Why Doesn’t Humphrey Davies Translate More Arab Women?

…And a Few Other Moments from Last Night’s Talk

I never did hear a thorough answer to this question, although moderator Samia Mehrez—head of the American University in Cairo’s new Center for Translation Studies—did ask during his presentation the AUC last night.

Davies’ list of translated works is, after all, markedly male.

Apparently, I coughed during his response—that he doesn’t think in terms of women and men writers—as writer Ursula Lindsay notes below. But Davies also responded with an anecdote about an (unnamed) Arab woman writer whose novel he had translated.

This novel, unfortunately, has not seen the light of day. When Davies brought it to the U.S. publisher, he found that the author’s work did not fit said publisher’s idea of “how an Arab woman writer should sound.” After some wrangling, Davies (and, presumably, the author) withdrew the novel.

Davies returned several times to the theme of U.S. and U.K. editors’ expectations of Arab writers. He seemed particularly to point to American editors as having strong notions about just what sort of Arab world their reading public was prepared to buy.

Beyond that, Davies spoke quite entertainingly about the role of a translator—who he likened to an actor interpreting a playwright’s work—and his own translations. The talk was largely theory-free. He even, during the Q&A, got down to the nitty gritty of how a literary translator is paid.

Davies noted that he is not a writer and has never written. But he said that he was “brought up to revere books,” and advised young translators that this—not just competency with language—is core to a translator’s job.

“You have to be a connoisseur of language.”

Mehrez asked about his feelings about the translator’s “invisibility.” Davies said that, in general, he doesn’t mind—and perhaps even appreciates—his quieter role in the process. Still, he said, this appreciation only goes so far. Once he went to speak at a university along with an author he’d translated. He wasn’t expecting to be paid, but noticed that the author received a check.

“I was told that I was not to be paid, because I was, ‘Infinitely less creative.'”

More about Davies: I interviewed him, a while back, for The Quarterly Conversation.

NOTE: Upcoming lectures in the AUC’s “In Translation” series will be by Jonathan Wright (translator of Taxi and Azazeel) on March 10 and by novelist Ahdaf Soueif (translator of Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah and author of numerous works, including In the Eye of the Sun) on April 28.

Read Ursula Lindsay’s much more thorough piece about Humphrey’s talk on Al Masry Al Youm.


  1. Hello. It’s a pleasure to discover your blog.
    Actually I thought Humphrey did answer the question about women writers by saying: “If I could choose one female writer? …I wouldn’t. I don’t think in terms of women writers versus men writers.”
    (from the Arabist)

  2. Hey Ursula,
    Perhaps he did. I must’ve coughed at that point, or shifted in my chair or something. And my horrible ancient digital recorder picked up my coughing and shifting instead.
    Thanks for the correction,

  3. Although that isn’t a very helpful response. (I’m sure it was highly truncated based on time/topic constraints.) Are there many more male Arab writers than female? Is this guy drawn to the kind of writing done by males (if one can make such a distinction)? Was he scarred by the experience with the female author whose work was suppressed. I mean I don’t think Davies is consciously choosing male writers, but something is obviously happening, whether it is within his choice process or due to external forces.

  4. Yes, it’s true, everyone had a ten-part question for him.

    There are a good number of Arab women writers—probably mostly younger women writers; no prominent ones I can think of from the Tawfiq al-Hakim/Yusuf Idris/Naguib Mahfouz generation. But, for instance, this year the early bettors thought the Arab Booker prize would go to a Lebanese woman writer, Ulwiyya Subh.

    But then she happened to be friends with people on the judge’s panel (the names were leaked) and perhaps because of all the controversy she didn’t even make the shortlist.

    What a lot of kerfuffle, eh?

    In any case, I hope we find her book in English, soon.

    Also: Humphrey noted that about half the books he’s translated were his suggestions, and about half suggested by a publisher. So the list is not entirely his decision, although certainly influenced in a large part by him.

  5. I lied about the older generation. There is, of course Nawal al-Saadawi, Etel Adnan, and I suppose Hanan Al-Shaykh is not really so young any longer, although neither is she part of the first generation.

  6. He, the linking to Davies’ list of translated works doesn’t work anymore. Can anyone provide me with it?

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