At the end of this month, the American University in Cairo Press’s R. Neil Hewison will retire as Associate Director for Editorial Programs after more than 30 years at the publishing house.
Thursdays throughout October, ArabLit looks back on the role Hewison has played in shaping the body of contemporary Arabic literature in translation. Here, Hewison reflects on five of his favorite books:
By R. Neil Hewison
The late, great pioneer of Arabic literary translation, Denys Johnson-Davies, once told me of what he saw as the translator’s plight: that while the writer could let the words flow and allow the subtext to emerge subconsciously, and readers could skim over parts they didn’t understand, the “poor translator” was the only person who had to fathom the exact meaning of every word, in order to best render the nuances of the writer’s intention for the reader to digest. (When I considered this I realized that editors are engaged in a similar endeavor, which is why you’ll find us just about the most persnickety group of people on the planet, frequently fretting over the placement of a comma, or the use of a ‘non-standard’ word like “persnickety”—and where exactly to use single or double quotation marks.)
One of the first translations I edited was Denys’s masterful rendering of Naguib Mahfouz’s Arabian Nights and Days (Layali alf lela), not long after Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel prize. A little in awe of both author and translator, I trod warily in those early days, but I learned two things: 1) that editing fiction is an entirely different animal from editing non-fiction; and 2) that even the most gifted translator (or author) appreciates the suggestions of a careful editor, however timorously offered. Arabian Nights and Days remains one of my favorite Mahfouz novels: a funny–serious entertainment in the spirit (and the world) of the Thousand and One Nights.
I remember Mohamed El-Bisatie as a man who loved to laugh but as a writer who alluded to dark things in people’s souls, things you think you sense but can’t quite grasp: his work is all about undertones, feelings not quite making it to the surface. For me, his best novel, also translated by Denys Johnson-Davies, is Houses behind the Trees (Buyut wara al-ashgar). The trees shade the houses; the houses screen the people; the people hide their passions . . . until they don’t. Sadly, this book is no longer in print, but I hope copies may still be found on avid readers’ shelves and in libraries or secondhand bookstores.
At Denys’s suggestion, I began translating myself. For my second translation I tackled the wonderful Wedding Night (Laylat ‘urs) by Yusuf Abu Rayya, a hilarious dark satire with scenes so vividly drawn that you smell the squalor of Houda’s bare room, feel his lust when he catches sight of his neighbor’s wife, get stoned with the men in the hash den, and wince at the personal hygiene of Adenoidal Aziza. Two of my great personal pleasures of working on this book were my meetings with Yusuf, over beer and shisha at the Grillon, to ask him about the meaning of some of the obscurer expressions; and evenings with my friend Habiba, after one of her delicious Egyptian, Moroccan, or Hungarian meals, reading my translation aloud to her as she followed the Arabic text, and as her ever-patient husband seemed to walk into the room just as we came to a particularly bawdy passage.
The 2015 winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature has just been published: No Road to Paradise (La tariq ila-l-janna) by Hassan Daoud. The events of the novel, which are anyway rather few, take second place to the slow, gentle, but devastating exploration of one man’s quietly imploding inner life. The prose is simple yet achingly beautiful, both in the original Arabic and in Marilyn Booth’s excellent translation, editing which was an immense pleasure and privilege.
To bring together two masters of different arts in one publication is particularly satisfying. When I first saw the work of French photographer Xavier Roy I felt an immediate connection: what he found and brought out so simply in his black-and-white photographs of Egypt was what I had been striving for in my own photography for decades—to find the right line, the right balance, the right link to something else. And Xavier had gone further: he was cannily pairing images that invited the observer to see things in the two that were not immediately apparent in the one: echoes of lines, shapes, textures, moods, actions. I desperately wanted to publish a book of Xavier’s photographs, but my colleagues at the Press felt it would need an accompanying text. What kind of text? It was some time before I found it. Another late-great, the Egyptian writer Gamal al-Ghitani, was talking to me one day in my office about his fascination with dualities in life—and that was it! I showed Gamal the photographs, and he was immediately excited. He wrote an extraordinarily interesting essay for us (translated by Humphrey Davies), and the collaborative result was the very special Re:viewing Egypt: Image and Echo.
I have not kept count of the books, both fiction and non-fiction, that I have edited since I joined the AUC Press in 1986, but each one has been different, each one has had its challenges and its rewards, and from each one I have learned many things. The most valuable piece of advice I can pass on after thirty-one years in the trade is this: No matter how many times you see it in print, stop writing “anymore” as one word. Listen to the pattern of word stress, and think of the difference between “anybody” and “any body”—the former has one main stress, the latter two, and “any more” is like the latter. I told you I was persnickety.