Humphrey Davies on Choosing a Book to Translate: It Must Deal ‘With Things that Matter’

Last month, the AUC Press “Book Alley” discussed Black Magic and Secret Pleasures with author Hamdy al-Gazzar and translator Humphrey Davies. A video of the event was recently posted on YouTube; al-Gazzar discusses his writing process and personal “red line,” and Davies talks about what sort of books interest him, and what sort of challenges translating presents:

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Screen shot from the event.

Davies said that:

What I like about [Hamdy al-Gazzar’s novels] it is, in general terms, what I like about any good book. First of all, it is important — in other words, it deals with things that matter. This doesn’t mean that it deals with public events, obviously not. That it deals with really important personal things is just as important, and that’s very much the case with both those books. And there’s the issue of…love, and sex, and issues that are not very often really dealt with and gripped fully in Arabic literature. Sometimes they are. But very often they’re not.  And this is a thing that every literature in the world has dealt with, and every society in the world has dealt with, the degree in which you can deal with things that are considered intimate. But in any case, that’s one aspect of it. The sheer importance of the issues with which Hamdy deals.

The second is Hamdy’s novels are somehow — I’m seaching for a better word — somehow authentic. And they really represent Hamdy. And I know that. Very often, you read novels, and you think, ‘This person, in a way seems to be imitating what he thinks a novel should be like.’ And they may have a certain degree of stylistic talent, or something like that. But really Hamdy, as a really talented novelist…this book comes from right inside, and it’s not preconditioned by expectations of what the novels are. Even though Hamdy is actually extremely erudite, in terms of literary history, and the development of the Arabic novel,  in terms of European models and all that kind of thing. But, in the end, it’s a personal vision. And that is something I like about it very much.

After that, Davies addressed the issue of particular challenges he’d faced in translating the book, and — as he has before — he discussed verb tense:

Tense. Always tense, tense, tense. And I think that anybody who’s here, who’s a native speaker of Arabic may not realize just what a problem that poses for me at least as a translator, but the sense of the number of things that are going on between possibly a different syntactical logic in Arabic about tense, combined perhaps with other things that have happened in other European languages, such as French, where there’s a different style of narrative. And the whole issue of what tense do you use in any language to talk in narrative terms. Because…if the present tense represents things as they really are, is it in fact the most appropriate tense to use when it’s telling a story, which in some sense really isn’t. Right? Because it’s a story. And in English, we’ve got around that basically by using the past tense. And that’s the basic way in which we tell stories. … It’s different in Arabic…and carrying that over, without getting yourself tied into knots, can sometimes be quite a challenge.

Although that’s no more a challenge in Hamdy’s novels, I have to say, than in anybody else’s. Any other Arabic novelist’s. I don’t think.

Another member of the group asked about Davies’ process, as he translated. He said, in part:

And for example with Private Pleasures, we did something that we haven’t done before, which is I asked Hamdy to take me on a tour of his personal Giza, since Private Pleasures is very much set in Giza. So I wanted to see the places that he talks about in the novel. Mostly perhaps in the sense that, well, I’m just interested. … And in a few cases because when he said that the taxis were moving in this direction, and as far as I could remember, the taxis were moving in that direction. And it depends which side of the street are we talking about here.

Al-Gazzar was asked if he was ever afraid, as he was dealing with societal taboos in his novels:

When you present a [work of] art, you must take responsibility. A part of this responsibility is to be against the authorities. To be responsibile to your own values of freedom, social justice, against corruption, against dictatorship. And anyway, if you are frank with yourself, you will say that in the view of [certain] people, you are making a crime every day, and your book is a crime, because you’re speaking about freedom, about justice, about poverty, you are against Hosni Mubarak, you are against Sisi, you are against the ikhwan…. So if you are afraid of what you have a responsibility about, you will do nothing.

As a final note in the YouTube version of the evening, publisher Sherif Bakr said: “Now, politics is no longer a taboo, and we have the rest, sex and religion. So now more and more people are pushing more in this. Do you feel this?”

Al-Gazzar responded, in part, that, “I think a very long time ago, I decided to be a free man. I haven’t red lines. My red lines in my work are to do an artistic work. So it’s my own red line.”

Watch the whole video:

The next Book Alley discussion:

…will take place on Sunday, February 26, this time online, on The Book Alley Facebook page, in order to allow more readers to participate and join in the dialogue. The group will be discussing Ibrahim Abdel Meguid‘s No One Sleeps in Alexandria, trans. the late Farouk Abdel Wahab.

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