Humphrey Davies on Tahrir, Elias Khoury in an Undershirt, and ‘Mentally Gratifying’ Reads

Last month, André Naffis-Sahely sat down with veteran translator Humphrey Davies. The conversation occurred during Davies’ recent trip to London, shortly after Maclehose Press released his translation of Elias Khoury’s As Though She Were Sleeping.

Start at the beginning if you want to know Humphrey’s view on Egyptian politics and living downtown during January and February 2011. Skip to 7:30 for literature.

At 12:00, the discussion turns to Elias Khoury. Davies has translated three of Khoury’s novels, which he called a “mentally gratifying” process. Davies told Naffis-Sahely that he also had “mentally enjoyed” translating the less well-known Mohammed Mustagab, whose prose he described as a “very imaginative” ” sort of upper Egyptian baroque.”

Naffis-Sahely asked about the differences between Yalo (2009) and As Though She Were Sleeping (2011), two of Khoury’s recent novels that Davies has translated. Davies said that Yalo is “actually somewhat more linear,” describing the poetic As Though She Were Sleeping as “one of the least linear narratives that’s ever been put on paper.”

But, he added, “I tend to think more in terms of the similarities.” Both novels, he said, open up specifically Christian Arab imaginative worlds. And then the interview unfortunately stopped just as I was leaning forward to hear more.

Maclehose Press also posted a Part Two:

Here, Davies speaks at some length about the difference between working on a text by a living author and a dead one. He said that, when he has any questions when working on a living author’s work, “My first resort is to the author, of course.”

So, for example, when he was translating Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun, “it just so happened that he [Khoury] was in Egypt, and I subjected him to a monster nine-hour session in a very hot apartment in Alexandria, which saw him stripped down to his undershirt by the time we’d finished. ”

In the case when Davies has worked on a deceased author’s text, he goes to friends “who read literature intelligently,” giving a particular shout-out to Hamdy al-Gazzar (whose Black Magic is available in translation and whose Secret Pleasures soon will be).

“Nevertheless, sometimes, at the end of the day, we all stare at the page and say, ‘Well, not quite sure what he did mean.’ And in that case, you make the best of it.”

Davies will have two more literary translations out this year:

A re-translation of Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley (AUC Press)

Mourid Barghouti’s memoir I Was Born Here, I was Born There (Bloomsbury – AUC Press)