, for this material and the expansion of opportunities for publication have meant that the status of short-story writers has vastly improved from what it was when Teymour or Yehia Haqqi, another pioneering writer, represented here by his story “Mother of the Destitute”, started writing in the 1920s.
At one time, “there seemed to be little hope for any Egyptian writer who chose to take up short-story writing as a profession,” Johnson-Davies notes, referring to the poor prospects of remuneration.  Things may have improved since then.
Contrasting the views of Teymour with those of Mohammed Afifi, who died in 1981, Johnson-Davies says that “the exact opposite” of Teymour’s predictions concerning the use of the classical language has occurred, with even literary writers more and more employing the spoken language in their work and presumably not only for dialogue.
 “I was delighted to find that I still possess a somewhat tattered copy of a volume of short stories entitled Anwar (Lights) by Mohammed Afifi” published in 1946, Johnson-Davies writes. In the introduction to this work, Afifi argued that “a man should write in the language he speaks,” and his translator feels, having watched the habits of Egyptian writers over the 60 years since then, that the majority of his colleagues agree with him, at least where rendering dialogue is concerned.
“Freedom of expression and subject matter are wider today” than they once were, Johnson-Davies writes. “And women writers of short stories – though at one time they scarcely existed – are almost as numerous as men.” On the former point, he comments that since the days of Teymour or Haqqi, when perhaps studied indirection was the norm, “readers, writers, and critics have all become much more liberal in their outlook concerning the content of modern Arabic fiction,” notably with regard to descriptions of interpersonal relationships and the relationships between men and women.
Recounting his experience in the 1960s, “when I published English translations of short stories by several Egyptian writers such as Yusuf Gohar, Yusuf Sharouni and Mahmoud Badawi,” Johnson-Davies mentions that in many cases these were broadcast on the European service of the Egyptian State Radio. “I still have several scripts, badly typed by myself, marked with the date and time when the story was broadcast and the name of the person who read the story and certified it as ‘Passed by the Censor’, followed by a rough signature and date.”
It would be interesting to know what attracted the censor in those days – perhaps references to politics or religion rather than interpersonal relationships. One wonders whether the European service of the Egyptian State Radio, serving a different audience to the Arabic service, was more or less strict with regard to what could, or could not, be broadcast and whether it made exceptions for the presentation of unorthodox ideas if these were cast in the fictional form of short stories.
Anyone who has read Johnson-Davies’s memoir Memories in Translation, A Life between the Lines of Arabic Literature, published by the AUC Press in 2006, will be aware of the full extent of the work that he has done to introduce the literature of the modern Arab world to western readers and of the often witty and penetrating things he has to say about it.
Reflecting on the final pages of the latter book on a life spent translating, Johnson-Davies says that his views have not changed that much since an article he published on the subject in the London-based magazine Al-Adab wa-l-fann in 1946. Though translators are sometimes overlooked, poorly paid, or accorded little in terms of literary status, “where would the cultural world be without its translators?”
“The early Arabs, it seems, showed greater appreciation for their translators; it is recorded that in early Abbasid times the famous [medical doctor and translator] Honein ibn Ishaq was paid a monthly salary and that the caliph Ma’mun rewarded him with the weight in gold of the books he had translated.”
“Translation is an art that requires considerably more than simply having a knowledge of two different languages… As someone once said, ‘nothing moves without translation.’”

add comment

  • follow us on