Denys Johnson-Davies on Translation (No, He Doesn’t Like It)

Edward Said once called Denys Johnson-Davies “the leading Arabic-English translator of our times.”

In a recent interview at the AUC Legacy Gallery, Johnson-Davies brushed off this praise. He said that for many years he was, after all, the only Arabic-English translator.

When Johnson-Davies arrived in Egypt in 1945, he said he found here a literature that “nobody [in the Anglophone world] knew about.” This was what attracted him.

“I was a sort of dictator of the field, which I enjoyed, actually.”

What he did not enjoy, Johnson-Davies said, was that the British did not take Arabic literature very seriously. In the 1940s, he translated most of a novel by Naguib Mahfouz. He then put it in a drawer, because he couldn’t find a publisher. Many years later, the novel was later translated by someone else and published in Beirut, but not London.

Johnson-Davies blamed British prejudice for this lack of openness to Arabic literature. “They couldn’t bring themselves to believe that an Arab, who is probably sitting in the desert somewhere…that an Arab could be sophisticated.”

“So it took a long time for people to get used to the fact that possibly something could come out of the Arab world.”

For instance, Johnson published a translated collection of stories by Mahmoud Taymour at his own expense in ’46. “And the next book of Arabic short stories to be published [in translation] by me or anyone else was in ’67.”

On Naguib Mahfouz: “Although he refused to use the colloquial language in his dialogue, he also refused to go in for highfalutin’ Arabic. His Arabic is as near to the spoken as can be, but is classic.”

On his favorite writer to translate, Tayeb Salih: “I feel that his work is very simple, very direct, and that there’s nothing pretentious at all about it.”

On translation, which he admitted he didn’t really like: “Translation is real hard work. It’s also not appreciated. If you get your name anywhere on the book at all, you’re very lucky.”

“I would’ve preferred to have been a writer.”

And on what else he wanted to say: “I would just like to say that translators need to be slightly more appreciated than they are. … After all, if you’re reading a translation, you are reading the translators’ words. That should be recognized.”

“It’s not something that I would set out to be, quite frankly.”


  1. Did you watch the video? There was other interesting stuff I didn’t pull out. Hope your project’s going well!

  2. On and off, I am translating the Arab contemporary (I have on mind texts that are written after 1960′)literature, looking for something of interest in Egypt, Syria, North Africa, even Libya at one time.There is A LOT of good and even very good stuff – but to publish it it’s another story, although the Arab world became quite “fashionable” lately. On technicals: how to switch the dialect (e.g. Egyptian or Syrian-Lebanese) to the other laguage, not loosing the flavour and zest. And then – so many imponderabilia to be explained, sometimes in detail AND to make the publisher understand the inevitability to print the explanations as well! Trully, it is a double hard work! But I love it and wish to continue .

  3. An amazing man.
    thank you for the wonderful article and video, Marcia. one of the most underrated and overlooked areas of his work is his religious translations. pure bliss.
    again many thanks.

  4. I can’t take credit for the video; I found it on the AUC site, and I’m not sure who took it. But I do think Denys is a wonderful man; and very humble about his life’s work, which is considerable.

    I like his children’s books, too.

  5. Huge DJD fan here. HUGE. His translations of Tayeb Salih and Sonallah Ibrahim are to die for.

    And I think he’s right on about Naguib Mahfouz’s dialogue.

    I know translation is too hard for me. It drives me crazy. Thank God for people like DJD!

  6. Sofia, really, I don’t know how he does it. One language at a time, that’s all my poor brain can handle. I’m the sort of person who—if you ask me what “lib” are, I will shrug my shoulders and say, “You know, LIB!” (louder, as if that will help).

    And I once did simultaneous Russian-English interpreting when I lived in Khabarovsk. I think I slept for a week after that.

  7. Omg, simultaneous interpreting–my worst nightmare.

    You just made me realize I don’t know what lib are in English. They’re–you know–LIB! Lol!

    Dramatic gestures are useful, in addition to the loud voice. 😀

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