Goodbye, Denys (1922-2017)

If modern Arabic literature in English translation had a patron saint, it was Denys Johnson-Davies. He died Monday in the Dokki neighborhood of Cairo, Egypt. He will be taken tomorrow to Fayoum for burial.

In his Marrakesh home with his collection “Homecoming.” Photo courtesy Paola Crocian.

Davies, who was a month shy of his 95th birthday, was born in Canada in 1922, spent his early childhood between Egypt, Sudan, Uganda, and Kenya, and was sent to England at 12.

He returned to Cairo in the 1940s, and in the 1960s he started an influential Arabic literary magazine, Aswat. By 1967, he had put together the first volume of modern short stories from the Arab world.

Roger Allen rightly called Johnson-Davies “a pioneer in the project of translating works of modern Arabic literature into English and in the complex process of persuading publishers of the value of publishing such works in the Anglophone market.” An article by Musa Al-Halool, “Denys Johnson-Davies: The Translator Who Rushed in Where Angels Feared to Tread” calls Johnson-Davies’ contribution “monumental.” And the late Edward Said called Johnson-Davies “the leading Arabic–English translator of our time.”

Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote in 2006 that Johnson-Davies, a man he had “known and admired since 1945, was the first person to translate my work,” and had “done more than anybody to translate modern Arabic fiction into English and promote it.”

Johnson-Davies produced more than thirty volumes of modern Arabic literature, mostly fiction. His last work was Homecoming: Sixty Years of Egyptian Short Stories (2012). He also wrote a seminal memoir about translating Arabic literature into English, Memories in Translation: A Life Between the Lines of Arabic Literature; a number of children’s books about figures such as Ibn Battoutah, Goha, and Abla and Antara;  translated several books of Islamic Hadith (with Ezzeddin Ibrahim) and other books of Islamic thought; and also wrote his own short stories, a collection of which waas published in 1999 in a collection titled Fate of a Prisoner.

There will be much more coming on ArabLit to celebrate the life of Denys Johnson-Davies and to wish him a proper farewell.